On the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu

Is this the best Malibu in more than 50 years? These people surely think so. With good reasons.

Jesse Ortega is the chief engineer of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. When you talk to some of the people he’s worked with on developing the sedan that has been on the market since 1964 (presumably named after the California town in large part because of the influences of music like that of the Beach Boys, which underscores the fundamental Americanness of a car that is now sold in some 25 global markets, including China), developing the sedan on an all-new platform that will also be the basis of the forthcoming Buick LaCrosse (it is called the “midsize/full size platform,” with the Malibu being the former and the LaCrosse the latter), you learn one thing: Ortega is really committed to the Malibu. He really believes what the team has accomplished.

Which is pretty much what you’d expect of a chief engineer.

But then Ortega shows the level of commitment.

He’s in front of a group of journalists in California. Palo Alto, not Malibu. That’s because the Malibu is not simply a four-door sedan with appropriate improvements over the last generation of the car, but because the Malibu has things like 4G LTE, a WiFi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, technologies that it offers that trumps its competition, and Palo Alto is to tech what Malibu is to surfing.
It is December 4.

“On November 30,” Ortega says, “we were supposed to turn in our self-assessment for our review process, performance evaluation. I didn’t get mine done and I am on the delinquent list. When you write your articles, send them to me. I will send them to my boss.”

Yes, he believes the car is that good.

The 2016 Malibu is bigger than its predecessor. Like this:
                        2015    2016
Wheelbase:    107.8"   111.4"
Length:          191.5"   193.8"
Width:                 73"        73"
Height:             57.6"     57.7"

Yet the 2016 model is lighter than the 2015 model. Know that both are steel-intensive vehicles. Both have an aluminum hood.

But the curb weights of the 2015s, depending on trim level and powertrain, range from 3,393 pounds to 3,660 pounds, while the mass of the 2016 models are from 3,086 pounds to 3,388 pounds. Note that the heaviest 2016 is lighter than the lightest 2015. How did they do it? According to Ortega, it is “multidisciplinary optimization.”

Lighten up
Jeremy Short stands by a video monitor. On the screen there is a CAD model, a side view of the body structure of the 2016 Malibu. The image seems to have a wave rolling through it from front to back and the structural elements move with the wave. This, Short explains, is an exaggeration of the loads that the vehicle would undergo. The model allows the engineering team to see precisely where there are areas that require structural stiffening. And that’s where they added additional materials.

He says that the previous approach would be to add mass to the entire section. They would use a thicker sheet for a given component rather than simply adding, say, a bracket. In the previous approach, as Ortega puts it, “mass begets mass.” But by using what Short describes as “zero-base materials,” starting with the thinnest gauge material and then working up, they are not only able to make individual components lighter, but the overall vehicle lighter.

Which goes to another point of what the Malibu engineers did: they thought about the entire vehicle.

Although GM engineers have been talking about “math modeling” for a couple of decades or more, this approach is somewhat different. Rather than having models that the crash engineers would work with and another set for the NVH engineers, the model was worked with by all concerned parties. Which goes to the point of Ortega’s comment about “multidisciplinary optimization.” Rather than optimizing things in isolation, the optimization worked across the entire structure.

According to Short, by taking some 110 pounds of structural steel out of the vehicle, they were able to do things like use stamped-and-welded control arms rather than cast-and-machined aluminum. Even the powertrain could be downsized: for 2015 there is a 2.5-liter I4 and a 2.0-liter turbo. For 2016, the biggest engine is the 2.0-liter turbo (mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the first North American GM application of an eight-speed for a front-drive vehicle) and the other option (leaving out, for the moment, the Malibu Hybrid) is a 1.5-liter turbo (the first deployment of a new engine family—that ranges from 1.0 liter to the 1.5—in the U.S. market; Ortega says that the engine is used in an SUV in China).

Lightness begets lightness.

Some might recall that this is like the approach that Cadillac is taking as it engineers its products, an approach that began in earnest with the ATS. Engineering is being shared across the GM portfolio.

Which brings us to the Malibu Hybrid, which borrows extensively from within the Chevrolet portfolio’s 2016 Volt. The Malibu has a 1.8-liter four that’s mated to a two-motor drive unit that’s a modified version of what’s being used in the Volt. Ortega points out that the primary difference is in the type of batteries being used. That’s because the Volt’s drive unit is meant to provide electrical propulsion while the drive unit in the Malibu is meant to supplement the 122-hp, 1.8-liter internal combustion engine so that the total system output is 182 hp.

Ortega notes that the hybrid’s engine is Chevy’s first application of EGHR—exhaust gas heat recovery—which improves engine warm-up and cold weather fuel economy by using exhaust heat for warming the engine (and the cabin).

Other borrowings from the Volt include such things as the regenerative braking system and the HVAC system.

One of the issues with the last-gen Malibu is rear-seat space. Which explains, in part, the extended wheelbase for the 2016 model. It offers 102.9-ft3 of passenger volume, up significantly from the previous 100.3-ft3.

“We’ve lengthened the wheelbase, and brought the occupants down,” says Mike Pevovar, director of Design for Chevrolet, gesturing with a sweep along the side of the car. “The proportions are more beautiful.” In a market that seems to be increasingly about crossovers with higher seating positions (a.k.a., “H-points”), low might not seem to be optimal. “We didn’t lower it so much that your feet are sticking out in front of you,” Pevovar says. “But it’s enough to emphasize the longer, leaner proportions.” He adds, “People who want cars will appreciate the package.”

As the Malibu is in a category that includes competitors like the Kia Optima and the Ford Fusion (to say nothing like the sales elephants in the room, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord), Pevovar says that particular attention was paid on creating a vehicle that from the front end graphic all the way around back, connected, of course, by the body side (about which he says, “It’s interesting without being over-the-top. It has a lot of form and motion to it”).

The roofline of the 2016 Malibu stretches back to a comparatively short decklid. Pevovar says that when they were designing the vehicle, as the models became increasingly large they realized that the car was beginning to resemble a hatchback, which they didn’t want. So they added the kick up on the top edge of the decklid, which eliminates the potential hatch-ness of the Malibu.

Final comment
Although this is way too late for his purposes, Jesse Ortega (and team) get full marks for creating a midsize car that is competent, credible and, most importantly, exceedingly competitive in its segment.