Pros: Quiet at speed; attractive interior; good technology options with available MyLink; solid fuel economy in Eco trim
Cons: Cramped backseat; average-minus fuel economy in non-Eco trims; Eco's trunk is small and irregularly shaped due to the battery pack
What's New: The Malibu has been fully redesigned for 2013.
The Chevrolet Malibu, as some may recall, debuted in the 1960s as an unabashedly American car, named after a pristine beach town north of Los Angeles and decked out with rear-wheel drive and available V8 power in all sorts of body styles. By 1981, however, it had devolved into a generic looking 4-door. A decade-and-a-half hiatus came next, during which West Coast rappers embraced the original Malibu convertible as an A-list video car, ideally with bouncy pneumatic shocks. And then, in 1997, the Malibu was improbably reincarnated as a front-drive family hauler similar to the popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Which more or less brings us to the current, 2013 Chevrolet Malibu.
Now in its fourth generation as a family sedan, the Malibu continues to provide plenty of conversation fodder. From its swoopy beltline to its Camaro-inspired taillights, the 2013 Malibu certainly makes an impression, and its cabin is no less memorable. Unlike past Malibu models, this one's got plenty of technology, including available MyLink touchscreen integration. Also unlike previous models, the new Malibu is global in scope. As we speak, it's on sale everywhere from Shanghai to Sao Paulo. And the range of its three engines promises something for everyone, even if it doesn't always exceed expectations.
Warts and all, the current Malibu looks and feels intentionally American. In the crowded midsize-sedan segment, we think that's enough to set this Chevy apart.
Comfort & Utility
The front-drive, 4-door Malibu is offered in three trim levels: LS, Eco and LT.
The LS comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, a tilt-telescopic steering column, a height-adjustable driver's seat, Bluetooth for phone calls (but not for streaming music), cruise control, a monochromatic trip computer, six months of OnStar telematics assistance and a basic 6-speaker stereo that offers satellite radio but lacks USB/iPod connectivity.
The Eco features a unique 4-cylinder engine with battery assistance and steps up to 17-in alloy wheels, heated mirrors, a color trip computer, exclusive Eco gauges, blue interior lighting, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 7-in touchscreen with the MyLink interface (see "Technology," below), a USB port and Bluetooth for both phone calls and streaming music. It also boasts options such as an 8-way power driver seat, leather upholstery, heated front seats and a 9-speaker Pioneer audio system.
The ostensibly top-of-the-line LT trim is confusing because there are three sub-trims. The first sub-trim, 1LT, is more like a fancy LS; it actually lacks some of the Eco's standard features. But the 2LT and 3LT sub-trims get the 8-way power driver seat as standard along with most of the Eco's other niceties, while adding 18-in alloys and mirror-mounted turn signals. Otherwise, though, they're broadly similar to the well-equipped Eco in terms of features and options.
In our interior evaluation, we were impressed by the new Malibu's sense of style. In keeping with Chevrolet's recent trend, the dashboard flows smoothly into the door panels, accentuating its curves. But that's not all: With the available MyLink color touchscreen aboard, the Malibu's cabin looks thoroughly modern, which is something we couldn't say of its predecessor.
In terms of substance, we weren't blown away by the quality of the interior materials, but they're satisfactory for this segment. Likewise, ergonomics are middle-of-the-road. The controls aren't as large and foolproof as in a Camry or Altima, say, but most owners should have no trouble figuring things out within a week or two.
The Malibu's front seats are nothing to write home about, but we don't mean that as a criticism. They're just kind of there, providing decent support and comfort without drawing attention to themselves. We do think it's a bit tacky that the passenger seat is strictly a 4-way manually adjusted affair, so that even if you get a 3LT with heated leather seats and 8-way power adjustments for the driver, the manual passenger seat is still fundamentally the same as in the base LS.
As for the backseat, well, it's unfortunately one of the Malibu's principal weaknesses. Although the 2013 Malibu has been redesigned, it's technically not "all-new." One clear indication of this is the lack of rear legroom, a problem that plagued the previous model as well. Indeed, the new Malibu substantively shares its structure with the outgoing generation, and that means the cramped rear quarters are still present and accounted for. Think of it this way: If the folks in front have short legs, you're fine, but if they've got longer legs, the rear passengers might not be happy. Usually, we're talking about small cars when we say this sort of thing, not midsize family sedans.
