2016 Wards 10 Best Engines Test Drive: Chevy Malibu v. Honda Civic

December 23, 2015


Small 4-cyl. turbocharged engines are all the rage, and General Motors and Honda offer up two that go head to head in this year’s Wards 10 Best Engines competition.

The 1.5L turbo-4s in the all-new Honda Civic and larger Chevrolet Malibu have several attributes in common: direct injection, 16 valves, two overhead camshafts, a single-scroll turbocharger, all-aluminum construction, variable valve timing, a 6,500-rpm redline and exhaust ports cast directly in the head. Both run on regular fuel.

The Honda engine makes 174 hp at 6,000 rpm while the Malibu produces 163 hp at 5,700 rpm. GM has the upper hand on the torque front, with 184 lb.-ft. at 2,500 rpm, while the Civic makes 162 lb.-ft. at a lower 1,700-rpm peak.

These two engines are very evenly matched, and the editors find both of them lively and surprisingly refined. But so far the score sheets suggest a slight edge for the Malibu, which is bigger and heavier but also has a smooth-functioning stop/start system that boosts observed fuel economy above 30 miles per gallon during our test drives.

The EPA rating for the Malibu is 27 miles per gallon in the city, 37 on the highway. But the Civic, with its high-efficiency continuously variable transmission, trumps the Malibu handily, at least on paper, with 31 miles per gallon in the city, 42 on the highway.

This is the first time a Honda vehicle in the U.S. has come with a turbocharged engine. For GM, the 1.5L is one of 11 variants of the new “small gas engine” architecture that will yield 3- and 4-cyl. powerplants, some as small as 1.0 liter in displacement.

WardsAuto editors always look for high-volume bread-and-butter engines like these that represent great value while being fun to drive.

Engine displacements will continue to fall. As editor James Amend says on his Civic score sheet: “1.5 is the new 2.0.”

(See related story: The DOHC 1.5L 4-cyl. turbo in the Honda Civic also draws praise. “This is the future for many cars,” one judge says. “Drivable, smooth, quiet: great engine for the Civic,” another adds.

In real-world driving, however, the engine does not duplicate its 31/42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) city/hwy fuel economy estimates, and there are a number of gripes about the CVT, proving once again a great engine can be undercut by unimpressive transmission.

The 1.5L 3-cyl. turbo from BMW, a 2015 winner, impresses judges with a ready-to-run demeanor, and it seems right at home as tested in the Mini Cooper Hardtop, but there were complaints of buzziness from under the hood and an abrupt stop-start function.

Looking ahead to the 2017 Wards 10 Best Engines competition, another crop of little giants will be in the field, including a 1.6L 4-cyl. turbo from General Motors and a 1.4L turbo-4 from Volkswagen if the German automaker cleans up its emissions problems.

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">The Displacement Game: How Low Can You Go?.)

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2016 10 Best Engines
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