First Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

A tough act to follow -- and a tough road to get here
If you read enough car reviews, you'll probably notice that many for domestic passenger vehicles start by telling you about the woefully awful product that the new edition is replacing. Not this time. The current-generation Chevrolet Malibu, which debuted for 2008, represented a watershed moment for General Motors in terms of design, interior quality, and overall competitiveness. It went toe-to-toe with the best cars in America's toughest segment and often won, as evidenced by the All-Star awards this magazine gave it in 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, it proved too little too late to save the ailing automaker from bankruptcy. Neither could the Malibu completely escape the shockwave from the eventual implosion, soldiering on longer than planned and with few changes even as the segment grew tougher than ever. The redesigned 2013 Malibu, which goes on sale early next year, thus has the dual challenge of living up to the hype of the last new model and, of course, matching competitors in efficiency, refinement, and performance. We headed to GM's Milford Proving Ground to see just how well the 2013 model meets those challenges.

Looks like an update, is actually a redesign
The new Malibu is a rare case where the design attempts to minimize, rather than advertise how much is truly new. Spot its oversize, horizontally split grille in your rearview mirror, and you might have trouble determining that it is in fact the redesigned model (remind anyone of the 2012 Honda Civic?). The biggest cosmetic change for the new car is a mild injection of Camaro DNA: four taillamps, a muscular uptick over the rear wheels, and square gauges on the inside. The new design also has busier surfacing, including a more expressive front fascia, more prominent creases on the hood and doors, and optional HID headlamps and LED taillamps. The new look struck us as a bit overwrought when we first encountered the car some months ago in a studio. But gliding around in bright morning sunlight, it looks much better, not to mention very premium.

The real trick is that the seemingly familiar sheetmetal wraps around a different car. Whereas the old Malibu shared its underpinnings with the now-defunct Pontiac G6 and Saturn Aura, the new car rides on the much further evolved, globally viable architecture that serves the Buick Regal. The "global" part is key, since the Malibu is shifting from an almost exclusively North American car to one sold on six continents and built in the United States, China, and Korea. In real terms, that cuts the wheelbase by five inches and widens the track more than two inches. The new design also had to account for international regulations on things such as pedestrian safety - hence the higher hood - as well as an intense focus on aerodynamics to meet tougher fuel-economy standards.

The interior dimensions more or less reflect the changed footprint, with big gains in shoulder and hip room and a slight loss (0.7 inch) in rear legroom. A more proper greenhouse than the Regal affords more rear headroom than the old Malibu, although there's slightly less up front. All the cars we've sat in have either been early-build engineering cars or prototypes, so we can't yet deliver a final verdict on the overall quality of the interior. It is safe to say that its finish and attention to detail raises the bar compared with the last Malibu, which was, as noted, a major leap forward for Chevrolet and General Motors when it debuted. We're particularly impressed with the range of warm, interesting color combinations - chocolate browns, two-tone dashboards, and, on top-of-the-line models, surface graining that's subtly bronzed to provide more depth.

The outgoing car's main interior weakness -- technology -- has been addressed with an optional new seven-inch touch-screen navigation system. Like the latest systems we've seen from Ford, Hyundai, and others (Chevy lamely calls it "MyLink"), it integrates climate controls, Bluetooth, and smart-phone apps such as Pandora radio. Thankfully, Chevy has preserved a few old-fashioned knobs -- five of them, actually -- for radio and climate control. The screen also lifts up to reveal a storage space big enough to contain keys and phones (probably not at the same time, if you care about your phone). There's another secret cubby of sorts in the center armrest that looks deep enough to house a laptop.

For now, all we can nitpick is the tachometer, which has no redline marker. This presumably saves Chevrolet the investment of inserting different readouts to match different engines, but it essentially makes the gauge useless. Yes, we know this detail holds zero importance to the average American mid-size car buyer, but it just may catch the critical eye of a car shopper in Europe, where Chevrolet hopes to gain traction.

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