2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco: First Drive Review

December 14, 2011

Chevrolet's car fortunes are on the upswing, the momentum generated by new vehicles like the beautifully finished Cruze compact sedan and the eager little Sonic hatchback. Now it's the Malibu's turn, and the venerable nameplate ushers in big changes for the 2013 model year, all in the name of getting smaller and more efficient.

The Malibu, Chevy says, is its first global sedan, but the version coming to dealers in the spring will be unique to the U.S. market. We'll be the only ones to get the amped-up Malibu Eco, a green-tinged four-cylinder, four-door, five-seat sedan, augmented with a battery pack and a motor that boost gas mileage and elbow aside any V-6 option in the process. GM hopes its variety of planet-hugging will cut through the clutter of, well, just about every other repositioned family sedan that's been electrified in the past few years.

We drove the 2012 Chevy Malibu Eco yesterday around Austin, Texas, in a fit of fog and rain, something Austin's been running lean on for far too long. Our first driving impressions? It's a completely different Malibu in look and feel than the four-door just drifting out of memory. On the handling and efficiency fronts, that's progress.

Camaro all over?

GM cites a lot of Camaro influence in the details, and it's easy to see some of the heritage appeal molded and shaped into the gauges and taillamps. The new Malibu looks much smaller than it did last year, though it's not even a half-inch shorter overall.

The quest for aero smoothness--and global dimensions--leaves this Malibu with a better front end than rear. The Malibu Eco's split grille wears the Chevy badge proudly--it's pretty large--and the Eco's front air dam has some pretty emphatic elbows embossed into its lower corners. That helps give it more heft, as does the pronounced, VW-like stagger of the grille and headlamps. 

The aerodynamics start to have their way with the shape at the corners of the headlamps and at the small, set-off side mirrors. Down the sides, the Malibu picks up some subtle sculpturing, and by the time the sheetmetal wraps around the rear pillar, it's started to resemble Fortes and Camrys. The decklid and taillights are tiered like those on the last-generation Camry, too, but the rounded corners of the Malibu's high rear lamps bring it more in line with other current Chevys. While I'm more mixed on the Malibu's new shape, my colleagues aren't. They love it. To me, the former Malibu pulled off a more imposing look with flatter, plainer surfaces.

The cockpit delivers its details with more unity. Big square-ringed gauges sit behind a thick steering wheel at a lower vantage point, and the center console gets a perimeter of glossy grey plastic that's identical to the stuff in the Volt--though the Malibu gets real buttons, not capacitive switches, to run its major functions. There's a large LCD screen front and center but also big, grabby knobs for major audio and climate functions. Designers took some visual heft out of the dash by cutting strakes across the surface and glinting it with metallic trim, but the dash itself doesn't seem thick enough to warrant the fuss. There's also some trim on the Eco model that seems to want to be woodgrain, except up close it's more metallic and woven in appearance. Taste points aside, it all feels good to the fingertips.

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