Taking a back seat
The Malibu's interior space specs out like those of the competition, but its shorter wheelbase shows up in its back-seat comfort.
We'll take the front seats any day. GM's paid as much attention here as it has in the Cruze and Sonic, and that gives the Malibu deeply pocketed front seats, with a wide range of tilt and adjustment to both cushions complementing the low-set gauges and telescoping wheel. Three hours into our Malibu drive, we still felt fresh, especially since its active headrests didn't present themselves too far forward, a problem we're finding on more new vehicles seeking out top crash ratings.
Chevy says the Malibu's wheelbase is about 4.5 inches less than in the last car. So while it stacks up well with the competition in overall length, some of the specs and numbers seem to want more explanation. Front and rear legroom are the big, defining terms of four-door sedans, and the Malibu promises 42.1 inches of front leg room and 36.5 inches of rear legroom. Compare that with the Sonata, at 45.5 inches front and 34.6 inches rear, or the titanic VW Passat at 42.4 inches front and 39.1 inches rear.
In total the Malibu is smaller by a couple of inches, and it's likely that close because of the way the rear seat is shaped. We'd gladly give up a couple of tenths of an inch for a rear seat in the Malibu that sat a little higher, or was a little longer. As it is, the rear bench is short and low, and still a little lacking in headroom for the tallest adults. From having one of the most spacious and comfortable rear seats, the Malibu now has less rear-seat space than the Nissan Altima or Ford Fusion.
In other small ways, the Malibu's been carefully shrunk. The center console doesn't seem to have room for a storage bin, but flick the protruding niblet under the LCD touchscreen and the panel flips up, revealing a storage space--albeit one without a USB port or power point, where you might expect them. They're in the center console, which doesn't have any rear-facing air vents on its backside for back-seat passengers. Trunk space is slimmed down, too, to make room for 2.0 cubic feet of Eco batteries. In all, it's 14.3 cubic feet, larger than most hybrids, but a couple of cubic feet off the mainstream models.MyLink agrees: no texting and driving
The Malibu's nearly as well stocked with features as the very best vehicles in its class, starting with safety features. Eight airbags are standard, with an optional pair of rear-seat side airbags on the way during the model year. Chevy expects five-star crash ratings across the board, which would put it atop the NHTSA's rankings, though not all of the competition has been re-tested under the NHTSA's new formulas. A rearview camera is standard on the Eco, as are rear parking sensors; a lane-departure warning system and a forward-collision warning system are in the pipeline, too, while OnStar hardware is standard equipment.
Other standard equipment includes Chevy’s new MyLink connectivity system, which allows drivers to stream Pandora internet radio and catch up with podcasts on Stitcher. GM is weighing the benefits of in-car, voice-to-text and text-to-voice communication, but as of yet the Malibu Eco won't deliver either of those features, which are available on Camry and Sonata and on Ford's MyFord and MyLincoln Touch-equipped vehicles, too.
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco arrives in showrooms in the spring, wearing no explicit "hybrid" markings, but with small green Eco badgework and with a pricetag nearly as high as some more efficient hybrids and diesels. The base price of $25,995 includes a $760 destination charge, but excludes any options. It's significantly shy of, say, the Fusion's 41-mpg city EPA rating--but then again, it's significantly cheaper than that $30,000 full hybrid, if not too much less than the $27,000 Passat TDI.
Tweener pricing may help the Malibu's tweener gas mileage and tweener interior space. On those fronts, the handsome, well-executed, unexpectedly nimble Malibu Eco has a marketing mission cut out for it. Tech-wary drivers may grok to its invisibly efficient 37-mpg highway EPA rating, but early adopters already have veered off toward the Volt or other plug-in solutions, or before that, the higher mileage of the Camry and Fusion hybrids. At the same time, the folks looking for Texas-sized interiors will probably head off into the sunset, in the direction of the Accord or a Passat, or the next Impala, as is likely the plan. Then there are the ballsy-looking Sonata and Optima, and--we hear--the new Fusion, which cut sharper, standout profiles.
The new Malibu's a success, but qualified, with big steps in all the right directions, except maybe the most visible ones.