The 2013 Chevy Malibu joins a growing set of family sedans that are giving up on six-cylinder power. This year, its engine bay will be occupied only by four-cylinders, in this case a trio of four-cylinders that put value, efficiency, and acceleration under the spotlight.
Does the change-up deliver on its promise? The net effect on performance is an improvement in some subjective ways, but the old V-6's grunt is sorely missed, at least until the third powertrain becomes available.
A 197-horsepower, 2.5-liter four is the base engine in the 2013 Malibu, and it's teamed to a six-speed automatic. The transmission's the savvy part of the equation, with smart kickdowns and smooth upshifts, and only really lacking a more useful manual-control mode than the clicker placed on the console-mounted shift lever. The engine itself? It's no more pedestrian than the base four-cylinder engines in other family transportation, with acceleration in the 8-second range. What it does--thanks in part to a very well-insulated cabin--is deliver quiet acceleration, several degrees less noticeable and less droning than the Sonata or Passat. Gas mileage is rated at 22/34 mpg, somewhat lower than the current Fusion, the Optima and Sonata, and markedly lower than the CVT-geared Nissan Altima--which rivals the Malibu for subduing its drivetrain noise.
Next up in the Malibu drivetrain ladder is a mild-hybrid model that GM doesn't refer to as a mild hybrid, though it fits the technical description. It's a version of the eAssist technology found on Buick models, teaming a 2.4-liter, 182-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic. The gas engine's power is augmented by a 15-kW motor, a lithium-ion battery pack housed behind the rear seats, a stop/start system, and regenerative braking.
Here's how it works. The gas engine delivers almost all the power, all the time, but the batteries can distribute some of their charge as torque. That enables taller transmission gears, which lets the engine turn at lower speeds at times, which boosts fuel economy. The stop/start system shuts the car off to conserve gas at stoplights and restarts it automatically. And finally, the regenerative braking recharges the batteries.
Whether you consider it a hybrid or not, the Malibu Eco does a good job of forgetting it's blending gas and electric power. It's smooth, and the windup of the four-cylinder engine is tamed well. In terms of outright performance, it's a bit slower than the base four--a penalty of its battery weight, when the Malibu is already a heavy vehicle in its class. The payoff: the Malibu Eco delivers 25/37 mpg, a cut above most non-electrified vehicles in the class, but still lagging the new Nissan Altima by a mile per gallon on the highway cycle.
Finally, there's the Malibu Turbo, with the on-paper power to draw close to the likes of the Sonata turbo and six-cylinder Accord, Altima, and Passat. It's certified at 259 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque, and mated to a six-speed automatic, with a 0-60 mph time estimated at 6.3 seconds. Straight-line performance is clearly in the right leagues, and the powertrain feels flexible across a wide range of driving scenarios--it's quiet enough in highway cruising, and the automatic's geared to accommodate some sporty driving, though the tap-shift control for manual gear calls tells you everything about the intent here. There's no option for paddle controls, something a true sport sedan would offer.
More than in the past, the Malibu's handling is a reason to seek it out. In all the versions we've driven thus far, the Malibu's electric power steering has great responses and a measure of feedback that's just not found in, say, the Optima and Sonata. It doesn't feel detached--it goes where you point it, no further, no closer. It's also not overly weighted, another of the gimmicks that's worked its way back into sedans as automakers make the switch to electric steering. It's still not as precise as the Passat's hydraulic steering, but it's a big part of the reason the Malibu feels "small" to drive.
In our experience with the entire Malibu lineup, the front strut/rear multi-link suspension doesn't have the fluidity of the latest Altima, or the taut, athletic feel of the new Fusion. Some bumps upset its composure, while it hangs on to a moderate amount of body roll, even on Turbo models. It's at once not quite as cushy as the previous Malibu, and not quite up to the new class standards. Especially on the Turbo, we find ourselves expecting more athletic responses--in part because of the powertrain, in part because of the smaller dimensions. It's no Fusion, and that's fine; not every sedan needs to be quite that taut and firm. It does need to be in agreement with itself, though, and the conflicts between steering and ride quality feel more like a Camry compromise than a shot at best in show.