Chevrolet Malibu — Getting a jump on the competition

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The mid-sized sedan segment has probably never been more competitive than it has become in 2012 as a number of all-new models hit the market. Perhaps for that reason Chevrolet decided to get its updated 2013 Malibu into the hands of consumers six months ahead of the original schedule.

The new Malibu went on sale in February with just one drivetrain, a mild hybrid system that General Motors calls eAssist.

It's nearly identical to the setup in the Buick LaCrosse with a 2.4-liter 182-horsepower 4-cylinder engine mated to a 15-horsepower electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery that can give the sedan an acceleration boost when needed. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Still to come this summer is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder making a staunch 190 horsepower. It will undoubtably be the brand's best seller. Later in the year a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making in the neighborhood of 270 horsepower. Notice that the V-6 option has been dropped in the push to get greater overall fuel economy.

The reason for the staggered engine launches is that Chevrolet was tasked by General Motors CEO Dan Akerson with moving the product cycle up a full six months to get the Malibu out in front of the competition. The effort has, indeed, put 2013 Malibu's in showrooms ahead of an all-new Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. And right on the heels of the recently released 2012 Toyota Camry.

If you like the what the new Malibu offers in style, driving dynamics, technological updates and overall appeal, we recommend that you seriously consider the mild hybrid version.

We knew how the hybrid drivetrain performed — very well, thank you — having just experienced it in the 2012 LaCrosse. We were equally impressed with the Chevrolet's performance in city driving and on winding roads in Texas hill country and later for a seven-day stint on home turf.

The Malibu reached highway speeds in very acceptable times — it has been measured from 0-to-60 in 8.7 seconds — and responded quite nicely during passing and merging situations. For those who view fuel economy as paramount, the Malibu Eco is rated at 37 mpg highway, 25 mpg city and 29 combined.

We think the EPA mileage is right on target. Over 225 miles of mixed driving, the gas mileage gauge in our test car was registering 29.5 mpg.

But more than the hybrid performance, the driving experience gave us the opportunity to discover that the newest Malibu is extremely quiet with multiple layers of sound-deadening material; has a rigid, taut structure that translates into a confident driving experience; and contains perhaps the most attractive interior in the segment — so far — continuing with the dual cowl theme of the current-generation Malibu.

The exterior styling continues with the current conservative, handsome theme, but with a more chiseled, aggressive appearance, which includes a raised spoiler-like trunk lid, Camaro-style taillights, and headlights pulled tight around the corners surrounding a signature Chevrolet grille.

The interior has a premium-level model look with nice feeling, intuitive controls. One of the highlights is a seven-inch display screen that controls everything from the radio to the climate control. Redundant knobs give easy access to climate and audio controls. The neatest feature — a large storage bin behind the screen.

The Malibu has a new MyLink system that connects your smartphone to the car via a USB jack or the Bluetooth system allowing for hands-free calling and audio internet music streaming. And for the first time a navigation system is available in the Malibu.

For people who don't want to spring for the navigation system, which, by the way, is reasonably priced at $1,020,  but who like the benefits of having driving directions available, the standard OnStar system works quite well. We got a first-hand demonstration of the turn-by-turn navigation provided by the standard OnStar (subscription required) system. We told the operator where we wanted to go and in a minute or two directions were provided. It worked flawlessly. Encounter a problem, simply call them back and someone will cheerfully get you back on course.

Chevrolet says the Malibu is larger inside than its predecessor, but rear-seat legroom is still on the short side for a mid-sized sedan. The new car is nearly three inches wider than the outgoing model providing a more spacious living space. And it is noticeable.

But the wheelbase has been trimmed by more than four inches, which reduces rear leg room from 37.6 inches to 36.9 inches. Granted, that's an almost inconsequential figure, but considering the outgoing Malibu was not overly endowed with stretch-out room. By comparison, the new Toyota Camry has 38.9 inches. 

The Malibu Eco starts at $25,995 including destination charges for the well-equipped standard version. Add such things as navigation and leather and the price will rise to about 30 grand.

Let's define well equipped and you might reach a new appreciation of what your 26 grand is purchasing, in addition to stellar gas mileage. Included are 17-inch wheels, heated mirrors, keyless entry, cruise control, full power controls, OnStar, Bluetooth and audio connectivity, satellite radio with a CD player, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and dual-zone automatic climate control. In the safety department comes antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and side-curtain airbags.

This summer the new 2.5-liter model will offer a less-expensive alternative, probably starting at just over $20,000. The performance Turbo pricing was not made available but expect a starting price above that for the Eco.

The outgoing Malibu elevated the sedan from the rental car ranks into a mainstream mid-sized sedan player. The newest version makes the Malibu a top family sedan choice against the top players in the segment.

Base price: $25,995; as driven, $29,380
Engine: 2.4-liter 4 cylinder
Horsepower: 182 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 172 foot-pounds @ 4,900 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.8 inches
Length: 191.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,620 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 37 highway, 25 city
0-60: 8.3 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion

The Good
• High fuel economy in Eco model
• Upscale interior
• Composed, comfortable ride

The Bad
• Rear-seat legroom tight for mid-sized sedan

The Ugly
• Other engine choices not yet available