The current-generation Chevrolet Malibu, which debuted in 2008, may have been the signature accomplishment of Bob Lutz's tenure at General Motors. The former GM vice president's celebrated sense of style and attention to detail heralded the first truly excellent Chevrolet passenger car in decades. Fast forward four years and one bankruptcy, and we have the next-generation Malibu -- the first car to bear the fingerprints of GM's present CEO, Dan Akerson. Although development was already under way by the time Akerson assumed the mantle in late 2010, he reportedly applied the full weight of his authority to rush the car to market in time for the new year rather than letting the current Malibu -- still competent but now dated -- languish until summer. Therefore, our biggest question prior to driving the new 2013 Malibu was, has Dan improved Bob's car or damaged it? Does the new Malibu consolidate and build upon the critical gains of its predecessor or has it suffered a setback because of its last-minute rush to production? The answer to both questions is "yes."
Design: Going global
Looking at the pictures, you might be wondering just how new the 2013 Malibu really is. Indeed, its oversize split grille and general shape look very similar to those of its predecessor. The most noticeable change is a mild injection of Camaro DNA, in the form of four square taillamps and a muscular uptick over the rear wheels. There's also a dose of BMW influence in the busier surfacing, the high trunk lid, and the "eyebrows" over the headlamps.
It's only when you see the car in the real world that you begin to suspect there's more going on here than a mild refresh. The new car has an altogether different stance than its predecessor -- shorter, wider, and seemingly taller. That's the result of moving from underpinnings shared with the Saturn Aura (remember that car?) to the much further evolved, globally viable architecture that serves the Buick Regal. The "global" part is key, since the Malibu, previously an almost exclusively North American car, will be built in the United States, China, and Korea and sold all over the world, including Europe.
In real terms, the new architecture cuts the wheelbase by five inches and widens the track more than two inches. The new Malibu also had to accommodate international regulations such as those for pedestrian safety -- hence the noticeably higher hood -- as well as an intense focus on aerodynamics. There was a time when these marketing and engineering priorities would have run roughshod over the design. Thankfully, that's not the case here. Parked in front of our hotel between a Toyota Camry and a Hyundai Sonata, the Chevy strikes us as harmonious, athletic, and upscale, if also a bit chunky.
Like the exterior, the interior doesn't look all that different from its predecessor, featuring the same basic dual-cove dash layout with an infusion of Camaro cues in the form of a square speedometer and tachometer. The cabin's dimensions reflect the new footprint, with big gains in shoulder and hip room and a slight loss (0.7 inch) in rear legroom.
The current Malibu's main interior weakness -- technology -- has been addressed with a standard seven-inch touch screen. Like the latest systems we've seen from Ford, Hyundai, and others (Chevy lamely calls its setup 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 lifts up to reveal a storage space big enough to hold keys and phones. There's also a smaller multifunction color screen between the speedometer and tachometer. A navigation system is optional, but owners can still get turn-by-turn directions via OnStar, which is free for the first six months of vehicle ownership. We tried the latter and found it more than sufficient, as the turn-by-turn directions now appear on both color screens rather than the old Malibu's pitifully small radio display. Plus, speaking to a human OnStar advisor remains far easier than working with the car's voice recognition technology, which is finicky and sometimes frustrating.
The cabin's most impressive trait is once again its style and quality. The soft-touch plastics, the deep-pile carpet, the woven headliner, the convincing simulated wood, and even the switchgear all feel a notch above the competition. Our one quibble is with some graining changes on the door panels, which is only noticeable in all-black interiors. Much better to opt for one of the warm color combinations, like tan and chocolate brown.
Chevrolet originally intended to launch the Malibu with a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder. That engine is still coming, but not for another six months, which is when the car was originally scheduled to debut. To meet Akerson's new deadline, GM rummaged around in its parts bin and came up with eAssist, which is already offered in the mechanically similar Buicks Regal and LaCrosse.
