Driven: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

Joe Lorio
2013-chevrolet-malibu-eco

The outgoing Chevy Malibu -- not quite gone, really, as 2012 models are still available -- was one of Bob Lutz's notable achievements at GM. It pulled Chevy's midsize nameplate out of the rental-car ooze and became a handsome, competent entry in the very tough mid-size sedan segment. The 2013 model builds on some of those achievements, but it might have made a better first impression with its full range of powertrain offerings.

Shorter wheelbase

Chevrolet would like you to see hints of the Camaro in the new car, and there actually are some: in the slight kick-up at the rear of the beltline and in the four square taillights. The latest Malibu is not as dramatically styled (or is that overstyled?) as a Hyundai Sonata, but overall the car is a little more interesting and a little more three-dimensional than its predecessor. Still, I'll admit I was a little surprised when another dad in the pick-up line at school rolled down the window of his Maxima to ask if this was the new Malibu.

The dominant visual characteristic of the previous Malibu was the long stretch between its axles. The 2013 iteration shortens that span by 4.5 inches, taking the Malibu from one of the longest-wheelbase midsize sedans to one of the shortest. The shortened wheelbase takes less of a toll on rear-seat legroom than you might expect. Factory measurements show a decline of less than an inch. And this car is significantly wider than its predecessor, so overall passenger volume actually is improved. Still, the previous Malibu wasn't terribly roomy despite its long wheelbase, so while the new car has enough space for a six-foot passenger to sit behind a six-foot driver, it's not nearly as spacious as a Toyota Camry or a Volkswagen Passat, to name just two competitors.

A Lutz Lesson Learned

Interior quality, however, continues to reflect the importance brought to this area by Lutz. This 2013 version takes another major step forward. The cabin shows precious little hard plastic anywhere -- something the new Camry can't say. The twin, hooded, squared-circle gauges are another Camaro cue, and they look good here. Less successful is the grooved section running across the dash where you might expect to find fake wood or metal trim -- it's unimpressive in the daytime but it glows blue at night with ambient lighting. A radio with a large touch-screen is standard, even in cars without navigation. Besides the audio system, it handles Bluetooth phone and music and selected Internet functions (through your smartphone, with the downloaded app). Unfortunately, the menu logic isn't always logical, and the system had some trouble playing music from my iPhone (it showed the song playing but no music was coming out). On the other hand, I found the voice recognition to be better than the norm, to the point where you might actually use it.

From a driver's perspective, the Malibu is really quite agreeable. First of all, it's nice to be able to easily see out of a car, and the Malibu's rather upright greenhouse makes for decent-sized windows. GM seems to improve the steering in its Epsilon family of sedans with each new model introduced, and this Malibu's is more progressive and less overboosted than its Buick platform-mates, the Regal and LaCrosse. The car's ride is supple, sopping up bumps pretty well. The chassis is fairly composed overall, with no trace of float, although it would be improved with a bit more damping of pitch and dive. And like its Buick siblings, this car is a quiet cruiser.

By the Numbers

The electrically assisted 2.4-liter four is the first engine out of the gate, mostly because it was the first one ready. Still to come is a new 2.5-liter four that will be the base engine; it makes a healthy 197 hp and 191 pound-feet of torque. At the top of the lineup will be a high-performance turbo four, with 259 hp and 260 pound-feet, which Chevy promises will scoot the 'Bu to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. (There will be no V-6.) Neither the base engine nor the turbo four are yet on sale, but will be in a matter of months.

For its part, the Eco 2.4-liter is good for 182 hp and 172 pound-feet of torque. With a minor assist from its smallish motor-generator, it feels responsive, and delivers very good fuel economy: 25/37 mpg. As it does elsewhere (in the Buick Regal and LaCrosse), the eAssist system works seamlessly, shutting down the engine at stoplights and restarting it instantly with no notable shudder or hesitation.

So what's the problem? Well, the Eco system doesn't approach the fuel economy of full hybrids, which can be driven at times on battery power alone. The trade-off is supposed to be that the GM system doesn't command as much of a cost premium, but a glance at some competitors' pricing shows that the Malibu Eco is not really much cheaper.

The Chevy's price -- $25,999 to start -- is a lot less than a Ford Fusion Hybrid ($29,570), but not significantly less than a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid ($26,625) or a Toyota Camry Hybrid ($26,660), either of which gets way better fuel economy. The Malibu Eco's 25/37 mpg does beat the standard, non-hybrid version of the Camry (25/35 mpg) and the Sonata (24/35 mpg), but not by much.

It could be that the base-engine Malibu will fare better in a sharp-eyed comparison of price and fuel economy -- or that the upcoming turbo will make a case for itself with its strong output. For now, however, the 2013 Malibu is a car that does well in a lot of subjective areas, but its Eco powertrain, while it works well, suffers in some by-the-numbers comparisons.

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