Two of the best used sedans you can find. At $20,000, the Toyota Camry and Chevy Malibu present a tough choice.
The Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu represent some of the best value propositions you’ll find on the used car market. These mid-size sedans easily rival their larger crossover counterparts when it comes to comfort, drivability, and the latest in automotive technology. And they do it for substantially less money. At a ceiling of $20,000, used versions of the Camry and Malibu will both come in at roughly 4 years old (2018 models). Even well-equipped examples run around 40 percent less than the current model year. The Camry and Malibu are closely matched, but which is the better used value? Let’s find out.
The Camry and Malibu both come with three powertrain options. The Camry starts with a 2.5L four-cylinder making 203 horsepower and getting an excellent 29 city and 41 highway mpg. For those in need of more power there’s the XSE and XLE trims which sport a 3.5L V6 making 301 horsepower. That extra power comes at a cost to fuel economy which dips to 22 city and 33 highway mpg. For something more efficient there’s the hybrid Camry which pairs the 2.5L four-cylinder with an electric motor for 208 horsepower and stellar fuel economy at 51 city and 53 highway mpg. SE and XLE trims, with their sportier pretentions, drop somewhat to 44/47 mpg.
The Chevrolet Malibu’s base engine is a 1.5L four-cylinder making 163 horsepower and respectable fuel economy at 27 city and 36 highway mpg. The Malibu’s next option is a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder making 250 horsepower and getting 22 city and 32 highway mpg. A hybrid option is also available for the Malibu. It combines a 1.8L four-cylinder with 2 electric motors for 182 horsepower and 49 city / 43 highway mpg.
The Toyota Camry’s base 2.5L engine provides adequate power for most driving situations. Even in passing it doesn’t feel sluggish or underpowered under throttle. However, it’s not until you go up to the 3.5L V6 that the Camry shakes off its reputation as an unremarkable commuter and transform into something at least boarding fun. The V6 can be a bit unrefined at higher rpms, but it adds significantly to the Camry’s passing ability. Steering is both sharp and evenly weighted. The eight-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and unobtrusively. The suspension is tuned more for comfort than agility, but the Camry remains as poised in cornering as it is on the highway.
The Malibu doesn’t offer the same raw horsepower that the Camry does, but its base 1.5L does a good job motivating the Chevy through typical daily driving. The turbocharged 2.0L does offer additional power. Its fuel economy also keeping pace with the Camry’s naturally aspirated V6. Steering is accurate and the Malibu’s suspension better configured for cornering than the Camry. The Malibu’s one weakness is its choices of transmission. Both the base six-speed and nine-speed automatics tend to hunt for gears more than we’d like.
Both cars deliver good daily drivability with the option for more powerful engines. The greater fuel efficiency and smoother transmission give the Camry the upper hand in this comparison.
The Toyota Camry’s cabin is a good balance of modern design and day-to-day livability. There are plenty of large and easy to find buttons on the center console to compliment the infotainment system’s controls. Materials are of good quality, with most of the requisite hard plastics kept away from frequent touch points. Room is ample front and rear, even with the Malibu but slightly behind segment rival Honda Accord. Disappointing is the lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto integration (something Toyota had fixed in the latest model). There is connected navigation, Siri, and Google voice control, but they’re a stopgap measure at best. The infotainment software itself is responsive and graphics are crisp.
The Chevrolet Malibu likewise features a comfortable, functional, modern interior. Materials are fairly high quality, but there’s a bit more hard plastic in use compared to the Camry. Here too, there are lots of physical buttons thoughtfully positioned for ease of use. We especially appreciate the stereo volume controls on the back of the steering wheel.
The Camry and Malibu compare quite evenly on their respective interiors. A slight edge probably goes to the Malibu for the available of full smartphone integration, but, aside from this, the choice will probably come down to personal preference.
L – 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, smartphone app integration, 6-speaker stereo. Standard safety features include a rearview camera, pre-collision warning system with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warnings.
LE – 8-way power driver’s seat, 60/40 split rear seats, 17-inch alloy wheels.
SE – Synthetic leather upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 18-inch alloy wheels, performance upgraded shocks, springs, stabilizer bars, and a rear spoiler.
XLE – Dual-zone climate control, push-button, heads-up display, heated front seats, real leather upholstery, and blind spot monitoring.
XSE – Exterior and interior trim upgrades, 19-inch alloy wheels, and performance suspension components (same as the SE trim), and dual exhaust.
L – Cloth upholstery, keyless entry, push-button start, and rear seat reminder.
LS – Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth, 7-inch infotainment touchscreen, rearview camera, and Wi-Fi hotspot.
LT – Heated sidemirrors, 8-inch touchscreen, and satellite radio. The Driver’s Confidence Package adds automatic high beams, pedestrian detection, and automatic emergency braking.
Premier – 2.0L turbocharged engine, Bose stereo, leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and wireless charging. Here, the Driver’s Confidence II package adds adaptive cruise control.
The choice between the Toyota Camry and the Chevrolet Malibu is a close one. Both have attractive styling, a good menu of powertrains to satisfy both a desire for power and for fuel efficiency, and comfortable interiors to match their placid rides. But the Camry pulls ahead in a number of areas. First, the Camry does offer the better fuel economy of the two, especially in its hybrid form. Second, the Camry offers more safety features at its base configuration and allows access to others lower down the trim depth chart. And finally, there’s the Camry’s superior reliability ratings. Unless the lack of smartphone integration is a deal breaker for you, we’d recommend the Toyota Camry.