First Look: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu has made its debut at New York…and at Shanghai…and on Facebook. We, however, have the full story right here.

The most surprising aspect of the new Malibu is just how new it is. The current car, after all, was introduced in 2007 and four years on, is still no slouch. And yet, the 2013 Malibu not only gets a full re-skin and new interior, but also moves to an updated, stiffer platform and gets an entirely new, four-cylinder-only engine lineup. The breadth of the changes speak to the Malibu’s expanding role.

Dual citizenship

The primary mission for the new Malibu is very straightforward, if very difficult: Win in the competitive American mid-size segment. The current generation Malibu debuted to many accolades, and received our own annual All-Star award two years in a row. But in this fiercely competitive segment, the Chevy has already been eclipsed both in subjective terms and in sales by the Ford Fusion and the Hyundai Sonata.

As noted, Chevy might have been able to rectify this with a heavy refresh along the lines of Ford’s excellent redo of the Fusion. Except that competing with the Joneses isn’t the new Malibu’s only task. As the multi-country reveal indicates, the Malibu is going global. It will eventually be on sale in more than one hundred markets as Chevrolet expands its international offensive. And so, to meet the various requirements of all these markets and, hopefully, succeed in the still critical U.S. market, the Malibu has been completely redesigned.

International design, American style

Those of you who have perused the photos might be wondering what the big deal is. From afar, the Malibu looks a mild, if slightly bloated evolution of the current car. A closer examination, though, reveals important differences. For one, the stance is noticeably wider, due to an increase in track of about 2.5-inches. In fact, the car now shares its wheelbase and track with the Buick Regal. It also has a noticeably higher hood to meet pedestrian impact standards that don’t exist in our market.

“That’s a big difference from today’s car,” said Bryan Nesbitt, executive director of global design. “We’re not only meeting U.S. requirements, but it’s comprehending all safety for all markets.”

It thankfully does not try to accommodate foreign design sensibilities as do the generic looking Cruze and the slightly odd-looking Buick LaCrosse. In fact, the Malibu looks more overtly American than ever thanks to several cues adopted from the Camaro. They include square dual taillights in back, muscular haunches over the rear wheels, and a distinct Coke bottle shape to the side profile. It’s a credit to the skill of GM designers that these muscle-car touches look subtle and interesting rather than out-of-place and slightly desperate (as on, say, the Dodge Avenger). For upper-level models, HID headlamps, LED tail lamps, and nineteen-inch wheels complete the package.

The clear American character is largely due to the fact that the home market buys more midsize sedans than anyone else. But for dozens of foreign markets that still associate Chevrolet with rebadged Korean subcompacts, the Malibu will make an important statement, one Nesbitt expects them to like.

“People love the Camaro, wherever you go,” he notes.

Interior leaps forward in quality, technology

The last Malibu was a revelation over its predecessor in terms of interior quality. This new one is less so simply because we’ve become accustomed to General Motors opening its pocket book. Successful elements like the dual-cove dash and creative color combinations (the New York Show car features mocha and black leather) are reprised here. There are also features we’ve seen in other GM vehicles, including the ambient lighting and square gauges found in the Camaro. Still, the Malibu takes another important step forward. The faux-leather on the dash and door panels, for instance, looks more realistic than ever thanks to a new process whereby the graining is lightly stained. More important, GM accountants seem to have let go of the last few pennies they were pinching, exorcising a few cheap flaws like flimsy armrests and squeaky door panels (we’ll need to see the production cars to be sure, though). As noted, the Malibu now rides on the shorter Regal wheelbase, but interior volume has increased over the old model by nearly four cubic feet, with an emphasis on more shoulder and hip room.

The Malibu does take a major step forward in that it finally has a true navigation system complete with a touch screen. But the smallish, seven-inch unit may be difficult to interact with while driving, and looks more like an afterthought than a central, elegant design element as in new Fords and Chryslers. On the plus side, clearly labeled physical knobs and buttons reside below the screen, so drivers will be able to adjust the stereo and climate control the (correct) old fashioned way. Chevy is also quite proud of the fact that the touch screen opens like a garage door to real a six-inch deep storage compartment. Other technologies new to the Malibu include a rear-view camera and lane departure warning.

New four-cylinder, no six-cylinder

The Malibu’s debut also marks the introduction of GM’s new workhorse engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder to be built in Tonawanda, New York. The normally aspirated engine features direct injection, cam-phasing and in the Malibu will produce “more than” 190 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. Paired with a new, more efficient six-speed automatic transmission, the four-cylinder should scoot the car to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds and achieve better than 30 mpg on the highway.

Although Chevrolet is remaining a bit cagey on other engine options it’s clear they will not include a V-6. The decision, already obvious in light of growing fuel economy pressures and similar moves by competitors, was made easier by that fact that four-cylinders already make up about 85 percent of Malibu sales, said vehicle line director Jeanne Merchant. Still, those accustomed to six-cylinder power shouldn’t be left wanting.

“These four cylinders today are so advanced that you’re definitely looking at six-cylinder levels of performance in a four-cylinder engine,” Merchant said.

We’d speculate Chevy will also offer a 2.0-liter turbo similar to the 255-hp unit coming for the Regal GS. Or at least it had better if it expects the Malibu to compete with the 274-hp Sonata Turbo, not to mention the V-6 variants of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

More certain is a high fuel-economy model similar the new LaCrosse eAssist, which uses a small lithium-ion battery pack and aero improvements to boost fuel economy by about 25 percent. GM also claims segment-best aerodynamics, with some models featuring a motorized flap that seals off the lower grille at highway speeds for even lower drag. Still, it’s unlikely even the most efficient Malibu will match the Fusion hybrid’s 39 mpg combined rating. In some markets the Malibu will offer diesel engines, but Merchant dismissed any likelihood of those appearing here.

Conclusion: Can the Malibu do it all?

The salient question regarding the new Malibu when production ramps up next year at Fairfax, Kansas; Detroit, Michigan; and Shanghai, China, will be whether its new global purview has sharpened or distracted from its war at home. We won’t know the answer until we drive it. However, our first impression is that Chevy has managed to improve a car that was already quite good and at the same time broaden its horizons.

Buying Guide
Powered by Motortrend


27 City / 36 Hwy

Safety (NHTSA):


Horse Power:

160 @ 5700