Our Chevrolet Malibu Eco isn't a bad car. Newly redesigned for 2013, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the model it replaces inside, outside, and underneath. But it doesn't make the same advancement as the 2008 Malibu did when it popped out of the chute light years better than the one that came before it. Likewise, the previous-generation model was probably the best sedan to bear the name in the half century or so since the first one appeared as a 1964 model.
That the 2013 Malibu breaks no real new ground is not surprising, but it is something of a disappointment, especially after the strides made by the last one. More importantly for Chevrolet, setting the bar at the "not bad" level may not be high enough in a category as hotly contested as the family sedan group.
The category is chock full of over-achieving models and other new designs this year, and some cars that qualify as both. The new and top-Rated Toyota Camry comes to mind, and redesigns of other competitive entries including the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima are all due in showrooms within the next couple of months. Pre-production examples of those we've seen and driven all look promising.
Other Malibu trim levels and powertrains are also right around the corner, including a base and turbocharged four-cylinder models. We'll be adding those to the test fleet as soon as they are available, but for now, the Eco is the only choice Malibu buyers get.
The Malibu earns its Eco cred thanks to a 182-hp, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine equipped with what is called "eAssist technology" in GM speak. Translation: It has an electric motor to help boost power, automatic engine stop-start, regenerative braking, tastefully designed Eco badging in the obligatory green shade, and some nifty displays to show you how thrifty you are and when you're running on electric power. Oh wait, scratch that last one. Unlike a full hybrid system, eAssist can't actually power the car on its own.
Bundled together, the eAssist bits are good for a fairly respectable 37-mpg on the highway, according to the EPA, and 29-mpg overall. Back at the test track, we matched the 29-mpg overall figure with our Eco, narrowly nosing out other competitors for best in the category, but only if you exclude full hybrids.
Our Camry hybrid returned 37-mpg overall, and the Fusion hybrid came in at 34 overall. Our base Camry four-cylinder turned in 27 overall and cost several thousand dollars less than the Malibu, without the complications and expense of eAssist add ons. Similarly, our four-cylinder Hyundai Sonata returned 27 mpg overall in testing, and the Nissan Altima four-cylinder sedan we last tested checked in at 26 overall. And for whatever it's worth, I've only been averaging 26.5 overall in my three-day stint of mixed driving with the Malibu. It is fuel efficient, but whether the added cost makes sense is debatable over its more traditional competitors.
On top of that, all those models outscored the Malibu in our Ratings, and not just because of fuel economy. The Chevy also comes up short with uninspiring handling, a narrow cockpit, and a cramped rear seat that is actually snugger than that last Malibu. And while our Malibu rang in at $28,285 with options, even the Eco's base price of $25,995 including destination is thousands more than the others. If your primary interest is saving money, you can buy a lot of gas with the difference.
When the base four-cylinder Malibu arrives, the price will likely be less. But so will the fuel mileage. For now, it's the Eco or nothing, and as we said earlier, it's not a bad car at all. In fact, it earned a respectable test score. Chevy fans, rental companies, and some other buyers will likely be very happy with it.
It just isn't one of the better choices.