If the newly turbocharged 2013 Chevrolet Malibu proves anything, it's that people at Chevy have figured out how to subvert the Office of Management and Budget. The Malibu turbo's apparent innocuousness would well suit a technocrat, one, for example, who tabulates the effectiveness of government subsidies for a car company like Fisker, and finally recommends pulling the plug.
That same technocrat, looking at the Malibu turbo through his smartphone's camera function or spreadsheet data--it's hard to imagine him performing a direct appraisal, such as a test-drive--would conclude that the taxpayers' stake in GM and its Chevrolet division is paying off. Here is a sensible, smartly designed, commodious sedan that gets 21/30 mpg and couldn't possibly represent orgiastic ends.
As Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, in part, "You can fool some of the people all of the time." The turbocharged 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder versions of the Malibu LT and LTZ are understated in the same way as Bruce Willis's portrayal of Captain Sharp in the recent Moonrise Kingdom. By climbing a church steeple during a hurricane to save two tempest-tossed young lovers, Captain Sharp shows there's more to him than the repressed fellow we'd seen before.
The only obvious difference between the normally aspirated Malibu and the turbo models is larger 18- or available 19-inch wheels and tires. So sorry: no furbelows. A body kit and rear wing are absent. Nothing but sleekness betokens the prowess of this most aerodynamic midsize Chevrolet ever (0.29 cd). And no scoops, ducts, badges, graphics, fangs, or satyr's horns suggest the car's 155-mph potential.
Hampered by the poundage
That's why the Malibu turbo is slightly disappointing. Lacking visual drama and having a fine but conventional interior, the car could at least offer a manly driving experience. It almost makes us nostalgic for wheel fight during acceleration. A roaring exhaust instead of the tepid sputter we heard from our single-pipe LT would have been welcome. (The LTZ has dual exhausts.) Whenever the word "turbo" is added, we expect some drama, a steeple-climbing hero turn. Instead, even when we barreled headlong along twisty Marin County roads with menacing guardrails, the Malibu turbo fancied itself being on an ordinary jaunt to restock edamame and veggie chips.
Such placidity can be attributed to thoughtful development work by a gifted and experienced team of designers, planners, and engineers. Aided by direct injection and forced induction, the 2.0-liter four, which replaces the Malibu's 2.5-liter four, generates 259 hp and 260 lb-ft. It remains smooth because of dual balance shafts. With a twin-scroll turbocharger, the inconvenience of lag is unknown. On the other hand, the LT weighs in at 3635 lb (LTZ at 3660 lb), so it was a surprise to learn that Chevy claims zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds.
As for the rest of the powertrain, we found the six-speed automatic to be less than a faithful servant. Upshifts required patience, and operating this gearbox in manual mode--pressing the plus or minus symbol atop the shift knob, a feature known as Tap Shift--was laughably primitive. To our question about the lack of paddle shifters, lead development engineer Todd Stone said the issue was decided before he joined the Malibu program. Maybe it was decided in Washington, D.C.
The Malibu turbo's careful grooming extends to the suspension, where the damping differs for the LTZ with 19-inch wheels. We sampled 18-inch footwear on the LT model and found the multilink rear put to good use, offering a supple ride and steady cornering without body roll. An alert rack-and-pinion steering system with electric assist proved satisfactory, with accurate turn-in and noticeable progressivity.
Refined, or is that homogenized?
Nevertheless, the LT turbo brought to mind the high-wire acrobat who gets halfway across the wire but looks back to the starting point. Some of the irresolution we sensed came through the squishy seat cushion, which hardly enhanced our feeling of oneness with the machine. But there was also a sense of isolation, the lack of much visceral appeal. We shouldn't complain, given how far this nameplate has come since 2005, when the Malibu was a clattering, plasticky bucket of bolts. But here we are, complaining!
An advanced feature introduced on Malibu turbo models is the Duralife brake rotors; Chevy says they won't rust, and among other things this means the end of brake dust and messy wheels. Kudos to the bowtie brand for this. In a handsome, quiet, and spacious interior, the MyLink infotainment system is a high point. "This home screen is very Applelike," said Kathy McMahon, infotainment program manager. "That's what we were going for." The home screen is configurable, and McMahon pointed out that, among others, MyLink provides support for the Gracenote music database. The 6.5-inch screen displayed large icons, letting us hasten through the menus as if they were mere intersections.
What the Malibu turbo models offer, in the end, is a value-priced package, conservative yet tasteful, with a high degree of refinement but no evidence of passion. A competitor like the Kia Optima Turbo is more outre. Meanwhile, the Ford Fusion's comparable powerplant makes 22 hp less (although torque is 10 lb-ft greater). As with everything about the Malibu turbo, it lands somewhere in the middle.
Normally we wouldn't paraphrase a PR guy's remark, but Chevy's flack said it well: The Malibu turbo is for the person who wants to drive 85 mph on the freeway without attracting notice. While it might slalom past government accountants, switching into steeplejack mode during a hurricane, like Captain Sharp, just isn't in the script.
2013 Chevrolet Malibu
Base price/as tested: LT $27,710/$29,210 including $995 destination and delivery, LTZ base price $30,992
Engine: turbocharged DOHC 2.0-liter with variable valve timing
Power: 259 hp @ 5300 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: MacPherson strut, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Suspension, Rear: Four-link Independent, stabilizer bar
Brakes: Four-wheel disc, ABS
Tires: P235/50R-18 Goodyear Eagle LS2
L x W x H: 191.5 x 73.0 x 57.6 in
Wheelbase: 107.8 in
Track F/R: 62.2/62.0 in
Weight: 3634-3660 lb
Cargo volume: 16.3 cu ft
0-60 MPH: 6.3 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph EPA Mileage: 21/30 mpg city/highway