Was it really 22 months ago that I first encountered the fleet-customers-only 2016 Chevrolet Malibu? Indeed it was â€” and although the rental companies were quick to take advantage of what was presumably an absolutely massive discount on the General’s leftovers, they have not been in a hurry to release their inventory of these cars into the auction lanes.
That’s particularly true in the case of our local National Car Rental franchisee, which is actually a Chevrolet dealer in disguise. Which explains why Danger Girl’s final car rental of the year turned out to be a rather well-worn and thoroughly undistinguished example of the fleet-spec ‘Bu LTZ.
Why review this car yet again? Simple. You’d never guess it, but my review of the rental-spec Chevrolet Captiva turned out to be one of the biggest articles in TTAC history. A lot of people who were looking at ex-rental Captivas in the used market ended up reading it and (one hopes) learning something about the vehicle they did or did not buy. Consider this 2016 Malibu LTZ review to be aimed at the used-car customer, particularly the person who is looking for a new-shape 2016 Malibu but comes across one of these instead. They will want to know that the combination of old style body and 2016 VIN means “fleet car” for sure and “rental car” more often than not. They might also be interested in knowing how these cars survived the abuse to which their first “owners” put them.
Saddle up, used-Malibu intenders, and let’s ride out.
Let’s start with the unpleasant bits: this is the worst Malibu to wear the name since 2004 or thereabouts, mostly because it doesn’t even pretend to offer a class-competitive amount of interior space. Of course, the Malibu hasn’t really been a mid-sized sedan since the rear-wheel-drive A/G-body went out of production 34 years ago. The last few generations have all been “tweeners” that split the gap between, say, Corolla and Camry. If you want to be uncharitable about it, you can say that the Malibu offers Corolla room in a Camry-sized car. It wouldn’t be all that far from the truth.
The back seat is ridiculously tight, enough for my 52-inch-tall eight-year-old son to notice it. The front seats are, shall we say, snug compared to a modern Camry or Accord. The difference is probably no more than an inch or two in each dimension, but it’s enough for the driver to notice. If you have a family, you’ll want to spend the extra money and get a real new-for-2016 Malibu. The difference in interior space is genuinely significant and it is all in the later model’s favor.
If you’re reasonably familiar with Chevrolet’s truck-derived trim levels, chances are that you’ll initially peg this Malibu as an LT rather than an LTZ. It’s missing a long list of features that are part and parcel of new-car standard-equipment lists in 2018, including a backup camera. There are no driver-assist features standard. If you buy an LTZ truck you get seats that offer six levels of heating and three levels of cooling; the Malibu offers you three heat choices. The stereo is, shall we say, below par. Modern-style keyless entry and pushbutton start are conspicuous by their absence.
I’m pretty sure that hardcore GM loyalists would be able to muster up some genuine anger at the idea of putting a top-spec badge on this clearly mid-spec car, but I’m old enough to remember the Celebrity Eurosport and therefore nothing Chevrolet could possibly do is capable of surprising me in the least. Spec-wise, this is basically a no-options 2014 LTZ “1LZ” minus remote start. In Honda-land, this would be an LX-L, which is to say a low-equipment vehicle with leather seats.
Alright. So it’s not roomy and it’s not well equipped. It is, however, pleasant enough to drive. The 2.5-liter engine combines with a six-speed automatic to offer more than enough power for any reasonable Malibu mission. Danger Girl particularly appreciated the way the transmission doesn’t upshift early under full throttle, as did I. It’s no Accord V6 or even a Sonata Turbo, but it has the same more-than-adequate power that you would get from a CVT-equipped 2016 Accord LX, minus the slushy shifts. After 37,000 or so miles, the brake pedal was deep but not frighteningly so.
This car has a fair amount of Opel under the skin and, as a result, it offers well-matched control efforts to go with the decent amount of shove. As a general rule, the Malibu feels smaller than the dimensions suggest but not quite as small as the rear seat implies. Wind noise is low, mechanical noise is low with the exception of the droning big-bore inline-four. Ride quality borders on outstanding, particularly over large bumps. You could spend a lot more money on an Accord or Camry and get sloppier body control. It’s remarkable just how well-screwed-together the platform feels, even after a few years of heavy rental abuse. There’s something just a little bit sad about the idea of GM finally learning to make a long-lasting, trouble-free mid-sized car just in time for the entire category to slide into utter irrelevance.
Way back in 2014 I reviewed a high-mileage Cruze rental and was shocked (shocked!) at the way the interior materials had held up and the relative tightness of the body structure. The same applies to this Malibu. A quick check of the various used-car sites shows that you could probably get this car, or one just like it, for between twelve and fourteen thousand dollars. That’s not much cheaper than an Accord or Camry of similar vintage, which suggests that used-market buyers have gotten wise to the impressive build quality and reliability of these cars. Still, I’d be willing to bet that there’s more room to negotiate on the Malibus. At $12k, this makes a very strong argument for itself as a commuter car or (small) family hauler.
If this fleet-spec Malibu has my grudging respect â€” and it does â€” it still hasn’t earned my affection. From the oddly front-loaded profile to the micro-machine rear seat to Chevrolet’s insistence on badging a vehicle “Eco” despite its inability to match a common-and-garden Accord EX-L for fuel mileage, the eighth-generation Malibu is a long way from being desirable no matter how you look at it. “Fundamentally flawed” was my verdict in 2016, and it remains my verdict in 2018. At least it’s getting cheaper. Used-car buyers, I don’t think that you would regret purchasing one at the right money. Just don’t expect to fall in love.
[Images: Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars]