CLARIFICATION - The video states the back seats don t fold to expand the trunk. There is a small pass-through though so Malibu can handle longer thin items like skis or snowboards.

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 all have something about them that might make a buyer bite.

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 Ballard.

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.

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.

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).
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 eliminates folding seatbacks 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.

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.

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.

Read or Share this story: