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2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

September 8th, 2012

2013 Chevrolet Malibu ECO

 Rental Car No More

     Several years ago, 2004 to be precise, GM began to unload the original front wheel drive Chevrolet Malibu as a rental car by stripping it of its Malibu nameplates and slapping the vague Classic lettering on the deck lid. Having worked as a rental car lot attendant, I can attest that this car was the backbone of the rental car world. Unfortunately, its reliability and non-descript styling were its best points. It seemed Chevrolet had decided to join the Japanese in offering a forgettable midsize sedan except every facet was executed with mediocrity resulting in unsupportive seats, carpet that separated from its rocker sills and a completely lifeless driving experience. The revised 2004 Malibu that went to retail customers rather than fleets was hardly an improvement with its numb electrically assisted steering. If the outgoing Malibu/Classic’s styling could be described as vanilla, its replacement was nothing more than French Vanilla. GM finally stepped up to the plate with the well-received all-new Malibu for 2007. Five model years have passed, and though it was hardly looking old, GM realized that a timely replacement would be necessary to maintain the Malibu’s newfound competitiveness. 
     We are pleased with the Malibu’s updated styling, despite riding a somewhat shorter wheelbase than the outgoing 2012 model. The styling is evolutionary and incorporates quad tail lights inspired by the Camaro. Unfortunately for Chevy, the new Ford Fusion makes a bolder design statement. The updated interior continues in the recent Chevrolet tradition by offering a dual cockpit design complemented by the dual binnacle instrument cluster characterized by the reborn Camaro. The only visual flaw with this interior is a ribbed black plastic swath across the width of the dash panel that looks like the world’s biggest HVAC vent. The 7” touch screen cleverly opens to reveal a cubby for storing, well, anything that normally doesn’t find a place in the console or glove box. Never a big fan of the over-proliferation of touch screens, Chevrolet’s unit works relatively intuitively, even if the trip computer is a bit difficult to figure out on the fly.
     The seats prove to be plenty comfortable and help the driver settle in for long distance driving.  The quality of materials, from the soft touch surfaces to the feel of the main switchgear are several hundred grades above the rental car Malibu and Classics that once tarnished Chevy’s image. The difference is so dramatic it is hard to believe that the two cars could have shared the same name within a 10-year period.
     Whether tooling around town or loping along on the interstate, the Malibu feels like an old-school Buick. This is no insult, as Buick has the ride quality that most families and commuters seek. The suspension is compliant on the open road, without being too soft. We never experienced excessive lean in the corners or wallowing over broken pavement. The natural feel of the steering is surprisingly precise without being sport-sedan heavy.
     The Malibu’s window sticker claims that the Eco model is good for 25 mpg city/37 highway.  We can account for the accuracy of that number having achieved a real world 36.99 mpg according to hand calculations at the pump. Chevrolet achieves those numbers without sacrificing much in the way of acceleration over a conventional V6 by mating the 182 hp 2.4-liter direct injection 4-cylinder with a 15 kW motor-generator unit. Automatically switching between gas energy and lithium-ion battery, the Malibu never leaves one thinking they should have opted for a larger engine. Of course you pay a cargo penalty of more than three cubic feet compared to the conventional gas-only Malibu since the battery pack resides in the trunk. The official 13.2 cubic feet of trunk space could make things a bit tight for a traveling family. Also helpful in achieving those lofty efficiency ratings are active grille shutters. We will admit, however, that this 2.4-liter doesn’t make the most satisfying of sounds under load.
     The Malibu Eco starts at $25,335 but can be loaded up to include leather, 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat, strong Pioneer premium 9-speaker sound system and fog lamps. Yes, that price is nearly equal with the Malibu’s corporate cousin Buick Regal, but the fuel economy is better and the interior might also come out on top, especially considering the great seats. The good news is the Malibu has dramatically distanced itself from its humble past as a rental grade sedan. But the question remains as to whether this highly fuel efficient update will be more than simply competitive in a rapidly changing midsize market. We’ll let you know after we’ve driven Ford’s upcoming Fusion.

The Good:
Strong real world fuel economy, impressive interior materials, comfortable seats, old-school Buick-like comfort.
The Bad:
Restrained styling update, a bit pricey thanks to the hybrid tech, tight trunk, old-school Buick-like handling.
The Verdict:
Rental Car no-more, the Malibu becomes simultaneously economical and luxurious.

Photos courtesy of GM

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