Let’s start the proceedings with a couple of toasts. First, here’s to the ancient Chumash Indians, the name of whose little creekside California hamlet of Humaliwo got boiled down by the tongues of the conquering Spanish into the word Malibu. And here’s to the widow Rhoda May Knight Rindge, or May to her friends. The last owner of the 17,000-acre Rancho Malibu, she battled the burgeoning Los Angeles County to stop its plans for a coastal road through her property. But back in 1919, L.A. got what L.A. wanted, and the Pacific Coast Highway was born as the Roosevelt Highway. Luckily, Rindge did not live to see the banks of her beloved Malibu Creek developed with outlets for Starbucks and Yogasmoga. Nor, indeed, did she live to see the mid-size Chevy Chevelle that took the rancho’s name in 1964.
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2016 Chevrolet Malibu
Why all the fuss over Malibu in this test of four mid-size sedans? No particular reason, except that we decided to take the new Malibu and its most formidable competitors to Rindge’s old, sunny seaside homestead, where the miles of good road are today outnumbered only by the suntanned utopians carrying their teacup Maltipoos.
Radically redesigned this year, the Chevy Maltipoo, er, Malibu has its name written on the front doors in widely spaced movie-theater-marquis letters, as if a David Lean epic is about to open. To keep the prices real, we opted for the base engines on all the cars in this test. While the others here have conventionally breathing four-cylinder engines displacing 2.4 to 2.5 liters, the Malibu goes turbo right off the bat with a blown 1.5-liter. Our LT is a couple of steps up from the bottom, and as equipped is the most expensive car here at $27,940. However, knock off the $1150 sunroof that we opened just once, to make sure it did open, and the Malibu would be the second-cheapest car in this test.
2016 Honda Accord
We’re always extolling the Honda Accord, and its near-perennial status as a 10Best winner ensures its place in this test as the high castle for everyone else to throw rocks at. The version to buy is the Sport manual, but as this is a slush-only test, we took this opportunity to live for a while with the optional continuously variable transmission. A CVT is as far as you can possibly get from a manual unless your car has hydrostatic drive. The Accord doesn’t, but it does offer a Sensing package with a bunch of anti-collision systems that add a grand to the price. Even so, at $26,900, this Accord Sport represents the second-lowest price.
Mazda’s 6 is always a sales underdog, a brand-B pick that is still built in Japan and still living in the shadows of giants. More than seven Toyota Camrys get sold for every Mazda 6. But the 6 is a former comparo winner and 10Best awardee. If the Malibu is to earn space on the zestier side of the family-car menu, it’s the 6 that it will have to contend with. The current 6 debuted in 2014 but got an update for 2016 that includes a fancier interior. Of the three trim levels available, our Touring is the middle one, with a 184-hp 2.5-liter four and a six-speed automatic. Our sleek test car arrived with just one option: $300 Soul Red paint.
2016 Toyota Camry
And speaking of the big C, here comes the sales champ, natty in a swish blue robe and rolling on 18-inch aluminum wheels with black accents. This Lawrence Welk of Toyota Camrys—ouch, okay, maybe this Lady Gaga of Camrys—is an SE, with the wheels, Blue Streak Metallic paint, and blue seats and blue-glowing gauges (you gotta really like blue) that are all tossed in with the $1875 Special Edition package. If you don’t fancy blue, pearl white is also available. Our one option, an entertainment-and-navigation suite, costs $525.
Thus, the Malibu must contend with two market giants in the Accord and Camry and a left-field challenger in the 6. The hugely competitive mid-size segment is home to scores of other entries. But we’ve bypassed the Sweet 16 and gone straight to the Final Four. Some of the slighted competitors will get a chance in the future to face the winner of this comparo, so we’d better get on with the business of picking one.
It’s not news that we diverge from the mainstream. The Toyota Camry is the big-box store of automobiles, a place you go for predictable convenience and value but not passion or excitement. The new wrapper the Camry got for 2015 is handsome enough, in the same way that a redesigned McDonald’s is now clean, modern, and pleasant. However, the Camry’s blue interior electronica and blue paint, so sparkly with metal flake as to remind us of the Schwinn Sting-Ray banana seats of our long-gone youth, don’t enliven the car much or change its standing as a perfect purchase for the ardently anonymous.
