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2013 Chevrolet Malibu First Drive

Keeping quiet is 2013 Chevrolet Malibu's strength in staying competitive.

What It Is
2013 Chevrolet Malibu is Chevy's entry in the massive mid-segment sedan market
Best Thing
Interior is luxury-car quiet.
Worst Thing
Quick acceleration is lacking
Snap Judgment
Competitive alternative to foreign sedans


I turned to my editor. "So General Motors has me covering three cars in a day." I held up a finger. "The 2013 Chevrolet Camaro convertible. The ZL1, no less." Two fingers. "Chevrolet Camaro 1LE. You know, the one that makes the Camaro track ready." He asked if it was offered on the convertible. "Nope. Strictly for the coupe. Can you imagine the lawsuits if you were racing a track in a convertible and messed up?" He nodded, and I held up a third finger. "2013 Chevrolet Malibu."

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

"The Malibu," he said without hesitation. "Focus your efforts on the Malibu."

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is GM's entry into the mid-sized sedan market, the largest section in the U.S. car market. The competition between automakers in the highly profitable segment is ferocious and is currently lead by the Toyota Camry and the all-new 2013 Honda Accord. The Malibu also faces the popular 2013 Nissan Altima, the up-and-coming Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, newcomer Volkswagen Passat, and hometown rival Ford Fusion. We had driven all these vehicles except the Malibu, and found that all met the average American car buyer's wants and needs: comfortable interior; engine powerful enough for most commuter needs while delivering good fuel economy; safety; and value.

So how well did the Chevy Malibu fulfill these needs? That's what I was wondering as I took an early flight from California to arrive in Michigan that evening. I was returning the next day, so it was imperative I maximized my time in the Malibu. I had already done preliminary research. The Chevrolet Malibu, for model year 2013, is offered in three models, with price ranging from $23,150 for the base Chevy Malibu LS to the top-of-the line LTZ which breaks $30,000. The fuel-efficient Chevrolet Malibu Eco with its mild hybrid engine already went on sale earlier this year.

Walkaround

"It's a handsome car."

Those were the first words I voiced into my recorder as I examined the four Chevy Malibu sedans parked in front of the hotel. Journalists and my fellow reporters were either inside, breaking the morning fast at the buffet table, or outside with me. We didn't engage in the normal chit-chat, though. They were either busy reading email messages on their smartphones, packing their gear into one of the Camaros also parked in front, or smoking. Or all three.

The Chevrolet Malibu was redesigned in 2007 as a 2008 model, and was an immediate hit. I remember the first images hitting the automotive blogs and other on-line sources, and noted the strong European influence, especially the short front overhangs, flowing greenhouse, and clean sides. The Ford Fusion, which was introduced a year earlier, followed a similar design language. Both vehicles looked significantly more modern than their predecessors.

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is a refinement of that 2008 model. The sheetmetal on the hood, upper and lower grilles, and around the headlamps have more character lines, giving the sedan a leaner, more muscular appearance. The design also highlighted the front grille, giving it more of a presence. The most welcome exterior change in my eyes, though, was oddly the Malibu's rear. Most automakers seem to give the back end of their vehicles the short shrift, which is sad in my opinion. Isn't that what most drivers see when in rush hour traffic? Chevrolet redesigned the Malibu's trunk lid with a prominent bulge, which some disparagingly comparing it to the controversial rear-end styling BMW adopted a few years ago (and has since abandoned). Personally, I like the change. The mid-level and high-end LS and LTZ trims have different taillights, with the latter's looking very similar to the Camaro's own rear light array. Overall, I placed the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu new look smack in the middle of the competition. It's more eye-catching than the current Ford Fusion or refreshed Toyota Camry, but blends into the background versus the polarizing curviness of the Hyundai Sonata.

Sitting Down

"It's quiet. It's really, really quiet."

I had heard that GM was putting a lot of effort in lowering the NVH levels in the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. The acronym stands for "noise, vibration, and harshness" and covers sound and tremor sensations from a vehicle. Most car reviewers focus on interior NVH; basically, how easy is it to live with the vehicle's noise and vibration levels.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

By that standard, the 2013 Chevy Malibu's interior is easy to live in. Thunk shut the door and any outside noise is immediately cut, like flipping an off-switch. That made it easy to focus on the rest of the interior. I found the materials on the Malibu's dash, center stack, roof lining, and door panels looking plenty upscale and competitive against current champion Hyundai Sonata. Fit and finish in those areas were on par at this segment. I thought the Malibu's interior design to be both interesting and functional, finding the controls easy enough to use but still interesting to the eye. The top-of-the-line LTZ with the dark brown "cocoa" leather seats, and wood dash accents especially looked luxurious. The Malibu is based off the same chassis as premium brand Buick's Regal, and I was torn which interior looked more attractive. The sole exception was the LTZ's dash, which borrowed the squarish speedometer and tachometer from the Camaro. I felt it was out of place with the more curvaceous designs found elsewhere in the sedan.