The system is an evolution of the belt/alternator hybrid system that Chevy unsuccessfully peddled in the 2008-2010 Malibu Hybrid, but it incorporates some important upgrades. A lithium-ion battery located behind the back seats teams with a more powerful motor/generator (assistance of up to 15 hp versus 5 hp in the old car), a six-speed (versus four-speed) automatic transmission, and a newly direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The electric motor, which takes the place of an alternator, allows for more aggressive fuel cutoff than in conventional cars. It also powers the start/stop feature, restarting the four-cylinder in about 0.3 second when you lift off the gas pedal. Finally, the Malibu receives the efficiency tweaks seen on the smaller Cruze Eco, namely low-rolling-resistance tires and several aerodynamic aids, including underbody panels and motorized shutters in the front air dam.
In both stop-and-go traffic and spirited country driving, eAssist is almost imperceptible, with no surging or shuddering as the gas engine powers on and off and no hint of sponginess in the regenerative braking system. The 182-hp four-cylinder feels competent if not quite vigorous despite sending its power through a numerically low 2.64 final-drive ratio.
The low final-drive ratio does catch up with the Malibu on steep inclines, where the engine bogs down at around 4000 rpm and requires a firmly planted right foot to maintain speed. Back-seat passengers will be able to hear just how hard the powertrain is working as the cooling fans under the package shelf suck in air during hard acceleration. All this battery and cooling hardware also takes up two cubic feet of trunk space, leaving 14.3 cubic feet. The new 2.5-liter four-cylinder, provisionally rated at 190 hp, should address this problem; the next-generation of GM's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which promises 270 hp and 260 lb-ft, certainly will.
Still, the Eco's biggest -- perhaps fatal -- flaw is its fuel economy. The troubling fact is that even with all its fancy hardware, the Malibu Eco's estimated 25/37 mpg city/highway rating gets trampled in a segment chock full of hybrids. Chevrolet thought it had this handled by avoiding the hybrid moniker altogether and undercutting its would-be competitors with a base price of $25,995. Alas, Toyota pulled a fast one by actually lowering the price of its new Camry hybrid by more than $1000. Now there's less than $1000 separating the Malibu Eco from this far more efficient competitor. It gets worse when you notice that the base four-cylinder editions of the Camry and the Sonata -- both of which cost several thousand dollars less than the Malibu -- get fuel economy that nearly matches the Eco. In fairness, the Eco has generous standard equipment, including seventeen-inch aluminum wheels, Bluetooth, and the aforementioned touch-screen interface.
Still drives like a Lutzmobile
The Malibu's biggest competitive advantage remains its surprisingly good driving dynamics. As noted, the Malibu now rides on the same platform as the Buick Regal. That affords a wider stance and a 20 percent improvement in structural rigidity compared with the old model. Todd Stone, who leads the ride and handling development for the Malibu, says the dampers for the American-market car are tuned for a slightly softer ride than its European counterpart, which is itself a step softer than the Opel Insignia (the European basis for the Regal). If those don't quite sound like the suspension settings dreams are made of, they're still far sportier than those of the Camry Hybrid and the 2.4-liter Sonata, which Chevrolet had on hand for comparison. The Malibu's body motions are neatly controlled and it has higher cornering limits than its competitors, although it understeers like any front-wheel-drive sedan once those limits are reached. The rack-mounted electric power steering is better than most - accurate, confident on center, and surprisingly communicative. Some credit is due to its Goodyear Assurance tires, which proved stickier than most low-rolling-resistance rubber, even when we pushed our pace on a damp, winding two-lane outside of Austin. Most mid-size car buyers will care more about the stable, whisper-quiet highway ride. The rock-solid platform isolates road noise -- even when we cross over a stretch of unfinished pavement at 90 mph -- and wind noise is hushed thanks to Chevy's use of acoustic lamination for the windshield and front side windows. Overall, the Malibu, even in Eco guise, offers an excellent ride and handling balance, which has us looking forward to the more powerful editions and their optional nineteen-inch wheels and stickier tires.
Akerson's decision to pull ahead the Malibu may have been daring, but from where we sit, it wasn't worth it. The $25,995 Eco is wedged uncomfortably between cheaper four-cylinder competitors and far more efficient hybrids. That's the bad news. The good news is that the rest of the Malibu continues on as Lutz envisioned it: a stylish, premium-feeling, nice-driving car that bows down to no competitors. Just bring those new four-cylinder powerplants here quickly.