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Road test: 2017 Chevrolet Malibu

I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but when someone says Chevrolet Malibu, my grey matter automatically conjures up images of a 1968 Chevelle coupé with a burbling 350-cubic-inch V8. But what was reality in the Swinging 60s is no longer true, because the Malibu has had to evolve to survive.

The modern-day Malibu has a four-cylinder motor sitting east-west across the engine bay. Said power plant drives the front wheels, unlike its rear-driven ancestor. This makes for maximum packaging efficiency, which is why most small/mid-size cars are configured as such nowadays.

The ninth-generation Malibu now in local showrooms has a Herculean task ahead: it must cross swords with established “D-segment” heavyweights such as the ubiquitous Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Kia Optima and Mazda6. The Japanese/Korean brigade accounts for the lion’s share of sales in this high-volume class, so the Malibu is key for GM.

Weighing in the newbie’s favour is that it’s underpinned by an all-new architecture that trims up to 130 kilograms from its heft, even though the car is 60 millimetres longer, while its wheelbase has been pushed out by 93mm. Chevrolet claims the weight-loss has yielded best-in-segment fuel economy, quoting an overall consumption figure of 7.0L / 100km from the 2.5L four-pot, which punches out respectable outputs of 186hp and 250Nm, sent to the front wheels by a six-speed auto.

The Malibu serves up ample interior space and usability. The rear seats are a pleasant place to be, and even the lankiest occupants should find they have more than adequate head-and knee-room. The 447-litre boot is also capacious enough to swallow a couple of full-sized suitcases.

The range-topping LTZ I tested featured brown leather upholstery, with the same material swathed across the central portion of the dashboard and door trims. There’s good use of sweeping surfaces to break the monotony, but some hard plastic portions are disappointingly cheap-looking. That said, the instrument cluster is neatly laid out, with the large, easy-to-read speedo and tacho flanking a central digital display.

Although practicality is a forte, the Malibu manages to avoid the visual persona of a frumpy aunt. It’s a sharp looker, with chiselled lines, raked-back headlights and a fastback roofline that make it one of the more stylish offerings in the class.

On the road, the Malibu is a nice enough chariot, although wide A-pillars impede forward diagonal vision. Off-the-mark acceleration is decent; the six-speed auto slurs through the ratios seamlessly, while ride/refinement is as good as anything in class. It handles and corners with sufficient crispness and precision for a bread-and-butter family saloon, although lacks the class-leading Mazda6’s panache.

The Malibu outscores most opposition with its safety arsenal, which includes six airbags, and you can also opt for adaptive cruise control with front automatic braking, forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic parking assist, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, “Intellibeam” (which automatically switches the headlamps to high beam when appropriate) and lots more.

All in all, the Malibu stacks up as a well-rounded mid-size saloon, and the Dh69,900 entry price should prove an attractive hook for value-conscious buyers. The range-topper we pedalled costs Dh112,200, but even that’s highly competitive when you factor in all the bells and whistles.

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