Driving the Camry, it’s easy to convince yourself that Toyota has lost interest, despite real evidence that boss Akio Toyoda loves and understands automotive performance. It landed at or near the bottom of nearly all the objective tests, a very mild 2.5-liter four straining at the yoke of the second-heaviest car to produce an 8.0-second 60-mph time. We deemed the structure the weakest of the group, the ride a bit clomping, and the vibrations through the floor and steering column not as well damped as in the others.
On the road, the six-speed often hunted for the best gear to keep its four pots boiling, making the Camry feel busy and underpowered. Steering through the canyons and around the El Niño–initiated rock slides that the locals call Rindge’s Revenge, the Camry felt less eager to play than the others. We were surprised only that the Toyota delivered the best slalom time, a testament to the chassis’ inherent stability under fire.
The Camry has its merits, obviously. The steering weight was deemed “perfect,” and the quiet car was described as “perfectly fine” in a hypothetical world where competitors don’t exist. We appreciated getting a sunroof at a price almost a thousand less than the Chevy’s. And our keisters judged the back seat the most comfortable for both two and three adults, with a pleasing angle to the rear seatback and miles of leg- and kneeroom. Pop the trunklid and it rises partway on its springs to welcome your stuff, unlike the Honda or Mazda, which have lazy lids that, once popped, just lie there like dead fish. However, the Toyota’s rear seats don’t fold anywhere near flat, as the other cars’ do.
It doesn’t matter if Toyota covers it in bright-blue paint and bright-blue seat inserts and bright-blue interior trim. Underneath, all Camrys are beige.
Here’s a case where a boring car costs about the same as more-interesting cars. What does it say about you if you choose the former?
Like the Camry, the Accord is not flashy. The new Sport trim doesn’t help the awkward styling, with its plastic cladding on the rockers and oversized 19-inch wheels, which make the ride firmer than it should be. Also not helping is this year’s refresh, which slathered on chrome hither and yon to make the Accord look as if it’s wearing diamonds to its job at the DMV.
Once behind the wheel, you can’t help but forgive the Accord for any styling staidness. The light and linear steering and the cool, restrained body control are sports-sedan-worthy, making the car feel 500 pounds lighter than it is. Even fitted with the 19s, the structure mostly inhales the bumps, the suspension never betraying a hard edge or harshness beyond what you’d expect with 40-series tires. The brakes respond well, and the power is enough to deliver the second-quickest quarter-mile at 16 seconds flat. “There’s a spirit here,” wrote senior editor Tony Quiroga, something that is sorely lacking in many cars vying for sedan customers.
Inside, the Accord’s practical ethos equates to a low-set dash and full-circle visibility. The seat sponginess earned praise for being just right for long-term comfort both front and back, and the interior materials were lauded for disguising any cheapness, though opinions split on the muted bits of faux carbon fiber. Some thought it handsome and appropriate from a company that once powered Ayrton Senna, while others objected to the fakery.
The editors united in their dislike of the CVT. By our fuel cards, which rated all the cars at 23 mpg except for the thrifty Mazda, which achieved 25, the CVT offers no fuel-economy benefit. Don’t believe us? Check the EPA ratings, where the Accord rates only midpack. Also, it forces the engine to alternate constantly between near silence and a labored moan as the transmission seeks just the right ratio for the situation. We know step-gear transmissions are old school, but they work. Granted, in inches-per-hour commuting you may forget you have a CVT, though in every other situation you’ll wonder why Honda, formerly the maestro of internal combustion, now produces cars that moan.
Styling is a subjective matter, so you might like the Accord’s design more than we do. Well, that’s fine. But we have yet to meet anyone who likes cars and also likes CVTs.
Some things you wish Honda would fix, such as the absence of an external trunk release. Likewise, instead of the newer auto-locking push-to-open fuel doors like the Malibu’s, the fuel door must still be released by a floor lever. And there’s no digital speed display among the various functions of the trip computer. The Accord makes you realize that an industry rethink of the old two-dial instrument cluster is long overdue.
It’s still one of our darlings, and we love the Accord. Just not this particular Accord.
We timidly approached the new Malibu like abused alley dogs. Can we trust what we’re seeing? Should we like it this much? In the end, we surrendered to its charms. The Malibu has its issues, but overall, it wags our tails.
