There's a lot to discuss with the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco, but the only thing on my mind is the ECO gauge. Did Chevy have a contest to see how useless and uninformative this seemingly simple gauge could be? There's a green zone in the middle and some white zones on the ends. Not a single number in sight. Since the needle is almost always in the green zone, I don't think it's adding any information for the driver. Why not an instantaneous mpg gauge here? Why not a fancier dash like Ford offers with the Fusion Hybrid?
To me, the ECO gauge is representative of a bigger problem. GM doesn't have a full hybrid system for the Malibu, so it's rolling out a 2013 model-year car with technology that didn't set the world on fire when it debuted in the Saturn Aura and Vue Green Line back in 2007. Since the Malibu is incapable of running on electric power, nor does the hybrid system offer as much assist during acceleration as other hybrids on the market, the fuel economy increase isn't very big. There's a huge gap between the Volt and the Malibu Eco. Unfortunately for Chevy, that gap is where the competition is selling a lot of cars.
The 2013 redesign made the interior much nicer and also brought MyLink, Chevy's answer to Ford's Sync system. I drove the Malibu through a torrential downpour that demanded all of my attention, so I don't have any real feedback on the MyLink system. It looks pretty nice, I appreciate the storage compartment behind the touch screen, and I found the stereo to be impressive once the rain let up a few miles from home. I also appreciate the fact that Chevy isn't forcing drivers to use the touch screen or voice commands for basic functions like adjusting the volume or changing radio stations. A few redundant physical controls ensure this system will be tolerable for technophobes.
Even with the upgraded interior and the new infotainment system, I don't see a reason to buy the Malibu over a Kia Optima. The Kia looks better, costs less, and doesn't suffer very much on the fuel economy front even though it doesn't have the start/stop system. It'll be interesting to see how the regular Malibu models stack up once they start hitting dealerships. For now, I'm thinking the Malibu redesign is too little, too late in this hugely competitive segment.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I'm more optimistic about the new Malibu than Mr. Floraday is, but I do think that the upcoming Ford Fusion is going to be a major headache for the Malibu. That said, from what I've seen of the Fusion interior, it's not as nice as the Malibu's, even if the Ford's exterior styling is far more stylish and dramatic.
On the other hand, the outgoing Malibu had, to my eyes, extraordinarily elegant, rich, and refined exterior styling. Every time I saw one on the street, I thought to myself, wow, for the price of a mass-market sedan, that person is driving an extremely attractive car. But I think this new Malibu has lost some of that visual richness. It's a little bit overstyled, as evidenced by details like the protruding, bulbous taillamps. The car has presence, but it no longer has elegance.
I'm happier with the interior, especially with our tester's two-tone, brown-and-tan leather treatment. I was pleased with the ease by which I did the Bluetooth connection with my iPhone using the MyLink system; I simply pushed a button on the steering wheel with a phone symbol on it, a voice asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, "pair a phone," and the rest happened quickly. The woman even pronounced my difficult last name correctly when she confirmed the pairing.)
The back seat is reasonably roomy but nothing like, say, the big back seat in the Volkswagen Passat. I found adequate head, leg, and foot room for my 5' 11" self, but anyone over six feet in height will be rubbing their head against the headliner. The rear doors come up high as they go rearward, creating a relatively small side window; that's the result of that swoopy exterior styling and it's an attribute that afflicts many cars besides the Malibu these days.
Ride comfort, especially over some really rough pavement, was impressive. The car is pretty quiet, except that the engine drones under acceleration. Like I say, I'm not as dismayed by this rudimentary hybrid system as Floraday is, and 37 mpg highway fuel economy seems pretty good. The stop/start function is unintrusive. No one is going to have their neck snapped backward if they gun it away from a stoplight, but this is, after all, a mass-market family sedan, not a sport sedan.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Holy interior graining, Batman! While sitting stuck in rush-hour traffic heading from Ann Arbor to Novi (a roughly 30 mile drive) I counted a total of eight different interior patterns and textures visible from the driver's seat. The headliner, upper dash, mid-dash beltline with the HVAC vents, lower dash, fake wood trim, chrome trim, center stack plastic, and seat leather each have their own look, feel, and color. For no apparent reason other than to recall the Camaro, the Malibu's gauges are circular, yet in square pods; just because the round peg can fit in the square hole doesn't mean it should. The amount going on in here is dizzying; luckily, Chevrolet has done a very good job of coordinating all of the different pieces together within the same cream/brown/chocolate color scheme. I also applaud Chevy for equipping the Malibu with a large color touch screen as standard, but I find it strange that a navigation system remains a $1020 option. GM will push its OnStar service as much as it can, I guess - I just wish that it offered more than just turn-by-turn directions, which weren't very helpful at a multidirectional intersection.
