There isn't much time to form a solid opinion during a typical dealer test-drive. To get the most out of it, you must do some research and come armed with a list of things to check out at close range. You know, questions to ask the man with the tie.
And so it is with our early first drive of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. We've previously seen the sheet metal at the New York auto show. We've studied preliminary specification sheets. Now it's time to slip behind the wheel with the engine cranked to life and some open asphalt ahead.
But the new Chevy Malibu hasn't made it to market just yet. Instead of taking a quick lunchtime jaunt to our local Chevy dealer, we've flown through three time zones for about two hours of seat time behind the closed doors of GM's Milford Proving Ground in Michigan.
Finally outdoors and away from the auto show environment, the 2013 Malibu's revised proportions give off a "just right" vibe. Long and skinny, the outgoing car was sleek-looking on the outside but tight across the shoulders on the inside.
The new 'Bu does away with that problem by being 2.7 inches wider overall. Cabin width at the shoulders increases by 1.6 inches up front, but it's even better in the backseat, where the extra width and more muscular rear haunches conspire to produce 3.2 inches more rear shoulder room.
Lengthwise, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is only a half inch shorter than the car it replaces, but there's a full 4.5 inches cut from its wheelbase. At 107.8 inches, the new wheelbase is 2.5 inches and 1.5 inches shorter than the Accord and Camry, respectively. Despite this, front-seat legroom is essentially unchanged. The backseat's on-paper loss of 0.7 inch doesn't feel any worse to our resident tall guy, owing to front seatbacks with a broader, flatter profile that's friendlier to knees.
Essentially, the 2013 Chevy Malibu's cabin is no longer the runt of the litter; its interior width now plays in the same ballpark as its direct competition.
Two engines will be offered in the 2013 Malibu, but only the 2.4-liter Ecotec engine with eAssist will be sold for the first few months. Today we're driving the Malibu Eco, the car that's powered by this powertrain.
The eAssist components look suspiciously similar to the Malibu Hybrid system that disappeared in 2010. There's a battery pack in the trunk and a belt alternator-starter (BAS) device that captures a modest amount of deceleration energy for later use in a fuel-saving start-stop mode and for short, strategic episodes of acceleration assistance.
But every part is upgraded. The 2.4-liter mill is converted to direct fuel injection and now makes 182 horsepower (up 18) and 172 pound-feet of torque (up 13). The old Malibu Hybrid was saddled with a four-speed automatic; the new Malibu Eco enjoys a six-speed autobox with a manual mode. The lower grille houses computer-controlled shutters that close tight to reduce drag when less engine cooling is needed.
Lithium-ion cells replace nickel-metal hydride in the new 65-pound battery module, resulting in a same-size 115-volt pack (instead of 36 volts) with three times the energy capacity. Whereas the old BAS motor-generator (MG) was a hopped-up alternator good for just 5 hp, the new one is a water-cooled AC induction motor. Still belt-driven, it now packs 15 hp, three times the punch and, interestingly, two electric horses more than a Honda Insight.
Don't Call Me Hybrid
Despite this, Chevrolet isn't calling this a hybrid. The carmaker took some flak for using the term too liberally in the past. Using present-day political parlance, the original 2008 Malibu Hybrid was accused of being a HINO: Hybrid in Name Only. Even though the 2013 eAssist system brings three times the goods, GM seems bent on avoiding another over-promise, under-deliver situation.
GM engineers tell us they're using eAssist nomenclature instead because this simple system has "grown up" to the point where it's a transparent overlay that can be readily applied to most any vehicle in the lineup. "You want a Malibu with very good fuel economy? How about this one?"
Good approach. Technically speaking, the BAS layout precludes true electric-only operation, and 0.5 kWh of battery capacity is small potatoes. Compared to the ever-expanding spectrum of hybrids on the market, this is still one of the mildest hybrid systems going.
