2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco HD Video Review

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Playing in the mid-sized sedan market is not for the feint-of-heart these days. Everyone is pumping out great product- Camry, Accord, Passat, Altima, Sonata, Optima, Fusion, Mazda6, Kizashi all have something about them that might make a buyer bite.

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With that in mind, the folks at Chevrolet submit the 2013 Chevy Malibu for the world’s approval.  That’s right, the world.  This one’s going to need a passport, it’s going to be sold in over 100 different countries.  We think of Chevy as quintessentially American but 60 percent of their sales now come from outside the country.  The global Malibu will get different engines in different markets but GM says it will look pretty much the same in Russia, India and Uzbekistan as it does in Kansas.

At the press launch in Austin, TX, GM engineers are on-hand to prove they were on their A game during Malibu’s development.  John Bednarchik, the aero dynamics guru, talks up the 60 counts of wind drag eliminated through 400 hours of wind tunnel testing.  Noise and vibration specialist Kara Gordon found that Thinsulate (normally a jacket stuffing) works in a car to keep it quiet without adding weight.  Crystal Windham, Director of Interior Design fought the bean counters for a rich looking dashboard, and won.

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The short review is this- Those long hours paid off.  Malibu competes with the best in this class.  It has definite strengths and one segment weakness.  Read on to discover.

Only One Model… For Now

Chevy is launching the 2013 Malibu exclusively as the Eco in February.  It uses GM’s eAssist powertrain.  Summer will bring gas-only models including a new turbo engine that they only hinted at.  They did however smile.  Sounds promising.

Malibu keeps familiar cues like the dual port nose while showing off more curves this time around, especially in back.  There are Camaro influences, especially the gauge cluster and C-pillar (which also has a touch of Audi A5 as well). Malibu’s BMWesque “Bangled” behind is a topic of discussion during the event.  It’s not about aerodynamics, it’s purely design.

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Initially I saw the rear as awkward in photos.  In person it’s better and growing on me as we follow them around the Austin area.  Black seems to suit Malibu’s lines best.  The exterior mirrors are on the small side, wish they had a breakaway feature.

What is eAssist?

The eAssist powertrain can be found in Buick Regal and LaCrosse.  It begins with a 2.4-liter 182 horsepower four-cylinder that gets help from a torque-rich and water-cooled 15 hp (11 kW) electric motor mounted where the alternator normally goes. Control electronics and a 115V lithium-ion battery live in the trunk.  The six-speed automatic transmission is a second-generation design, manual selection is on top of the console lever (performance drivers may find it a little awkward).

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco 2.4L Ecotec engine

A 15 horse electric motor may sound anemic but remember, they’re rich in what drivers crave- low end torque.

It’s easiest to feel eAssist in stop and go city driving.  Basically, coasting and braking charge the battery.  Come to a complete stop and the gas engine shuts down. Lift off the brake and it smoothly restarts with the electric motor giving it a bit of a boost off the line. Those who drive a Honda Civic Hybrid will know the dynamic, though eAssist is noticeably smoother.  An Eco gauge lets you know if your right foot is too heavy for good fuel economy.

Engineer Daryl Wilson explains that eAssist does more than just ape a hybrid system at traffic lights, the electric motor is also used at highway speeds. The transmission’s final drive ratio has been lowered for better fuel economy but because of the extra electric power, the gas engine doesn’t ever sound like it’s overworked or bogged down in a low gear.  It also keeps the transmission from hunting between gears for more confident gear retention.

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Fortunately, Eco Doesn’t Mean Dull

There’s decent power off the line and you’d probably never know what eAssist is doing in the background unless calling up the power flow graphic (either in the gauge cluster display or the Eco’s standard seven-inch LCD unit in the center stack).  Your gas budget will notice.  Chevy predicts an EPA rating of 26 city / 38 highway, similar to some compact cars.

Aerodynamics play a part in fuel savings too.  Four under-body panels, active shutters that close in the lower grille and even the facets of the taillight shave off enough drag to account for an extra two and a half miles per gallon. The rigid chassis is rich in high and ultra-high strength steel.  Feels European, like it’s carved out of a single ingot.  Malibu is based on the same architecture as Buick Regal (AKA Opel Insignia).

Driving dynamics are on the sporty side of mainstream, a good balance of comfort and confident cornering with the expected front-drive understeer.  Low rolling resistance tires grip well on wet Texas roads… until they don’t.  Not a lot of warning before they break loose in hard driving.  Standard electronic stability control is eager to help out in a situation like that.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Interior

Be Quiet

Chevrolet put an emphasis on keeping Malibu’s cabin hushed.  Job well done Kara Gordon and team.  It has less road noise than some luxury cars I’ve driven.  I’ve attended enough press launches to know manufacturers tailor the drive route away from certain surfaces.  GM has no problem pointing us to rough country roads that usually fill a cabin with conversation-stifling sound.  An extra bonus?  Voice control works a whole lot better when the computer can hear you.

Even without a navigation system, Malibu will get you where you need to go.  Push the blue OnStar button and talk with a friendly rep and they’ll download turn-by-turn directions to the car.  Audible directions guide you just like a navi system would and graphics show up on the gauge cluster.  It’s a feature an owner pays for but because you can get directions on the fly, it might be worth it.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Interior

The Inside Story

What the driver sees the most of has been given a substantial upgrade.  The wrap-around cockpit gets a rich ambience with soft touch materials.  The overall design is athletic compared to, say, the more formal Camry space.  While there are a number of different materials- plastics, chrome, artificial wood and in this case leather- it all ties together nicely.  Ice blue ambient lighting that flows throughout the cabin is artfully done.  Turn various controls and the glow pulses.  Knobs are noticeably silky smooth.  My only quibble?  The louvered design element in the instrument panel looks like a great please for dust to collect.

