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The 2015 Chevrolet Malibu makes for a great off-lease car

This week I'm going to deal fitting a car into a family's budget by resurrecting the "Coming Off Lease" column I used to write, and test-driving a three-year-old midsize family sedan.

A 2015 Chevrolet Malibu.
A 2015 Chevrolet Malibu.Read moreChevrolet

Predictably enough, automobile reviews are usually about new cars. But frequently, the new car that suits a family's needs doesn't suit its wallet.

So, this week I'm going to deal with that problem by resurrecting the rationale for the "Coming Off Lease" column I used to write, and test-driving a three-year-old midsize family sedan: the 2015 Chevrolet Malibu LS.

When you buy a car coming off a typical three-year lease, you are getting a vehicle with relatively low mileage (37,000 miles in the case of the test car), and you are letting the previous owner take the worst depreciation hit. The nicely kept test car, for example, had a NADA Guides "average clean retail" value of $13,400. The list price of its new, 2017 counterpart is $24,100, including shipping.

The 2015 Malibu was the last of a generation that debuted in 2013 (if you discount its fleet sales as a 2016 model). Its styling was markedly sportier than its predecessor, which traded on a tailored formality.

The test car proved remarkably clean. The interior was like new and the exterior was marred only by some scratches on the rear fascia.

The tester was attractively styled both inside and out. The interior had an upscale look and featured comely chrome accents and a lot of soft-touch surfaces for an inexpensive family sedan.

With the use of a new platform shared with the Buick Regal, the Malibu generation I tested got 4.5 inches shorter than its predecessor. This meant a slight reduction in rear-seat legroom. But since the car also became almost three inches wider, shoulder and hip room increased.

In the end, the car managed an ample 115.3 cubic feet of interior volume and an exceptionally generous 16.3 cubic feet of trunk space.

Operating the front-drive Malibu turned out to be a pleasant-enough chore. The seats were comfortable, visibility was good, and the instruments and controls were accessible. Good sound insulation produced a quiet cabin, particularly on the highway, and the fully independent suspension afforded a comfortable ride and adequate handling.

V-6 engines were dropped in this generation Malibu in favor of two four-bangers: the 2.5-liter, normally aspirated four found in the tester, and the more powerful 2-liter turbo available in the more-upmarket models. Both engines are buttoned to six-speed automatic gearboxes.

The direct-injected, 196-horsepower 2.5-liter in the tester struck me as quite sufficient for a family sedan. When you couple nearly 200 horsepower with a curb weight of only 3,393 pounds, you get presentable acceleration.

But if you have a greater need for speed, say, 0 to 60 in a hair over six seconds, you might opt for the 2-liter turbo, which develops 259 horsepower and an eyebrow-arching 295-pound/feet of torque.

There is a trade-off here, of course. While the high-compression, normally aspirated 2.5-liter derives nifty EPA mileage ratings of 25 city and 36 highway from regular gas, the turbo manages only 21 and 30 and prefers premium fuel.

A plethora of air bags and the structural rigidity of its Epsilon II platform gave the Malibu generation I tested good safety marks. It got the top five-star overall rating in the government's crash tests, including five-out-of-fives for front- and side-impact protection.

The tester's amenity litany included all the usual suspects, such as power mirrors and door locks, an adjustable steering wheel, and cruise control, as well as niceties like automatic headlights, a remote trunk release, and illuminated vanity mirrors.