Car Culture: Refresh restores Malibu’s relevance

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Palo Alto, Calif. –

Wander around the elegant Stanford University campus and the streets of this town and you can almost sense the young, innovative minds at work. This is the “smart success” capital of the U.S., perhaps the world. And Chevrolet is hoping some of it rubs off as the GM brand launches its new Malibu sedan here.

In the bitterly contested midsize sedan segment, Malibu has long struggled against much more successful rivals, such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. In the San Francisco area for example, the Malibu ranks 12th in the sedan sales chart, behind virtually every competitor.

It’s not that the Malibu has been particularly bad or lacking in any fundamental area. But the competition has consistently outgunned Chevy’s entry in one way or another, and consumers — especially on the east and west coasts — have perceived Malibu to be unworthy of serious consideration.

That perception problem is a deep-seated issue that Chevrolet marketing director, Steve Majoros, is determined to tackle with the 2016 model, which starts at $22,500. “We’re perceived as an older, tired brand that doesn’t have much relevance,” admits Majoros. “So we have to shake things up with our new advantages; the car’s design and technology.”

Thanks to Chevrolet design director John Cafaro the Malibu now has a fighting chance in terms of its appearance; it’s longer and lower with a particularly elegant, coupe-like roofline and a sleek profile. As such, the Malibu joins its larger sibling sedan, the Impala, as a true eye-catcher, rather than another albatross in Chevy showrooms.

Assuming consumers warm up to the new Malibu look, they will also be pleasantly surprised by the way the car drives, its raft of safety features and its infotainment technology suite.

The latter is arguably the most important and hotly contended element in terms of sales appeal for the Malibu, and its many rivals. Chevy has stolen at least a temporary march over the competition with its 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity, plus use of Apple Car Play, Android Auto, wireless charging and related features. All these elements are hot buttons for today’s tech savvy, ‘keep me connected’ buyers, but it can be argued that Chevy’s conservative approach to enabling these features could undermine their appeal.

For example, Toyota and Audi allow users to scan the first line of emails or messages before choosing which to have read by the system, while Chevy permits listening only. And on the larger screen version, Android Auto will not be enabled until March, meaning a frustrating wait for early buyers of the Malibu.

That said, Chevy deserves high praise for the Malibu’s cleverly thought out measures to reduce the perils of teen driving. A special key fob can be programmed to activate all the car’s safety systems, setting limits on audio system volume, logging speeds and distance driven. Chevy claims the fob settings cannot be disabled (except by the vehicle owner), although one can imagine teen hackers considering that an interesting challenge.

Though light weight in itself is not a prime sales hook, the Malibu’s massive 300-pound loss over its predecessor means buyers will likely notice much improved steering, cornering feel and overall handling. The dramatic progress in vehicle dynamics is the work of experienced Malibu chief engineer Jesse Ortega and his team.

“In the old days we would have thickened the B pillars and put in big gussets to stiffen the body structure,” says Ortega. “But today it’s a much more targeted approach with computer design tools.”

The lighter body can accommodate smaller engines. Instead of a bulky and heavy V-6, the Malibu offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder as an alternative to the base 1.5-liter turbo four. In the spring a hybrid version joins the ranks, boasting class leading 47-mpg economy.

“We just need to get people into the new Malibu,” says Majoros. “Then they will buy it.”

Autos consumer columnist John McCormick can be reached at