published Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Test Drive: New Chevrolet Malibu hits the quality mark

2013 Chevrolet Malibu - Eco
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
2013 Chevrolet Malibu - Eco Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2013 Malibu Eco

Exterior color: Silver Ice Metallic

Interior color: Jet Black Titanium

Engine: 2.4 liter, 4-cylinder with E-assist

Horsepower: 182

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 37 mpg highway, 25 mpg city

Dealer: Walter Jackson Chevrolet, Ringgold, Ga.

Price (as tested): $27,075

If you're pulling for a General Motors comeback, then watch sales of the new-for-2013 Chevrolet Malibu. The midsize sedan from GM's bread-and-butter Chevrolet division is a good bellwether for the company as a whole.

This week, we drove a mild hybrid, "Eco" version of the new Malibu sedan from Walter Jackson Chevrolet in Ringgold, Ga.

The Malibu Eco, which gets 37 miles per gallon highway, is exceptionally quiet and has the refinement to compete in the crowded midsize segment, which accounts for about a quarter of all auto sales.

The Eco engine combines a 2.4 liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and a small electric motor. Chevrolet expects the soon-to-arrive 2.5-liter gasoline-only car (base price $23,150) to be its Malibu volume leader.

Bob Lollar, sales manager at the Walter Jackson Chevrolet dealership, said a third engine option, a 2.0-liter turbo, will make 259 horsepower and will replace an existing six-cylinder option.

STYLING AND COMFORT

On the outside, the new 2013 Malibu is a buffed-up version of the 2008-12 car. Ford, on the other hand, will experiment with a extreme redesign of its mid-size Fusion due this fall. It will be interesting to see if consumers are in a conservative or a daring mood, as reflected in sales of the two cars.

That said, the Malibu is a good-looking ride with a high belt line, a sculpted hood and, on our test car, attractive 17-inch alloy wheels. Our Silver Ice Metallic tester shimmered like a sculpted bullet in the afternoon sun. There is a body line that wraps around the rear quarter panel forming a lip on the trunk door that adds character.

Inside, the Malibu shares some of the rich design cues from GM's upscale Buick and Cadillac divisions. The dash flares out in elegant arches from an attractive center stack, which is embellished with chrome and wood-grain inserts. Our Eco car also was outfitted with ambient lighting that traces the contours of the dash in soft blue light.

Our car also came with a "power package" option cluster that includes power front seats and a rear-view camera. Among the standard features are dual-zone climate controls, available XM radio and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel.

The cloth seats are comfortable, and the rear-seat leg room is generous.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Malibu Eco makes its best case at the gas pump, boasting 37 mpg highway and 25 mpg city. The government estimates that an average driver logging 15,000 miles a year, with gas at $3.55 per gallon, will spend about $1,850 a year on fuel.

Once it's warmed up, the gasoline engine in the Eco stops and starts as needed — for instance, it kicks out at red lights to save fuel. The electric-assist motor captures energy from the braking process and provides a 15-horsepower boost when the car accelerates.

On an leisurely afternoon drive on the county roads around Interstate 75 Exit 348 near Ringgold last week, the Malibu was a quiet cruiser with very little body roll. Steering response was adequate — not crisp but not sloppy either. The Goodyear Assurance tires were hushed and grippy.

BOTTOM LINE

Great fuel economy, an upscale interior and a five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty are the strengths of the Malibu Eco. Our midline test car carried a sticker price of $27,075, including the destination charge, a reasonable price for a premium automobile.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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