2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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Looking over the new eighth-generation Malibu, which debuted for the 2013 model year, you can't help but think that Chevrolet's once paunchy midsize star seems pretty buff these days. There's a certain tautness to its bodywork, with nicely defined lines cutting along the hood and tying in with the bustle at the trunk. At the front the new Malibu echoes the seventh-generation car thanks to Chevrolet's familiar horizontal crossbar grille, but it's crisper and more angular looking. Combined with a new taillight design that's shamelessly borrowed from Chevrolet's sporty Camaro, it adds up to an overall look that's conservative, yet handsome and capable looking.

If the Malibu looks like it has been working out for a new role, that's because it has: The new car, which is now based on Chevrolet's Epsilon II platform, is slated to be a global car sold across six continents and over 100 countries. And to do that, it has to compete head-to-head against midsize marquee names in Europe and Asia, let alone other markets, and of course some much improved family sedan offerings right here in North America with the all-new Honda Accord and Ford Fusion, as well as the always formidable Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata. So does it have what it takes?

Certainly Chevrolet has done a nice job making the interior quite upscale, with ample soundproofing, soft-touch material across the upper dash and door panels, attractive switchgear, good use of chrome accenting, rich-looking available woodgrain trim and nice sporty-looking nubby fabric on the fabric/leatherette seats (leather seating is available). The urethane steering wheel in my test car seemed somewhat out of place in the otherwise well-finished interior, but according to product communications manager George Saratlic this was due to an early-production issue. GM's literature shows that my test car's 2LT package adds not just the woodgrain trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, fog lights, cargo net and 8-way power drivers seat (all of which were accounted for on my test car), but also a leather-covered steering wheel with woodgrain trim. In addition, the 2LT package makes heated front seats and a nav system available as options. My only real complaint is that outward visibility, especially rearward, is somewhat hampered by the car's rather thick A and C pillars and high trunk.

One thing I was quite impressed by, on the other hand, was Chevrolet's MyLink Touch in-car entertainment system, which is standard equipment on all but the base 2013 Malibu. This system incorporates a nice-sounding six-speaker (or available nine-speaker) AM/FM/MP3 audio system with Bluetooth audio and phone connectivity, Stitcher smartphone radio compatibility and Gracenote compatibility, all controlled via voice commands or a 7-inch colour touchscreen. I found the touchscreen interface to be generally intuitive although I'd have preferred some of the touch buttons to be a little bigger (especially the telephone keypad buttons). A nifty feature of the MyLink system is the hidden storage bin in the dash behind the touchscreen (you gain access by pressing a slide lever under the touchscreen).

Mechanically, the 2013 Malibu comes with a choice of three powertrains, including a base 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine that develops 195 horsepower, a turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder that puts out 259 horsepower or, as in my test car, a mild hybrid powertrain consisting of a 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine that produces 182 horsepower, assisted by a 15-kW electric drive motor-generator. Power for the electric drive motor is supplied by a small motive battery in the trunk, with regenerative brakes recapturing braking energy to charge the motive battery.

On the road the Eco powertrain delivers reasonable family car performance when pushed (0-100 km/h takes about 8.5 seconds), while the handling is best described as competent and predictable. When driven normally the Malibu Eco provides an extremely relaxed, hushed ride; it's quiet enough that you hardly notice when the engine temporarily shuts down at traffic lights to conserve fuel, and indeed the powertrain barely registers as a hybrid at all.

In common with the other engine choices, the 2.4-litre is hooked up to a 6-speed automatic transmission. A pushbutton atop the gearshift lever provides manual control when desired, though I found the programming to be a bit intrusive, denying my attempts to upshift early when feathering the gas downhill, and stepping in to downshift if I didn't do so soon enough when slowing down. In fairness, this strategy may be needed to allow the electric motor-generator to recapture energy when coasting or decelerating, and certainly the transmission was entirely hands-off when it came to upshifts, letting me bounce the engine off the rev-limiter if I so chose.

In terms of costs versus benefits, the Malibu Eco 1LT starts at a suggested retail price of $29,440 including destination fees, and boasts rated city/highway fuel consumption of 8.1 / 5.3 L/100km at the cost of some trunk space (the motive battery sits against the back seat so you only get a small pass-through instead of full 60/40 split-folding rear seats). By comparison the similarly-equipped Malibu 1LT with a conventional powertrain costs $27,825 and is rated at 9.2 / 5.7 L/100km, while the full-hybrid Toyota Camry Hybrid starts at $28,555 including destination fees and is rated at 4.5 / 4.9 L/100km (city/hwy).

Given these numbers the Malibu Eco may be a tough sell for highway use, barely bettering the numbers posted by the regular Malibu but costing some $1,600 more, and also getting beaten by the slightly cheaper Camry Hybrid. On the other hand, if you're a city-dweller who likes the Malibu's sense of style then Malibu Eco becomes more tempting: it admittedly doesn't get near the numbers posted by the full-hybrid Camry in stop-and-go traffic, but it uses significantly less fuel than a regular Malibu. Certainly I was pleasantly surprised when I went to fill up my Malibu Eco test car at the end of the week. I'd logged some serious distance in busy traffic but the Malibu had merely sipped at its tank, getting very close to its rated city number and using about half the fuel I'd normally expect. A nice trick from a car that carries its hybrid credentials quietly and unobtrusively.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Sedan, Hybrid, HEV, Chevrolet, 2013, Malibu Eco, $20,000 - $29,999, $30,000 - $39,999, Midsize,

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