Trunk space in non-Eco models measures 16.3 cu ft -- an undeniably robust figure. We recommend sticking with one of these models if cargo capacity matters to you, because the Eco's trunk space dwindles to an economy-grade 13.2 cu ft. It's a lumpy space, too, thanks to a battery pack that is not exactly well-integrated. Chevrolet could use Toyota's wise counsel on this count.
The entry-level Malibu LS is disappointingly basic for a new-for-2013 model. For example, we think that standard iPod/USB connectivity is expected in this day and age. However, the news rapidly improves for higher trim levels, which come standard with not only plenty of connectivity features but also the MyLink interface with its 7-in touchscreen.
MyLink is basically Chevrolet's answer to Toyota's Entune, integrating mobile apps like Pandora Internet radio into the driving experience via Bluetooth-enabled smartphones. It's pretty cool. What's more, MyLink gives you touchscreen control over stereo functions and the like. We still prefer Chrysler's uConnect 8.4 touchscreen for its crisp graphics and ease of use, but MyLink is a competitive offering, no doubt. If you're a technophile, the new Malibu's got the kind of stuff you're looking for.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All Malibus are front-wheel drive and feature an adequate 6-speed automatic transmission.
In both LS and LT trims, the Malibu starts with a 2.5-liter inline-4 rated at a healthy 197 horsepower and 191 lb-ft of torque. That's strong output for a base engine, and the 2.5 doesn't disappoint in the real world, delivering capable acceleration with laudable refinement. Fun fact: Cadillac uses the same motor in the ATS sport sedan, so it ain't chopped liver.
The Malibu Eco, on the other hand, makes do with an older 2.4-liter inline-4 paired with a 15-kilowatt electric motor backed by a lithium-ion battery pack. GM rates this powerplant at 182 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. Truthfully, though, the Malibu Eco feels weaker than that, and the 2.4-liter motor is less refined than the 2.5.
The third engine option is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 rated at 259 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. We genuinely like this one for its smooth, spirited performance, but it's only available on the fancy 3LT, so not many folks will get to experience it. Too bad; it's good fun.
On the fuel-economy front, the Eco predictably leads the way, though not by a lot. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates it at 25 miles per gallon city/37 mpg highway versus the 2.5-liter engine's 22/34 mpg. Granted, 25/37 mpg is a respectable achievement, but, for context, the 4-cylinder Honda Accord gets 26/37 mpg without the aid of a battery pack.
The 2.0-liter turbo brings up the rear at 21/30 mpg. The Accord V6, however, gets 21/34 mpg and makes more power besides.
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu features 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, stability control and a whopping 10 airbags.
In government crash tests, the 2013 Malibu was close to perfect, garnering the top 5-star rating in the frontal, side and overall categories (like almost every passenger car, it received four stars out of five in the rollover category). The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), meanwhile, gave the 2013 Malibu its top rating of Good in every category except Small Front Overlap -- a new test in which the Malibu was deemed just Marginal.
The Malibu is narrower than typical American-style family sedans, so it feels tighter and more nimble from behind the wheel. That's not to say that the Malibu likes twisty roads -- on the contrary, it's more of a highway cruiser -- but for day-to-day traffic maneuvers, it's a trusty companion. No matter what kind of cruising you're doing, the Malibu's cabin remains impressively quiet, a welcome luxury at this price. The ride, too, borders on luxurious, filtering out rough pavement without ever feeling floaty.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Accord: The new 2013 Accord is a real return to form, boasting excellent fuel economy, a high-quality interior and the sporty driving dynamics for which older Accords were renowned.
Kia Optima: The Optima looks great, and its engines are fully competitive with the Malibu's offerings. We like its sleek interior, too.
Volkswagen Passat: The American-built Passat is big and soft enough to woo Malibu shoppers looking for more space and cushion.
We'd avoid the Eco's underwhelming powerplant. Since the 2.0-liter turbo isn't widely available, that leaves the satisfying base 2.5-liter inline-4. Make ours a 1LT, please, because that would get us the 7-in touchscreen -- a must-have in our opinion.