That said, the Malibu Eco's anticipated highway fuel economy of 38 mpg is quite good — class-leading compared to non-hybrids. GM says it'll achieve 26 mpg in the city, also at or near the top of the heap in the non-hybrid world but nothing like the 41 mpg city rating of the 2012 Camry Hybrid or the 40 mpg of the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
Finally Under Way
Under way, the 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco certainly feels stouter than last year's port-injected 2.4 Ecotec, but it's hard to tell if it's quicker with no time for formal measured runs. Chevrolet won't give numerical answers to our questions about curb weight, but the extra steel that goes with a 2.7-inch-width increase must surely add to the burden.
The engine goes about its business in a quiet manner, though, and there isn't much road or wind noise. In fact, all three factors are quieter in our Malibu than they are in a 2011 Hyundai Sonata trotted out for comparison.
Our 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco rides on the same MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension as before, but here the track width has been increased by 2.5 inches up front and 2 inches out back. Roll stability benefits from this broader base of operation.
There's also a new electronic power steering (EPS) system, which delivers its assist at the rack instead of inside the steering column. Totally retuned, the new system's effort build-up characteristics feel more progressive and natural.
Admirably, the steering doesn't kick back through a particularly nasty corner bristling with chatter bumps. Chevy's ride and handling engineers have also dialed in just the right amount of shock absorber damping force to keep the 17-inch Goodyear tires firmly planted over this and a variety of other challenging surfaces sprinkled around Milford's ride and handling loop.
Stops feel entirely normal in the Malibu Eco, mostly because the brakes are the brakes. You can't generate significant power during deceleration through a serpentine engine accessory belt, so the eAssist regenerative system is merely a thin veneer laid over a conventional braking system with good pedal feel.
There's little to say about the interior because these engineering development cars aren't decorated with all of the final materials and textures we'll see in showrooms. There's no time to pair our smartphone and play with the MyLink system, but we've already previewed that system.
We also didn't drive the all-new direct-injected 2.5-liter four-cylinder Ecotec engine, a clean-sheet design that will join the lineup next summer. GM expects it to make 190 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, slightly more than a Malibu Eco. No fuel economy estimates are available, but without eAssist it can only be less expensive, somewhat thirstier and with a larger trunk.
They tell us this new direct-injected 2.5-liter Ecotec will fulfill the role of a V6, but no recent-vintage V6 (or turbo-4) in this class makes fewer than 250 hp. We suspect a third Malibu engine is in the works, most likely a turbocharged variant of this 2.5-liter Ecotec. GM isn't saying.
GM is also being tight-lipped about the asking price for its 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco. Last time we checked, the 2009 Malibu Hybrid was $3,050 more expensive than a similarly equipped Malibu LT1. The Eco's new eAssist mild hybrid system is clearly more sophisticated, so it's hard to imagine the eAssist price premium shrinking much smaller.
So let's do some math. Today's 2012 Malibu LT1 starts at $23,335. Feeling generous, we'll add just $2,000 for eAssist, which brings our estimated base price up to $25,350. The Camry Hybrid LE, a full-blown strong hybrid that delivers 41 mpg in the city, starts at $25,900.
A Strong Contender
Eco pricing aside, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is clearly a better and more well-rounded car than the one it replaces. Steering and handling benefit from newfound polish, and the fuel-saving eAssist mild hybrid powertrain delivers more power and a significant fuel economy boost compared to the current four-banger. It's smooth and quiet, and the wider interior adds much-needed breathing room. No mistake, the new Malibu is a strong contender.
It has to be. The 2013 Malibu is a very important car for Chevrolet in light of declining SUV sales and a general shift to economical sedans. What's more, recent efforts by Hyundai, Kia and Toyota have turned up the temperature in this segment.
Perhaps that's why the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is hitting the streets early, sometime between New Year's Day 2012 celebrations and the spring snowmelt.
Still, it's hard to make a purchase decision when the price is a secret and the guy in the suit isn't talking. For a solid value judgment we're simply going to have to wait until GM coughs up some prices. By then it'll be time to take a second, longer test-drive in a production-spec car on real roads on our own turf, away from the controlled confines of the proving ground.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.