2020 Chevrolet Malibu Test Drive

Liz Kim | Aug 30, 2019

Introduction

In 2016, Chevrolet finally introduced an all-new Malibu that could legitimately compete in the ultra-competitive family car segment, including against stalwart nameplates like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Unfortunately, the car arrived just as people stopped buying sensible sedans, and just as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) strengthened safety-rating standards.

Now, Chevrolet is halting production of most of its cars. The Cruze and Volt are already cancelled, with Impala, Sonic, and Spark slated to follow suit. That leaves the Malibu as the last gasoline-powered sedan to wear a Chevy bowtie.

Last year, the company updated the 2019 Malibu with appearance modifications, infotainment updates, and a new RS trim level that applies sporty looks to an otherwise fairly basic vehicle. All versions with the standard engine also got a continuously variable transmission in place of a traditional automatic.

This year, the Malibu Hybrid, too frequently overlooked by consumers, is shelved. That’s too bad, because it provided a great blend of electrified performance and 46 mpg in combined driving.

2020 Chevrolet Malibu RS Red Front QuarterFor this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Malibu RS equipped with extra-cost paint and the Convenience Package 1. The price came to $25,865, including the $875 destination charge.

What Owners Say…

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Chevrolet Malibu, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, and compared to the segment averages, Malibu owners are more likely to be female (42% vs. 37%). Malibu owners are also older, with a median age of 59 years (vs. 54), and their median annual household income is lower at $73,000 (vs. $85,976). Malibu owners overwhelmingly agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (90% vs. 48%).

That the Malibu is a Chevrolet built in Kansas City appears to be the primary reason its owners chose it. Compared to the segment, Malibu owners are consistently less likely to strongly agree that reliability (58% vs. 68%), quality (44% vs. 49%), and fuel economy (21% vs. 26%) rank as first considerations when they choose a new vehicle.

Furthermore, Malibu owners are less likely to agree that they’re willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (53% vs. 60%) or that they’re willing to pay extra to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features (26% vs. 32%). Otherwise, Malibu owner sentiments trend closely to midsize car owners as a whole.

Owners say their favorite things about the Malibu are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving dynamics, interior design, engine/transmission, and both the seats and visibility and safety (in a tie). Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Malibu are (in descending order) the infotainment system, storage and space, climate control system, and fuel economy.

What Our Expert Says… 

In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the Chevy Malibu measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2019 APEAL Study.

Exterior

It’s no wonder that Malibu owners claim that exterior styling is the top reason they chose their car. Chevy has done a terrific job of designing an expressive sedan with lots of presence.

The RS trim level gives you sportier styling elements in the form of a blacked-out grille, unique 18-inch aluminum wheels, a rear spoiler, and dual-outlet exhausts. It’s basically a dress-up kit for the LS trim level, as it offers no improvements in handling or performance.

Interior

Chevrolet received a quality award for the Malibu in 2019, but the black interior of the RS test vehicle exhibited the typical amount of hard plastic covering everything on the lower half of the cabin. It is, however, covered in a low-gloss finish and complements the car’s soft-touch upper surfaces. Shiny accents added a layer of sophistication throughout.

Note, however, that the RS trim’s diamond-patterned fabric material serves as a magnet for lint and, as it turns out, my fluffy cat’s white fur. Chevy uses it on the seats, door panels, and dashboard.

Seats

In the RS, the Malibu’s front seats are fairly basic in terms of adjustment, but they’re nicely cushioned and offer plenty of thigh support. The driver gets a 6-way power seat adjuster, while the passenger makes do with manual adjustments, including for seat height.

The Malibu’s rear seat offered plenty of leg and shoulder space. Three full size adults can sit back there with little complaint. However, in RS trim it lacked amenities such as rear vents, USB ports or a fold-down armrest (all of which you can get with a higher trim level). Material quality does not match what Chevy supplies up front.

Climate Control System

My test vehicle had a basic climate system with manual controls, leaving it up to the driver or front passenger to determine fan speed and temperature. The controls were easy to use, but the system took a long time to cool down the Malibu’s black interior on moderately hot summer days. That meant complaints from my kids, and since there were no air vents for the rear seating area the whining lasted for a while.

