Chevrolet has finally accomplished what it set out to the do the last time it redesigned the Malibu, giving it a bold-enough look to be noticed in the car market's most competitive segment: the midsize sedan. First up for 2013 and the Malibu line is the mild-hybrid Eco, with other models to follow soon.
Appearance: The new design is more chiseled, with a stronger split grille and long, upswept headlights. There are cues from other Chevys, especially in the much-improved rear end and its twin LED taillights influenced by the Camaro. Chevy says it's also more aerodynamic, with drag coefficiency only slightly less than its electric Volt. (It's helped by the Aero Grille Shutters that electronically open and close as needed for best performance.)
Performance: The Malibu is a "mild hybrid," meaning it has eAssist, a small electric motor generator that helps the revvy 2.4-liter Ecotec I-4 on hard acceleration. A lithium-ion battery powers a seamless automatic start/stop system and accessories when the car is brought to a halt. Regenerative brakes help recharge the battery. The estimated fuel mileage is a good 25 city and 37 highway. We found the handling to be respectable in normal driving and the steering is light but precise. The new Malibu's wider stance helps keep the car planted, and the ride handles bumps well. There is a manual-shift mode with the six-speed automatic, but that seems extraneous.
Interior: Until we drive some of the later models, we'd have to say the upscale interior is the strength of the new Malibu. It reminds us of Buick with its pale-blue ambient lighting, or to Peter, a final generation of the GM-owned Saab. The cabin is outfitted with a nice mix of materials and a textured, soft-touch dash; our tester was a two-tone brown/beige with "cocoa fashion trim" (an extra $150). Overall, the fit and finish are good. You'll find a bit of flimsy plastic — glove box door and cup holder cover — but Chevy has minimized it. The cabin is really quiet, thanks to upgrades such as acoustic laminated glass and triple door seals. The Malibu also has a lot of high-tech features, such as Chevy's new MyLink system, and a vivid navigation screen that flips open to reveal a storage nook for a phone or other devices. All the controls are logical and not overly cluttered. The gauges are easy to read and reminds us of those in a Camaro. The power-adjusting seats are stiff but comfortable, but the Malibu does suffer from a lack of headroom and legroom in the rear; realistically, there's only room for two adults. The trunk is awkwardly shaped because of the battery housing that takes up space.
Our 3 favorites
Heritage: The sculpted dash design is a nice Chevy touch — think classic Corvette.
Paint: Our tester had the White Diamond Tricoat, a $495 option; it's sophisticated and seems right for Florida.
Interior: Chevy is upping its game.
Camaro influence: Twin LED lights, pale blue ambient lighting, squarish hood on gauges.
Discreet storage: Lift the Nav screen for a hidden cubby.
MPG: 25 city and 37 highway. Not bad for a family sedan.
The bottom line: Chevy finally has a family sedan that seems poised to compete with the best in its class. But will the Eco's modest mileage gains be enough to recommend it over other Malibu models to follow this year?