Midsize sedans are the tried-and-true everyday car. They do everything pretty well, and these days get excellent mileage and look good, too. Chevy's Malibu has always struggled to be seen in the same light as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and lately, the Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion.
There's much to like about the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, but consumers may have a hard time reconciling not only its looks and interior but also its value and spaciousness versus the class.
I tested the latest Malibu with its new base four-cylinder engine in various trims. The car debuted with a mild-hybrid system teamed to a four-cylinder called the Malibu Eco that returns 37 mpg on the highway. We reviewed that powertrain earlier this year.
The world shifted away from V-6 engines in midsize sedans with the rise of $4 gas prices; that hasn't changed with the 2013 Malibu. The base engine is a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder with direct injection that is also used to power Cadillac's new small sedan, the ATS. In the Malibu, the engine produces 197 horsepower, returning estimated mileage of 22/34 mpg city/highway with a six-speed automatic transmission.
There are a few problems, whether you're just looking at the numbers or putting the rubber to the road. Though the Malibu's 197 horsepower is near the top of the segment, it still doesn't feel quick around town. Acceleration is smooth, moving up through the gears during normal driving, but it will buck for a quick instant when trying to accelerate to pass on the highway or power up a steep incline. Luckily, the sound associated with the abruption isn't as coarse as we're used to with previous four-cylinders from Chevy. Power does return to finish the maneuvers — it's just unsteady at the onset.
Otherwise, drivers probably won't complain much about the Malibu. The ride smooths out bumps astoundingly well; the steering is relatively quick to respond, and the cabin is quiet. I mean really quiet. Over all types of road surfaces at all speeds I was amazed at how little road and wind noise crept in. Chevy made a great commuter car with its Cruze compact, and I can see the Malibu becoming a similar pick for shoppers who prize comfort and quiet above all else.
Mileage, however, is a failing. The midsize class is the most competitive in the entire industry. There are four sedans on the market with traditional four-cylinder gas engines returning 35 mpg or more on the highway, and two redesigns coming this fall — the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord — that will likely top that number.
The 2.5-liter's fuel-economy numbers of 22/34 mpg just aren't competitive. Chevy will point to the Eco trim level and its 37 mpg highway figure as an alternative for fuel-conscious shoppers, but the redesigned 2013 Nissan Altima gets 38 mpg highway out of its base engine. That would equal roughly $300 more in fuel costs a year if you went with the Malibu. There's not a quantifiable upgrade in the driving experience between the two cars that I think would change someone's mind. The Eco also sacrifices more than 3 cubic feet of trunk space to the regular Malibu and more than 2 cubic feet versus the Altima.
A 259-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder will be available later in the year with a considerable 260 pounds-feet of torque. Chevy says it will do zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. That should solve the around-town speed woes I experienced with the base engine.
Even if it fails to make the grade in other areas, Chevy does one thing right with its interiors: The seats are really comfortable. Both the cloth seats I tested in the LT trim level and the leather seats in the LTZ had wide seat bottom and back cushions that gave plenty of support. Again, this supports my recommendation of the Malibu as a commuter car.
Unfortunately, the materials in the cabin and the design itself underwhelmed me. This happened the last time Chevy redesigned the Malibu. It was an all-new car with an interior that was just good enough to play in this segment but didn't come close to the best in the class. The same goes for the 2013.
There is a lot of bulky plastic with the worst offense being the area over the glove box. It's part of the dual-cockpit design, but the end result for the front passenger is a humplike shelf of plastic that sticks out like a sore thumb — or arm, considering its size. Other materials are about par for the class.
Then there's the backseat. While some other sedans in this class add voluminous rear compartments that rival full-size sedans, the Malibu remains one of the tightest rear confines around. The numbers don't faithfully reflect the space, either: Rated at 36.8 inches of rear legroom, the Malibu is right in line with some of the roomiest in the class like the new Altima at 36.1 inches and the Hyundai Sonata at 34.6 inches of legroom. But my knees don't lie. They had just enough clearance behind the driver's seat where I had positioned it when driving, and I'm an average height of 5 feet 10 inches.
We tested the Malibu Eco for child-safety-seat fit, and during the test the front passenger seat had to be moved forward to accommodate rear-facing car seats.
If you use the backseat frequently for carrying passengers or children in car seats, there are better options in the class.
Features & Cargo
What did impress was the MyLink entertainment system standard on all LT and LTZ models. It features a 7-inch touch-screen with a USB input for iPod integration, Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming, and Pandora and Stitcher internet radio applications built-in. Navigation is an option.
The MyLink system features giant icons to press to activate various applications. This helps avoid hunting and pecking while driving. You also can customize the Home screen to display the applications you want most in the order you prefer. The screen is bright and easy to read, and it actually swings upward from the console to reveal a cubby that can fit smartphones or other items like wallets.
If you're buying a base LS model, not only do you get left out of the touch-screen and Internet radio, but you don't even get a USB port. You do get Bluetooth for hands-free calling, though.
There is also quite a bit of difference in equipment levels between the 1LT and 2LT models, so study up on what features you want when researching the trims. For example, if you move up to the 2LT, you add 18-inch wheels and dual-zone climate control.
The Malibu's trunk with the battery pack for the Eco trim level's eAssist system is 13.2 cubic feet, which is far behind the class. The rest of the Malibu lineup has a class-leading 16.3-cubic-foot trunk that looked cavernous to me, unlike those rear seats.
The 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco earned a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
As of June 2012, it features 10 standard airbags: There are front and side curtain airbags as well as side torso airbags to protect all front and rear outboard passengers. The front occupants get standard knee airbags. An additional set of side-impact airbags for rear passengers is also optional. You can see a full list of safety features here.
Chevy Malibu in the market
On its own merits, the Malibu is a solid sedan with a quiet, comfortable ride, cool technology and a huge trunk. Commuters and empty nesters might find it a perfect fit. But it's the competition that weighs so heavily on the Malibu with better all-around products that are more efficient with more space and better interiors.
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