Standard on the Eco is a seven-inch touch screen and the My Link interface can be organized by the user to put controls they use most on the first page.  This makes phone and iPod use easy, plus there are apps like Pandora and Stitcher.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Articulating Radio Face

Flip the screen up and there’s storage for small things.  I’d say it’s a secret hiding place but the cat’s out of the bag now, isn’t it?  It’s not the only place to stash stuff, there’s no shortage of cubbies in Malibu.  Redundant power lock controls are on the door panels and center console.

Camaro drivers will recognize the gauge cluster straight off.  The parking brake is electric.  Leather chairs get heat plus keep my average-sized frame comfortable and in place during hard cornering.  Keyless ignition will be available.  Some competitors get a full panoramic glass ceiling, Malibu does with a standard-sized sunroof.  At launch there are 8 airbags including front knee units.  Rear side impact bags will be added later.

Passengers and Cargo

The back seat is where families will scrutinize Malibu.  Sculpted outboard positions are very comfortable but leg, knee and foot room is not as generous as others in class.  Even with a raised cushion in the middle position, there’s enough headroom for an average adult.  A substantial center spine (for a front-drive vehicle) causes foot crowding with a full car.  With four on board Malibu is comfortable.  Five is best for shorter distances.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco 60/40 split-folding rear seat

There’s no power port in back.  Both seatbacks get pockets, the foldable center armrest has cupholders and covered storage, plus there are pockets in the doors.  One detail- unlike the outgoing Malibu, the 2013 model the rear doors get the same trim used on front ones, giving it a more unified look this time around.

Obviously the battery takes away space from the trunk.  The Eco’s power pack keeps the fold-down back seat feature to a small pass-through and creates a number of undulations, making it less useful than the upcoming standard model.  It is however very nicely trimmed, even the inside decklid.  There’s no spare tire, a trend in the industry.  While the arms take up room, the hinge operation is nicely done, noticeably smooth.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Trunk

What’s all this going to set a buyer back?  Prices for the Eco start at around $26,000.  The particular car in the video that I experienced for two days retails for 30 grand. It certainly looks and feels more expensive though.

Is This The Best Car In Its Segment?

No, because that car doesn’t exist anymore.   All of them are so good these days that it comes down to personal preference.  In fact I will take this opportunity to berate shoppers who simply go back to the same brand time and time again without surveying the modern automotive landscape.  25-30K is a big investment, at the very least drive three different cars before living with those payments for five years.

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The 2013 Malibu Eco scores high with a stylish quality interior, quiet cruising dynamics, good fuel economy, and sheetmetal that rides the line between mainstream and sporty.  Look harder if you need a roomy backseat or trunk (the last point rectified in standard models). Having a hard time choosing a mid-sized sedan?  Your decision just got tougher.  The 2013 Malibu joins the pack of top picks in this ultra-competitive segment.  It’s ready for the world.

DCR ATTENDED A PRESS EVENT SPONSORED BY THE MANUFACTURER.

FULL 2013 MALIBU ECO GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILL PHOTOGRPAPHS PROVIDED BY CHEVROLET.

6 Comments

  1. CalgaryGuy says:

    I’m trying to figure out what this family sedan is trying to be. Fuel economy beats base Camry and Accord by only a hair (1-2 mpg). But Malibu Eco is priced as a hybrid (close to the new Camry). The Malibu Eco’s cramped rear seat is unsuited for carpooling but surely it isn’t trying to be a sports-sedan (like Nissan Altima).

    The only purpose, I can think of, is highway cruiser. But the current generation (base) Malibu has suffered from a cheap, poorly fitted interior and a thrashy drivetrain. GM would not only would need to fix the car’s most serious weaknesses but actually turn the weaknesses into strengths.

    So is the Malibu Eco the restoration of the Malibu cruiser I had years ago? Or just another poser.

  2. GusGT says:

    Chevrolet finally got the tail light section right. The current model always reminded me of a round peg square hole theme. I’m surprise the hinged trunk lid and folding side mirrors are gone, but so glad the quiet ride was kept. I own a 2009 Malibu and this is one of my favorite features, must be a sign of getting old. Is the front grill section more pronounced than before? I feel like this area lost the seamless look but the new C-pillar is fantastic.

    • TV says:

      The ’13 is noticeably more quiet than the’09 when it comes to road noise. The front end is a little bolder, the aero dictates it’s shape this time around.

      Personally, I always thought Chevy completely nailed the previous gen styling. It’s like a Calvin Klein navy blazer in that it doesn’t scream “look at me”. Yet, when you look at the details they are very well done and highly tailored. Yes, the taillights look a bit tacked on but it was a very elegant design that most take for granted. I’ll take the new interior any day of the week though.

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    Chevy’s mid-size Malibu is all-new for 2013, joining the Buick Regal on the global Epsilon II platform. Loyal readers of Car and Driver may remember that our John Phillips briefly drove and generally liked a 2013 Malibu prototype earlier this year. W…..

  4. kenwenzel says:

    I had to go to Austin last week and couldn’t believe the bad weather. It appears someone imported the rain to make visitors from the NW feel at home. Twice you’ve been to Austin lately? Looks like you were at Zilker park. Austin has some great roads to drive to get the feeling of a good (or poor) handling car, just outside of the city. Where’s my hat?

    • TV says:

      I was at Zilker Park. When you’re out of town and find a place like that to shoot a car, it makes a guy feel lucky. Found it when I was out for a run, you folks have a nice trail system.

      No kidding about the weather. I got just enough time to shoot running footage in between rain and heavy fog on Tuesday. Again, a guy feels lucky.

      Hat is coming. You just might get an email soon…