First, there isn’t a bad line on it. The proportions are lovely, with a long, 111.4-inch wheelbase (identical to the also-comely Mazda) and a rear-set cabin that slopes alluringly into the trunk. Most front-drive cars have at least one bad, bunched-up angle because the machinery packs the nose and creates overhang or the hoodline is a bit too high. Not the Malibu. And not, surprisingly, on the standard 17-inch wheels, which somehow look just right while also greatly improving the ride over the optional 19s we tested it on last year.
The interior shows careful attention. The back seat is spacious, and the tunnel to the trunk, pinched down to smaller apertures in both the Accord and Camry, is enormous. Yet, somehow, the Malibu is both one of the stiffest bodies in the test and the lightest car here, weighing just 3159 pounds even with turbo plumbing and the optional sunroof. An aluminum hood helps.
The comfortable interior shows a touch of Citroën weirdness in the unusual swab of diamond-pattern cloth wrapping the big touchscreen. Small bonuses—such as the umbrella cubby in the front-door pockets, auto-down windows on all four doors, and the superlong reach of the steering telescope—prove that someone was sweating the details. The Malibu’s trunk mechanism is the best: There’s an outside button that works whenever the car is unlocked, and the popped trunklid leaps to almost fully vertical.
Some astute people also sorted out the chassis. The Malibu steers with alertness and tackles cornering chores with enthusiasm. The rigid structure makes it feel well built, and the little 1.5-liter is a quiet tugboat motor, as the interior sound measurements attest. If not exactly a fireball, the engine works exceedingly well with the six-speed, one of those old-school step-gear trannies that is pretty much perfect.
The Chevy is not overly sporty like the Mazda but neither is it somnolent like the Toyota. Instead, it strikes a nice middle ground with a quiet cabin and alert steering.
All cars have at least some cheap plastic, but Chevy still isn’t good at hiding it. Whereas others use a shallow technical grain that reduces the plastic to black shadow, Malibu displays its cheapness loud and proud. Other demerits: The tap-shift button on the gear selector proved clumsy; the A-pillars are a bit too wide for comfort; and its gas tank, which only holds 13 gallons, could be bigger.
Even so, Chevrolet now sells a legit contender in this class. Welcome back to the fight, boys.
2016 Mazda Mazda 6
Does it cost any more to build a beautiful car? Mazda says no and delivers the 6 as proof. It was our design favorite both inside and out, despite being the least-expensive car in the test with the second-lowest base price. Unlike the Accord or the Malibu, this is a car that belongs on 19-inch wheels, and a driver-focused cabin revamped this year with better materials—okay, it’s “leatherette”—looks upscale no matter where the eyes wander.
Compare it with the Malibu: Unlike Chevy, Mazda keeps the cheap stuff low and out of sight, hiding the console edges, for example, under overlapping pieces of top-stitched leatherette; the 6’s parcel shelf is a bonded material with a technical pattern, compared with the industrial mouse fur in the Malibu; the 6’s dash screen is the only one here with a fingertip control knob between the seats, as in fancy German cars, though it’s somewhat wasted unless you get navigation with all the trimmings.
Mazda gets the basics right with flat-folding rear seats and a wide opening for the 15-cubic-foot trunk. It’s the only car to give both auto-up and -down at all four windows. And no car here laps up a curve like the 6, with the feistiest steering and the flattest body motion. The 2.5-liter slammed home the quickest drag-strip times as well as an observed fuel economy 2 mpg higher than the others. Running quotidian chores, it purrs quietly, and the transmission is all but invisible unless you push the sport button. Seemingly programmed by Mazda’s unemployed ex–Le Mans team, it makes the 6 hellbent for lap times, holding gears longer and executing rapid-fire downshifts under braking. Some drivers wouldn’t have minded a middling, “sorta sport” setting, but Mazda is an all-in company.
As is often the case with Mazda, the downside is cabin noise. Tire thrum and thwack are the most pronounced in this machine, partly due to the 19-inch rims wearing 168-mph-rated Dunlop tires. We would trade some of the 129-pound weight savings over the quieter Accord for more insulation. The long dead zone in the brake pedal seemed out of place in a chassis that is so capable, especially next to the Malibu’s firm binders, and the steering wheel doesn’t telescope as far as the others, meaning taller folk may suffer.
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The 6 is the quickest, most fuel-efficient, most fun-to-drive, and least-expensive car here. That constitutes a win right there.
So the 6 may not be for everyone, but it is definitely the family car for families that enjoy driving.
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