Segment’s sinking while Chevy Malibu rises. Are ’18 changes enough to sustain this Chevy’s ascent?

2018 Chevrolet Malibu

2018 Chevrolet Malibu

What changes will make the 2018 Chevrolet Malibu different?

Nothing substantive, given timing that places this midsize sedan between a major redesign for 2016 and an expected freshening for 2019. Bringing sleeker styling, a roomier interior, more sophisticated powertrains (including a fuel-saving hybrid), and added features, the ‘16 redesign helped turn what was little more than a rental-agency’s standby into a bona fide contender for your retail dollar.

Indeed, Malibu sales are trending upward; it sits comfortably in fourth place among midsize cars behind the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima. Demand jumped 15.8 percent over the first nine months of 2016, even as midsize-car sales dropped 8.3 percent. The reason? Shoppers are snapping up crossover SUVs, sending that segment to a nearly 9-percent sales increase.

Why should I wait for the 2018?

Only if you’re primed for what’s likely to be a fairly mild update, but one almost certain to be accompanied by higher prices. We might see expanded availability of select features, a few fresh paint treatments, perhaps addition of a new appearance or equipment package to spur sales. On the upside, you’re ’18 Malibu will look fresher than a ’17 and its appearance and content will probably see it through until its next full redesign, slated for model-year 2021.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

If having the absolutely newest look is a low priority. You’ll sidestep the anticipated annual price boost, and get what’s a solid family-sedan value. The ’17 lineup consists of the base L, volume LS, and upscale LT models with a turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The posh Premier model has a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a nine-speed gearbox. There’s also a fuel-frugal Hybrid model that pairs a four-cylinder gasoline engine with a two-motor electric drive unit (it’s otherwise equipped similarly to the LT).

Will the styling be different?

Other than perhaps a new color or some trim or wheel details, no.

Don’t expect the 2018 Malibu to look different than the 2017 vintage. That means it will continue to bear a strong familial resemblance to the smaller Cruze and larger impala sedans with which it shares showroom space, wearing the latest version of Chevy’s signature split-grille front-end treatment with enough tastefully carved curves and creases on the hood, trunk, and along the side to keep things interesting. Inside, a sweeping dashboard design is functional, if not a bit busy looking, and is finished in quality materials. Legroom is sufficient in the front and rear, though the Malibu’s low and sloping roofline can impede entry for taller riders and make them feel a bit claustrophobic.

Any mechanical changes?

Little chance. The 2018 Malibu will most likely continue to offer a choice of turbocharged four-cylinder engines and a high-mileage Hybrid version. The rival Camry, Accord, and Altima, on the other hand, should again offer optional V-6s in addition to their base four-cylinder engines. At that, the Malibu should continue to give up only incremental acceleration. A 1.5-liter turbo-four will probably remain the base engine and should again generate a peppy 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque for lively launches and strong passing abilities. It will likely continue to drive the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. While not as quick as the competition’s six-cylinder upgrades, the top Premier model should again pack a stronger 2.0-liter turbo-four with 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. The Hybrid will likely continue to split the difference with a combined net 182 horsepower coming from its 1.8-liter gasoline engine and two-motor electric drive unit. The battery pack should again charge itself while driving through energy recovered via braking and deceleration.

Will fuel economy improve?

Not without mechanicals changes. EPA ratings should be unchanged, remaining reasonably impressive for 2018. That means Malibus with the 1.5-liter engine and will likely rate 27/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined. That should again edge the Camry and Accord’s base four-cylinder engines. The ’18 Malibu Premier’s 2.0-liter turbo should again rate 22/33/26 mpg — edging out the competitors’ V-6 offerings. Expect the ’18 Malibu Hybrid’s 49/43/46-mpg rating to again beat the Camry Hybrid (42/38/40 mpg), but come just short of the Accord Hybrid (49/47/48.)

Will it have new features?

Doubtful. Malibu already offers a full slate of comfort, convenience, and safety-oriented equipment. The base L model should continue to come with all the basics, plus keyless entry with pushbutton ignition, a rearview monitor, split/folding rear seatbacks, and GM’s OnStar assistance system. A touchscreen infotainment system with the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone interfaces should again be included on all but the L model. It comes with a 7-inch touchscreen in most versions, with an 8-inch screen and navigation again expected to be optional on the LT and Hybrid and standard with the Premier.

A Teen Driver function that lets parents monitor young drivers should again come standard on the LS, LT, Hybrid and Premier. Other luxury-minded amenities will likely include heated and cooled front seats, wireless phone charging, and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, with availability depending on the trim level. LT, Hybrid, and Premier versions should again offer a package with a low-speed autonomous emergency braking system, blind spot and lane-departure warning systems, auto headlamps, and front/rear parking proximity warnings. The Premier should further offer high-speed autonomous braking, adaptive cruise control, and a semi-automated parking function. Because both autonomous braking systems can stop the car to avoid a frontal collision, any ’18 Malibu so equipped should again rate the industry’s most sought-after safety accolade, the Top Safety Pick+ designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

How will 2018 prices be different?

They’ll likely climb, but modestly to remain competitive in one of the industry’s most price-sensitive segments. Estimated base prices here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $875 for the 2017 Malibu. Expect the rental-fleet-favorite 2018 Malibu L model to start around $23,000 and the LS around $24,750. The most popular version, the LT, should be priced from about $26,750. The top Premier edition should be priced from around $32,500. Though it’s a tougher sell at this price with gasoline prices remaining affordable, look for the ’18 Malibu Hybrid to start around $29,500.

When will it come out?

Expect a release date for the 2018 Malibu in autumn 2017.

Best competitors

Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat.

What change would make it better?

Adding all-wheel-drive as an option would help distinguish Malibu further in a crowded market, but that’s not probable until the next major redesign, expected for the 2021 model year. Meantime, Chevy might be able to sell more Malibu Hybrid models by offering the gas/electric powertrain in a less costly trim level, perhaps one that mirrors the feature set of the gas version’s LS grade. While we’re at it, we’d like to see a future model come in a wagon-like four-door hatchback body style as a more practical alternative for shoppers who might otherwise favor a crossover SUV (a hatchback was added to Chevy’s compact Cruze line for 2017).

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]