Chevrolet Malibu Eco shakes off the stodgy image, finds a happy place between solid and flash

Wednesday January 30, 2013

MANCHESTER -- Moving from stodgy, the redesigned 2013 Chevrolet Malibu got wider (but shorter) and correspondingly received (slightly) more interior space while cribbing exterior style from the current Camaro: Compare tail lights, fenders and side belt line. And while every automaker likes to think their newest racy design fits their bread-and-butter family sedan, don’t ridicule the Malibu for showing a little flash -- comfortably sprung, the refreshed car owns the more aggressive stance with a still enjoyable driving experience.

Never mistaken for the Camaro, you might pretend anyway after dropping the kiddos off at school.

In Eco trim, the vehicle comes equipped with General Motor’s eAssist adding in nifty fuel efficiency tricks as well.

The 2013 Malibu was built around GM’s latest midsized Epsilon II platform, resulting in the tweaked dimensions. There are two final assembly points; so flip a coin between Detroit and Kansas City (my tester arrived from the latter). Sixty-two percent U.S./Canadian content for those counting including engine and transmission.

The new Chevy’s fit and finish is good off the lot with quality materials inside: I liked the softness of the seats, both the leather and cloth inserts. The MyLink infotainment system includes today’s mandated music connectivity and hands-free calling, voice controls, and the option of a smartphone app allowing you to lock or start the car (from the airport, according to one commercial) while a CD-sized cubby hides behind the touchscreen display.

With a similar layout to the outgoing Malibu, the 2013 gives an impression of the newfound girth with wide door sills and center console, although that feel doesn’t carry over to the later driving experience. Overall it’s upper end, although I would order mine sans faux wood trim.

With the sense of space and a wide-open view through the front windshield, the steering wheel becomes diminutive-looking but is actually well-proportioned for drivers’ hands and the vehicle’s steering. Tracking through corners (below limits) there’s no real hint of understeer.

Chevy struck a similar balance in the ride department where it’s hard to find any complaints with how the suspension soaks up bumps even careening over railroad tracks. Without recording laps, the Malibu feels just as engaging as another top-handler in the pedestrian segment, the Nissan Altima. (Just as subjectively: The Hyundai Sonata is tuned toward comfort while Volkswagen’s Jetta seems the stiffest of the bunch. It’s a crowded field and they all have their perks.)

Brakes are a highlight here with linear action at the pedal. And the equipped 17-inch aluminum wheels -- a star-patterned, 10-spoke design -- are a great fitment for the wheel wells.

Basically a form of mild hybrid, the Malibu Eco’s eAssist combines start-stop technology, regenerative braking, and a small lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk to bulk up the car’s green street cred. (It never moves wholly under all-electric volition.) Associated electronics eat about 3 cubic feet out of the Eco’s still ample trunk space while the battery sits flush beneath the floor. There’s also an "Eco" gauge in the dash (with no numbers and a green swath in the middle, you’re never really sure what it’s telling you) and badge on the rear trunk deck.

The 2013 Malibu LS has a base Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price of $22,390 while the as-tested Eco 1SA starts at $25,235 according to the sticker (a power convenience package, sunroof, and the crystal red "tintcoat" drove the total up further). In the Eco, you get 25 mpg city, 37 mpg highway according to Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates. I witnessed up to 31 mixed.

Comparing economy between the base Malibu and Eco is not apples-to-apples because the latter carries over the 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Ecotec from last year’s model while the starter LS arrives with GM’s replacement for that block (a 2.5-liter known internally as the "LCV"). GM bills the replacement engine as more efficient, refined, and powerful, although the Eco with eAssist delivers about 3 mpg better in any driving according to EPA test cycles, which are just elaborate driving routines to simulate city and highway driving. Those tests changed in 2008 and are now generally better reflective of real-world economy -- but a big omission is the limited idle time built into the cycles (only one complete stop) meaning fuel-saving measures that shut off an idling vehicle’s engine barely measure.

The average 2-liter light vehicle burns 0.32 gallons of gas per hour idling, according to a currently available Department of Energy worksheet, while the typical American idles between five to 10 minutes daily. Eliminating that time in a new vehicle can conservatively save upwards of 10 gallons annually. Idle-stop technology has been a frugality staple in Western Europe for years, but there’s been no incentive from the EPA.

Did my car just turn off?

The idle-stop feature in the Malibu functions quite transparently: Come to a stop and before you count to one the tachometer will drop below zero to read "idle." In the time it takes to remove your foot from the brake to reach the gas, the lithium-ion battery seamlessly juices the engine back into motion. Ignore the tach movement and you might never tell what happened. But if you’re used to shifting into neutral during long stops -- don’t, that kicks the engine back on and it won’t auto-switch off in neutral or park.

Although the replacement is out, the Eco’s 2.4-liter is perfectly refined mated to the new chassis and there’s little intruding noise or vibration -- wind or engine -- whether lightly cruising or applying throttle. As needed, the extra battery pack serves an additional 15 hp and 79 lb-ft of torque on top of the engine’s 182 hp/171 lb-ft, although don’t just add the numbers because actual output at any time is determined by electronics. The combination allows for smooth power delivery and response, complemented by the six-speed automatic transmission that does a good job of picking the right gear for the job (more often than not, that’s a low gear, but it does downshift shortly upon request).

While not sporting, the Malibu Eco never feels lacking for thrust and all available powerplants in 2013 reportedly outpace their predecessors while still improving economy. (There is a third available mill, a turbocharged 2-liter for a ding in mpg.) In a straight line the Malibu performs about mid-pack, according to people with stopwatches. And while there are other options with better EPA estimates, this one’s idle-stop might be of greater value if you commute or sit in traffic often. As the sum of its parts, Malibu offers a lot of everyday drivability.


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