The interior of the Malibu is not the only part that has been attacked by GM's desire to over-design. The exterior is messy and overwrought with a beltline that rises for no apparent reason other than to give the trunk a Bangle-butt cribbed from the 2002 BMW 7-series; Camaro-esque taillights that look 100 percent out of place here; and a nose that passes on an in-your-face split Chevy grille (like those found on the Cruze, Sonic, Spark, and past Malibu) for something that could have come from the drawing board of Designers Anonymous.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
The new Malibu's biggest problem, as has been well discussed, is that it's late. This car was essentially done a long while ago but had to wait for GM to scratch together post-bankruptcy funds. The car's bread-and-butter engine is still in development and is due out this summer. Meanwhile Ford, which has already significantly refreshed the Fusion since the last new Malibu debuted in 2007, is swinging for the fences.
That said, the new Malibu is finally here, and it's quite good to drive. Phil Floraday is dead on when he notes that the Kia Optima looks better, costs less, and gets nearly as good fuel economy as the Malibu Eco without any electric motors or batteries. But the Optima sure as heck doesn't go down the road as nicely as the Malibu. Even riding on low-rolling-resistance tires, the Malibu handles with a level of confidence that only the Ford Fusion, the Volkswagen Passat, and the Honda Accord can match. At the same time, its suspension quells bumps that would give fits to an Optima or a Hyundai Sonata. The electric steering is light but feels sharp and transmits more information than you'd expect from a pudgy front-wheel-drive sedan. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder is smooth and quiet, and you seldom notice that it's working together with a motor/generator to shut off fuel even during high-speed cruising. (That's not true for rear-seat passengers, who will definitely hear a vent behind them pulling in air for the battery cell in the trunk.)
I'm less bothered by some of the new car's styling details than my colleagues -- I quite like the Camaro taillights, for instance -- but I do have an issue with the car's bulky proportions and claustrophobic interior. The spec sheet says the new 'Bu is close to all its competitors in its interior dimensions, but the dark colors, thick pillars, and high door sills -- all GM styling cliches -- make you feel like you're driving around in a closet. At least it's a nice closet, with nice materials throughout, save the chintzy chrome around the shifter. Chevy MyLink (does Chevy really want to evoke Ford's branding here?) works smoothly in part because it doesn't make the mistake of trying to replace the good old-fashioned radio and climate-control knobs. I was able to pair my phone very quickly and easily, completing the process while stopped at a traffic light.
The Malibu Eco will have a tough time competing against cheaper four-cylinders and better hybrids. By the time it gets its "real" engine -- a 2.5-liter four-cylinder -- the much anticipated new Fusion will be right around the corner. Still, I wouldn't ignore the Chevy, especially if you happen to enjoy driving.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I agree with Joe that the new Chevy Malibu has taken a step backward in terms of exterior design, but if my experience at the grocery store says anything, the general public either doesn't agree or doesn't care. What's good about the new design is that the majority of people instantly recognized it as a Malibu, despite the fact that its convoluted rump now more closely mimics the Camaro.
The interior styling is a bit busy as well, but it still looks and feels of high quality and is light years better than what you'd find in a GM vehicle even a few years ago. The numerous details and the narrow windows/high beltline combine to make the cabin feel smaller than it is, but my rear-seat passengers didn't feel confined or claustrophobic. (Although they did mention that the shoulder-level windowsill made them feel like they were sitting too low.)
From behind the wheel, the Malibu comes across as large but it doesn't feel heavy or cumbersome, although I certainly wouldn't call it athletic, either. Its biggest achievement is a forgiving, well-damped ride that is never floaty. It fairly glides across every surface irregularity with little if any motion transmitted into the cabin. Sound damping is also excellent and goes a long way toward making the Malibu feel like a solid, well-built vehicle.
The eAssist system may not return groundbreaking fuel economy, but it's notable for its unobtrusiveness. The system hardware takes up some cargo space but overall trunk volume is still considerable. The stop/start system is equally unobtrusive, with the telltale shudder from the engine restarting being barely detectable.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
When the last-generation Chevy Malibu was introduced, it impressed us so much -- both as a fine automobile and a sign of promise for Chevrolet -- that we named it a 2008 All-Star. It repeated its All-Star performance in 2009. At the time, we said the Chevy Malibu was more enjoyable to drive than a Toyota Camry and better looking than a Honda Accord.
Then the stock market plunged, the economy went into a steep decline, and the carpet was almost pulled out from under the U.S. auto industry. The Malibu languished while its competitors surpassed the Malibu in performance, fuel economy, and overall desirability.
Finally, for 2013, a new Chevy Malibu is reaching the showroom. First up is this Eco model, which is quite good but doesn't raise the mid-size-sedan bar in any meaningful way. It can't match the fuel economy of the full hybrid models from its competitors Toyota, Ford, and Hyundai, and its understated styling won't turn anyone's head like the more extroverted styling of the upcoming Ford Fusion or of the current Kia Optima.
Still, the Malibu is a competent, comfortable, and decent-handling sedan. The interior is nicely designed and a comfortable place to park yourself for hours on end if a long road trip is in your future. The Eco model's engine output is a relatively tame 182 hp but doesn't feel underpowered during normal driving. The suspension smoothes out rough roads with no drama.
At least for now, the Malibu no longer lags behind the pack. And that's a good thing.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor