I just spent a week in a car of the future. The 2013 Malibu Eco, to be precise. While still recognizably a Malibu, it’s a sleeker version of today’s family sedan. It joins the Opel Insignia, Buick LaCrosse and Buick Regal on GM’s global Epsilon II platform, and represents the face of the new Chevrolet, which seems to be intent on remaking itself into a kind of American Toyota–no bad ambition. Indeed, despite the esthetic borrowings from cousin Camaro, notably the tail lights and instrument panel, the new Malibu owes something more to the redesigned Toyota Camry, clearly the principal rival in GM’s crosshairs.
The Eco version of the Malibu is the only ’13 version of the car yet available. This is a mild hybrid, using technology dubbed “eAssist” by the poets at GM (and shared with the four-cylinder Buick LaCrosse and Regal), in which a tiny 15-hp electric generator is linked to a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine that shuts off when the car stops and starts again when you release the brake pedal. The two powerplants unite for a combined 182 hp (172 lb.-ft. of torque); earlier reports had put this figure at 190, but I’m going by the Chevrolet press kit. A turbo four like the Buick Regal GS’s will follow, Chevy tells us, but we don’t know when, or how many ponies will be galloping under the hood. Could be 220, as in the Regal Turbo, or 270, like the Regal GS. As a driver, I’d opt for the latter, for obvious reasons, although either version would be peppier than the Eco’s. I managed the old 0-60 haul in about 8.5 sec; not bad, but not exactly titillating. Strategic planning is required if you find your way ahead obstructed by Farmer Fred’s laboring pickup on a country road. Still, the engine acquits itself well enough for most situations, and the soundproofing in the new car is superb. Even on rough roads, you hear almost nothing except a faint rumble at speed. The engine gets a little raucous under hard acceleration, but that’s four-bangers for you.
While speeding along, you’re coddled in great comfort by (if you’re in a Malibu with the Leather Package, as I was) a well-bolstered leather power-operated seat, facing a dashboard as elegant and well-designed as any I’ve ever seen in a Mercedes or Lexus. The window sills and top parts of the dash and doors are clad in very nice soft grainy stuff, and the armrests and door inserts, at least in the Leather Package version, are of actual stitched leather. Elsewhere, upscale-looking chromed-plastic inserts are distributed around the cabin. Gauges and control knobs are backlit by the same very cool aquarium-blue ambient lighting as in the Camaro. Storage space is adequate: the seven-inch touch screen, which proves to be easy to use, motors silently up to reveal a handy storage cubby. That’s a nice detail, indicative of thought. Other storage bins are scattered around, and there’s plenty of leg- and elbow-room up front, but the ’13 Malibu’s wheelbase has lost 4.5 inches over its predecessors, so things are a little tighter in the rear seats. However, the trunk, complete with slim-cargo pass-through, is more than adequate, especially considering it accommodates the hybrid’s battery pack; but this is a mild hybrid, so the battery is small.
Panel gaps in my tester were all tight and aligned, and the switchgear worked with great precision and felt well-damped. In the driver’s hands is an elegant wood-and-leather steering wheel containing redundant audio controls and cruise control buttons, the ensemble connected to steering that I found pleasantly responsive, with none of the on-center numbness some other reviewers complained about in previous Malibus, none of which I’ve never driven, so I’ll put this down as anecdotal evidence of further improvement over the last iteration. The brakes? So good I hardly noticed them: neither mushy nor grabby, performing exactly at the sweet spot. The six-speed transmission, too, was discreetly efficient, in either full-auto or imitation-manual mode—although the latter, engaged by a toggle switch on top of the leather-wrapped shifter (“tap-shift control,” in GM-Speak) rather than by actual manual-shifting mimesis, didn’t do much for me. I was content to let the slushbox do its thing, and it did it fine.
To improve highway mileage, the 2013 Malibu has, like the Volt, smooth underbody panels and, in the leering front grille, “active aero shutters” that open and close based on engine cooling need and the car’s speed. Other gas-saving features unique to the Eco are an aluminum hood and rear bumper beam, and lighter carpet and interior materials. According to GM, these factors should yield 28 mpg in city driving and as much as 37 on the highway. Judging by the averages displayed on the driver info center in my test vehicle, these are pretty accurate figures. And, given that we’re talking regular gas, that’s good economy. Not as good as, say, the Ford Fusion Hybrid’s figures of 41/36/39, but then the Malibu Eco’s a mild hybrid, not referred to by its manufacturer as a hybrid at all. Just an economical car.
My test vehicle carried a sticker price of $29,380. Now, in my opinion, anything north of $30K for a so-called economy car starts to cancel out any savings at the pump, so my car was just shy of that line. But base Malibu Ecos start at $25,995 (approximately $1800 more than the 2012 Malibu LT, in case you were wondering), and for the extra dough you get the Premium Audio and Leather packages, comprising a remote-start system, a fine nine-speaker Pioneer audio unit, eight-way power driver’s seat, backup camera, 225/55-17 low-rolling-resistance tires, heated mirrors, fog lights, that lovely aquamarine ambient lighting, dual-zone auto climate control, OnStar, and Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system, which can link up with various mobile devices for all kinds of fun and games. Safety is addressed with eight airbags, including driver and front-passenger knee bags, and the usual raft of stability and traction controls, ABS, tire-pressure monitor, etc. The ’12 Malibu was a Top Safety Pick over at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, but they haven’t crash-tested a ’13 yet. It’s not likely to fare worse.
Yes, there’s definitely something Camry-like about the feel of the new Malibu. That translates into a car less than thrilling to drive but solid, well-built, affordable, and comfortable, with very good fuel economy. It should be a winner. And if you want pizzazz, you can always step across to the Camaro aisle.