Driven: 2016 Chevrolet Malibu

July 30, 2017

This is the Malibu LT, which I'll willfully assume stands for Linguini Transport.


Some nights, you'll decide to brave the outside world and have dinner at a restaurant. You might even read reviews for local joints, comparing and contrasting your myriad choices of cuisine. You'll ask yourself, "Would I fit in at a trendy sushi spot? Or am I more in the mood for a juicy, gourmet burger? Actually, if I'm doing beef, why not upgrade to a prime piece of steak? But wait—am I actually craving a steaming fajita platter? What do I do? Should I ask an adult for help? Where can I find an adult? Does life have any meaning?"


And then, you'll wind up at Olive Garden.


Now, it would be all too easy to turn my nose up at Olive Garden. I could call it the average American's idea of Italian food (not a compliment) or Italian food for the masses (get it, because Americans tend to be massive). But you know something? I've never once had a bad experience at an Olive Garden. Sure, it's no more Italian than saying "Why yes, I do speak Italian! Pizza! Ferrari!" That doesn't, however, make it rubbish by default. The food is decent, the decor is pretty not so bad, and the free breadsticks are actually quite nice. The waiters even wear fancy white shirts and call you "sir." It's fine dining in the "yeah, I guess this will work" sense of fine. 


Olive Garden doesn't require any special forethought, planning, or pains. Do you need a reservation? Of course not, it's Olive Garden. What should you wear? Whatever the hell you please, and yes, those sweatpants are fine. What should you order? Anything at all; the entire menu is one large selection of relatively enjoyable and inoffensive fare. Olive Garden will welcome you with open arms, no hassles, and free breadsticks. There's absolutely nothing exciting about it, but it's really not such a bad place to be. 


This is, in essence, most people's relationship with cars. They want reliable, trouble-free A-to-B transport that isn't utterly awful, but also doesn't entail any extra effort or expense. It doesn't need to be fancy, trendy, or any more enjoyable than fettuccine alfredo for $12.99. It just needs to get the job done without causing problems—so long as that happens, the driving experience itself is generally an afterthought.


The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu is precisely this kind of vehicle. It does little to energize the driver or create an exceptional experience; yet, it still manages to provide some favorable features. Take, for example, the touch screen. I loathe touch screens in cars on principle. They're distracting, finicky, imprecise, and often more frustrating to navigate than an unfamiliar grocery store when gravely hungry. The Malibu's touch screen was none of these things. It does take a bit of poking around to understand the interface, but once you've gotten past the awkward phase, it's quite willing to be your pal. Things are made even easier with Apple CarPlay, which basically turns the screen into a necessary-functions-only iPad (Maps, Phone, Music, etc.) that syncs with your phone. I was delighted to simply plug in my iPhone and be presented with a familiar, friendly system. It actually made me want a touch screen. 


Agreeable for both passengers and pilots.


The rest of the interior is similarly up to par. A likable mix of patterned cloth and not-too-hard plastic comprises most of the surfaces. The dash is nicely sculpted, while the center console is blissfully simple. The three-spoke steering wheel manages to inject a small dose of sportiness, with controls that provide uncluttered functionality. Satisfying side bolsters offer pleasing support in a segment replete with single occupant couches for drivers' seats.


While the seats and steering wheel suggest mild sporting pretense, the Malibu's performance is more suited to leisurely commutes than hot-footed fun. At low speeds, the steering is laughably numb, light enough to be operated by pressing your forehead against the wheel and moving your head in a circle (this is strictly a theory which I neither tested nor advise). This remarkably low level of effort is sure to please automotive Olive Gardeners. At faster speeds, the steering begins to acquire more weight and precision, which makes the Malibu easy to place on the road. It isn't overtly flavorful, but neither is it totally bland.


Is it me, or is that front grill shaped a bit like a pair of robot lips?


The chassis is in keeping with the rest of the Malibu's menu. There is an element of sportiness present, though it's more of a side dish than a main course. The suspension is appropriately sure footed and willingly soaks up imperfect pavement. Ask for extra sport sauce, however, and the Malibu will politely inform you that it can only give each customer a certain amount. A turbocharged 1.5-liter inline four serves up a none-too-spicy 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. However, the engine supplies plenty of pep and predictably (i.e. boringly) linear power delivery. Personally, I've always been a fan of forced induction that feels like nothing-nothing-nothing-boost! But regrettably, modern engineering has calmed down such unruly behavior. On the other hand, it also allows for an achievable 30 miles per gallon, aided by a trim figure weighing just over 3100 pounds. 

That figure is dressed up in highly attractive sheetmetal. Parked next to a current Mazda 6, I genuinely preferred the Malibu's handsome visage, which took a massive step forward from the 2015 model's forgettable face. An angular nose flows back into a sloping roofline and contoured doors. The rear is short and sleek, terminating in a rear bumper notably devoid of exhaust tips, which means NO FAKE EXHAUST BULLSHIT, thank heavens. The whole faux-exhaust-fascia craze turns my verdant automotive lust into a barren, desolate wasteland devoid of all hope for mankind. Infuriatingly, the 2.0-liter turbo Malibu Premium DOES have stupid fake exhaust tips, but the other trims mercifully escape such desecration. 


 No exhaust looks so much better than faux exhaust.


So what do we have? We have a car that's affordable, amicable, and somewhat enjoyable. It ticks all the basic boxes and brings some nice touches to the table. No, it won't wow anyone's petrol palate. But sometimes, petrol-heads carry themselves as snootily as foodies. Whether you're a simple commoner or a self-proclaimed critic, I'd attest that the Malibu driving experience is akin to the Olive Garden dining experience: it really isn't such a bad place to be. 


And yes, I would like more breadsticks. 


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