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2013 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ Quick Drive

If only the competition weren't as good as it is

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu hasn't quite lived up to the automaker's lofty expectations. Sure, it's still a top-five seller in the midsize class, but it's quickly losing the little momentum it started with. General Motors has already said an extensive refresh is coming after just the first model year of this new vehicle. And if that weren't a severe enough vote of no confidence, Chevrolet just shaved a few hundred dollars off the price of every 2013 Chevrolet Malibu still at dealerships.

Ouch.

That doesn't tell the whole story, though. It's easy to jump on the Malibu Haterade bandwagon. But what, if any of it, is deserved?

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Model and Price

Let's start with the good news: Despite destination and handling going up $50 and the Crystal Red Tintcoat paint job increasing some $70, the price of our 2013 Malibu LTZ dropped a net $845 since it went on sale this past summer, including a $500 rebate from GM. If you want a well-equipped car, not a whole lot will come close to the value of its adjusted $31,515. That's pretty much loaded up outside of the standard 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The car comes with a standard six-speed automatic. The bad news is that if lowering the cost of the car and incentives dumps are already taking place, consider leasing a Malibu if you want one. It's going to take a resale value dive, especially after the revised version comes out at the end of this year.

Safety and Key Features

There are more airbags--10 to be exact--than could possibly be needed, ensuring a safe and stable drive for passengers in both rows. Aiding its safety levels are an available rear-vision camera, forward collision alert system, and lane departure warning systems that are part of the $1,900 Electronics and Entertainment package and the $395 Advanced Safety package. Also equipped in our loaded Malibu were a basketball-like leather seating surface called "Fashion trim" ($150), a remote starter, HID headlights, power sunroof, MyLink infotainment, Onstar, and keyless entry. All we were missing was the $795 navigation system, which you'd think would be there, given the car's 7-inch color screen smack-dab in the middle of the dashboard. Ten years ago, most of this stuff wouldn't have been available on your average Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Family Friendliness and Utility

Alas, now we've come to the biggest crux of the 'Bu's woes. If it were a family sedan from the late-1990s, the Malibu would have a commodious interior, appointed with rich, soft-touch materials and the finest wood from downed plastic trees. Today, however, it looks overwrought inside with as many as 10 different colors, patterns, and materials in the interior to confuse your senses and befuddle your sensibilities.

On top of that, it's simply not that big. There are LATCH points for two child seats; we found installing them to be par for the course in terms of difficulty. But front seats had to be moved up some to make sure no pediatric leg amputation occurred. This didn't happen in any of its competitors. Likewise, we found its 13.2-cubic-foot trunk coming in mid-pack for the number of grocery bags we could stuff into it--23--versus its competitors. The Toyota Camry has 15.4 cubic feet of room. You can see where this is going…

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Comfort and Quality

Former GM VP Bob Lutz once said of the first-generation Cadillac CTS that he had never before seen such an expensive interior that looked so cheap. Lutz was fundamental in upping the interior quality of GM vehicles. But, it seems, GM may have gotten complacent with the Malibu.

Everything feels properly high-quality, and the aqua-colored ambient lighting follows the chrome throughout the interior. But it doesn't feel warm or inviting in the way that some of its competitors. The seats feel firm as though you're sitting on top of them with no give. Buttons are well laid-out, and everything is within reach. Yet, the center console between the front seats is narrow, and the cupholders are located by the driver's right elbow. Cutting four inches from between the front and rear wheels versus the old Malibu did it no favors; the 2014 is rumored to rectify the rear leg room problem.

How it Drives

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu wafts down the highway in comfort in the grand American tradition. It's hard to imagine how it could weigh 3,500 pounds--more than a few burgers ahead of most of the competition--yet lack passenger and cargo space. Most of that weight goes into insulation, evidenced by its lack of noise. Perhaps it's taking a few cues from Buick.

The structure of the car feels planted, and Chevrolet has instilled it a suspension that feels capable of keeping up with the car. The automatic shifts smoothly, but it has to downshift frequently to compensate for the 'Bu's mass. After two weeks of extensive city and highway driving, we averaged just under 24 mpg--less than its 26 mpg combined rating. On curvy roads, the car's weight and fuel-economy biased gearing do it no favors. It feels ponderous, with numb electric steering that lets down an otherwise capable performer.

Summary

The fundamentals for a solid sedan are here. Compared to the previous Malibu, the new one has refinement, technology, and a rich feel its predecessor couldn't begin to match. But Chevrolet wanted to make this a world car, for sale in Europe and Asia. As a result, it's a smaller car than the one it replaces.

Hardly the failure of engineering it has been pronounced; it's a perfectly reasonable midsize sedan, and we think it could be a solid lease on a stuff-per-dollar basis.

As new-car debuts go, the 2013 Malibu is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. For 2014, Chevrolet has already promised to scallop more from the seatbacks to make leg room more competitive and redesign its looks, in and out. We think it looks handsome enough already. We also think it's a largely average midsize sedan. But after an onslaught of family cars came to market between 2011 and 2013--like the ginormous VW Passat, the archetypical Toyota Camry, the groundbreaking Ford Fusion, and the all-arounders that are the Honda Accord and Mazda6--it became hard to keep up. Let's hope Chevy hits the bull's-eye the next time around instead of landing on an outer ring.

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Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $32,015
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 22 mpg
EPA Highway: 34 mpg
EPA Combined: 26 mpg
Cargo Space: 23 grocery bags
Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 410 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"It's a good car but unfortunately, the Accord and Fusion hog all the limelight in the segment." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"A very solid, comfortable drive, but the dash is too complex while driving. I couldn't find controls while in traffic." -Jason Davis, Photography Editor
"It has shortcomings, and they are significant, but overall I can see someone being satisfied with this car if they like gadgets." -Keith Buglewicz, News Editor
"I like the effort Chevy made here. It's just not a car I would get myself or recommend to my parents with other, better options out there." -Matthew Askari, Associate Editor

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