Infotainment System

Every Malibu has an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection, and OnStar subscription services with an available 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. The underlying technology is the company’s latest Chevrolet Infotainment System 3 platform, and it is responsive to inputs and graphically pleasing.

Better yet, Chevrolet provides simple, intuitive radio controls for adjusting speaker volume and for tuning radio stations. Unfortunately, the Malibu’s standard 6-speaker stereo leaves plenty to be desired.

Storage and Space

With the Malibu, Chevy misses a big chance to add useful storage to the center console. This part of the interior looks stylish, but it’s not terribly functional.

As implied in the previous section, most people will use their smartphones in combination with the infotainment system’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto technology. Unfortunately, there’s not a convenient spot to put the phone aside from one of the cup holders.

Otherwise, the Malibu offers a smattering of small trays and cubbies, a rather small center console bin, and a decent-sized glove box. The trunk, at 15.7 cu.-ft., offers an average amount of space for the segment. Split-folding rear seats add additional cargo flexibility.

Visibility and Safety

The Malibu’s driver’s seat offers a good view forward, and wide side mirrors coupled with a standard reversing camera help to see to the sides and rear.

Every Malibu also has a rear-seat reminder system that chimes to urge you to check the back seat before leaving the car. Don’t worry, the ding and warning message on the driver information display only activate if you opened a back door before driving the car. Teen Driver monitoring technology is also standard for the Malibu, spitting out reports that show how well, or poorly, your kid drove while out with the car.

Chevrolet offers a more comprehensive array of active safety systems for the Malibu, including forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and more. However, my test vehicle didn’t have these features. You need to upgrade to LT trim at a minimum in order to access them.

For some reason, the federal government has yet to give the Malibu a comprehensive overall crash-test rating. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t completed side-impact testing on the car, which does get a 5-star frontal-impact rating.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2019 Malibu a “Good” rating in all assessments except for the front passenger’s seat in the small overlap frontal impact crash test. Here, the car earned a “Marginal” rating.

Engine/Transmission

Nestled under the hood of my Malibu RS, a turbocharged 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine made 160 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s a smooth, quiet, and refined engine, but is oftentimes a little lethargic when accelerating. Worse, a continuously variable transmission delivers the power to the front wheels, adding a faint but characteristic moan to the proceedings.

Malibu shoppers seeking quicker acceleration should get the 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four, which also installs a 9-speed automatic transmission. This is a more satisfying powertrain, but is only available with the most expensive trim level.

Fuel Economy

The EPA says that you should expect about 32 mpg in combined driving (29 city/36 highway) with the 1.5-liter 4-cylinder, but I only managed to eek out 27.2 mpg over 310 miles of driving in mixed conditions. That’s way too far below the official rating, and it’s no wonder that fuel economy is the least favorite aspect of Malibu ownership.

Driving Dynamics

The Chevy Malibu is built on a solid foundation, with a suspension that quells most bumps but holds its own when you toss the car around sharp corners or down curvy canyon roads.

However, the steering is fairly light and it lacks any kind of communication from the road. The brakes are firm underfoot and easy to modulate, though, and the Malibu is generally pleasing to drive, as is reflected in the J.D. Power data showing the car’s driving dynamics to be owners’ second favorite thing about the car.

You will, however, need to get used to the scraping sound made by the front air dam. Every time I backed out of my driveway, the plastic rasped against the apron of my moderately sloped driveway, causing a grimace of consternation when hearing the ugly sound.

Not a great way to start the morning. 

Final Impressions

Families are gravitating away from sedans and toward crossover SUVs, which offer greater utility, a higher ride height, and available all-wheel drive. But if those things aren’t important to you, a midsize family sedan offers almost everything you could want in a conveyance, at a comparative discount, and with better gas mileage.

The challenge for Chevrolet is that every midsize sedan on sale today is a decent one. The Malibu makes a valiant effort to stand out with its styling, but that unimpressive IIHS crash-test rating and lack of modern safety tech in lower-priced versions of the car can make it a tougher sell in a competitive marketplace.

And the Malibu isn’t the only car in its class that’s made in America.

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