The rest of the Malibu's interior is on par with the competition, specifically the Camry and Fusion. Trunk space for both the Malibu and the Fusion is 16 cubic feet for gasoline models, 13 cubic feet for the Malibu Eco model.

The Malibu's rear row was the big surprise, and I mean that literally. I place it larger than the Camry and Fusion and a step below the cavernous Accord. Yet the Malibu doesn't look any larger than the rest of the competition. Contrast that to the Sonata, which compares to the Fusion. I, however, bumped my head against the Sonata's swoopy roofline at every significant bump or pothole.

And it's a good thing I like the Malibu's rear row, for I found driver seat comfort to be definitely mixed. All the elements for a good driver seat were there: good materials, decent padding, and eight-way seat controls. I even found them attractive, especially in leather. The LTZ's blue stitching actually matches the interior's blue ambient lighting. However, I could never get comfortable in the driver's seat. The seats felt too wide, and the side bolsters too thin. I felt I was sitting on the seat instead of in it. I had no such issues with the rear seats, though they were not as well-cushioned, and--weirdly--the front passenger seat. I made a verbal note to myself to follow up with my seat observations after the drive.

Finally, the Malibu's interior was a mixed bag for utility. The side pockets were small, barely able to hold a standard sized water bottle, never mind an e-reader or, more rarely, a magazine. The front row storage unit is small but deep, while the Malibu's lockable glove compartment is just adequate to hold small knickknacks. However, there's a cubby hidden right behind the infotainment screen. It's quite deep, and we could easily use it to store valuables like portable GPS units or extra glasses.

Driving

My driving partner leaned over. "Why are we whispering?" "Because we're testing how quiet it is in the interior. What do you think." "It's quiet. It's really, really quiet."

“Overall, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is shaping up as a strong domestic alternative to segment leaders Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai.”

We crisscrossed western Michigan in our westward travel from Grand Rapids to the Gingerman track. Though traffic was light compared to my LA-based experience, we encountered enough to test the Chevrolet Malibu in both street and highway driving.

We drove both a nicely equipped base-level Malibu LS, and a top-of-the-line LTZ. Both sedans were quiet; we're talking luxury car level. GM engineers silenced the all-new 2.5-liter Ecotec engine at cruise speeds, while little road and wind noise penetrated the Malibu's cabin at freeway speeds. Only when we stomped the gas pedal did we hear the coarse engine thrum come through. We found ourselves doing that frequently, too. Acceleration felt nearly non-existent, forcing you to carefully calculate how fast you could bypass that eighteen wheeler blocking your view of the lane. Or if you could quickly slipped into that space in the next lane over. You could tell the Malibu's Ecotec engine was optimized for maximum fuel economy. The engine's horsepower is enough, though, to climb the highway onramp and merge with oncoming traffic. We wished GM had laid out a route with more variety (hills, twisty trails, etc.) to better properly test the Malibu's powertrain.

The Malibu's steering, while light and artificial, reacted appropriately quickly enough if you executed such moves as change lanes quickly. Same with the Malibu's firm suspension, which felt stiff enough for you to feel the road beneath you but absorbent enough that you barely noticed or care. We got lost a couple of times on the rural roads, and we found it easy to make tight U-turns in the Malibu or park at the nearest full gas station. To get snacks, of course. The steering also made it easy to park the Chevrolet Malibu in all but the tightest parking stalls and lots.

Summary

A colleague once asked the president of Hyundai how the automaker is able to make its vehicles feel premium at their price range. His response was that Hyundai focuses on 3-4 items to raise to higher levels than usual at that segment.

That's how I felt about the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. Chevy focused on lowering the interior sound to match those usually enjoyed in luxury brands like Lexus, and it largely succeeded. The Malibu is also well equipped with safety features, like ten standard airbags. I also felt the Malibu's interior to be better in design and material than the 2012 Honda Accord, refreshed Camry, and the previous Ford Fusion, matching current segment leader Hyundai and its premium Sonata sedan. Some of the press present at the event disagreed, stating they felt the all-new Nissan Altima to be even better than the Malibu and, by extension, the Sonata.

The Malibu's new engine, though, would be my biggest disappointment, and that's only because it's merely competitive with the rest of the segment, not because it has inherent issues. I also find it disappointing the Chevrolet Malibu is not available with a full-hybrid powertrain like most of the competition. GM argued consumers would not be interested in the premium pricing, preferring the Malibu eAssist mild hybrid and its lower price. A quick comparison to the Sonata and Camry full-hybrids shows no major disparity between the three vehicles in price.

Overall, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is shaping up as a strong domestic alternative to segment leaders Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. As to which is best, only getting all the players together at the same time will answer that question. So stay tuned.

Basic Specs

2.4-liter inline-4 plus electric motor, 6-speed automatic, front-wheel drive, 182-hp, $26,095, 25 mpg city/37 mpg highway
2.5-liter inline-4, 6-speed automatic, front-wheel drive, 197-hp, $23,150, fuel economy TBD
2.0-liter inline-4 turbocharged, 6-speed automatic, front-wheel drive, 259-hp, $27,710, fuel economy TBD

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