AUSTIN, TX – The ’13 Chevrolet Malibu Eco, now arriving at dealers, gives U.S. new-car shoppers their first glimpse of the nameplate’s redesigned interior, which rivals high fuel economy and nifty driving dynamics as its top attribute.

General Motors improves the Malibu from stem to stern for its segment-leading eighth generation and 35th year of production.

Fuel economy rises 12% with the mild-hybrid Eco, and when more traditionally powered versions become available in second-half 2012, the auto maker promises double-digit horsepower and torque gains over their predecessors without losing 30-mpg-plus (7.8 L/100 km) fuel efficiency on the highway.

The Malibu’s driving dynamics, already satisfactory, move to the head of the class. It receives a stiffer body structure, wider track, improved electronic power-steering system and new performance-braking technologies enhancing safety and drivability.

A fresh exterior design marries fuel-saving aerodynamics with pleasing shapes and character lines. Some sporty styling cues spice up the 5-passenger car that occupies a segment finally shaking off its historically bland designs.

But the new Malibu might impress shoppers most with its comfortable, functional, eye-catching cabin.

One caveat, however. The 2-tone Cocoa interior of the well-equipped testers driven here are much more pleasing than either the Jet Black- or Titanium-trimmed cars. The lighter tone of the Cocoa interior is fresher and more contemporary than the darker colors.

However, the wood-grain door molding on all three models is unconvincing. Fortunately, it is used sparingly.

The biggest difference between the interior of the outgoing Malibu and the ’13 model is the new “grille” insert that stretches across the dash.

It creates a 3-tier effect, enhancing the dual-cockpit feel GM wants in all of its bow-tie-brand products. We like it, although, as with many bold styling statements, it may prove polarizing.

Either way, the grille creates a pilot/co-pilot effect, with a center, metallic-like bar that runs along the dash and extends to each door pull linking the two distinct spaces. It also breaks up what was a sea of grained plastic on the previous model.

There’s an unmistakable feeling of spaciousness, too.

With a front and rear track 2 ins. (5.1 cm) wider than the old Malibu, the new car gains 1.5 ins. (3.8 cm) of shoulder room up front and 3.2 ins. (8.1 cm) more in the rear. Hip room grows 2.7 ins. (6.6 cm) up front and 2.8 ins. (7.1 cm) in the back.

Those numbers may seem incremental, but every inch counts, especially in the dog-eat-dog midsize-car segment.

GM let its designers loose elsewhere, too.

For example, the driver and passenger armrests still perform standard double-duty as door handles. But unlike the squared-off, plastic, utilitarian look of its predecessor, the new Malibu’s armrest curves around the power-window control housing to create an elegant pie-shaped grab handle.

A stitched seam on the leather armrest evokes muted luxury.

Cool-blue ambient lighting permeates the cabin at dark. The soft light emits from the door pulls, lower door panels and along the dash grille.

It also rings the primary instrument-panel gauges, audio and temperature controls and lights a pair of thoughtful small storage bins on each side of the center console – the perfect home for a smartphone.

Contrasting piping on the leather-trimmed seats provides an element of sportiness, as do oversized gauges borrowed from the Camaro.

High-quality material covers the dash and door inserts, which carry grain emulating the tipping of leather. It will not go unnoticed by comparison shoppers.

GM opens the pocketbook for an electronic parking brake that cleans up the driver’s foot well nicely, but the new Malibu retains a flimsy, lower-dash storage bin just left of the steering wheel. It’s a great place for a man’s wallet, but it looks cheap and out of place in an otherwise solidly constructed interior.

There’s one more item worth nitpicking: GM needs to tighten the tricky gap beneath the A-pillar, where the dash and doors intersect.

The interior wizards at Audi call it the “king’s joint,” and for good reason. When not executed properly, it gives an interior a black eye. GM does a good job matching up the horizontal lines of the dash and doors, but misses the mark with a vertical gap that can fit three stacked quarters.

The ’13 Malibu also loses a storage bin atop the center console, though it is doubtful anyone will miss it.

In its place, GM carves out a hidden compartment behind the new Malibu’s available 7-in. (17.8 cm) touchscreen. At the push of a button, the screen flips open to reveal a space for valuables. If there were an annual prize for the most-innovative-storage-idea, this item would win going away.

By eliminating the top storage unit, designers were able to raise the center and locate the touchscreen just off the driver’s field of vision. It’s both safer and more convenient.

The center console receives a significant upgrade. Gone is the chunky, plastic shifter of the old Malibu, replaced by a sleeker, more luxurious leather-wrapped grip. A carryover sliding armrest and cupholder cover sport a modern, nickel-like trim.

The front seats, a key focus for GM with the new model, are meant for passengers to “sit in” as opposed to “sit-on,” and the auto maker claims they are more durable, too.

Engineers manage to make an already quiet cabin quieter via laminated glass, triple-sealed doors and liquid-applied sound deadener in key places.

Designers toiled for hours in the aerodynamics lab to reduce wind noise from the side mirrors and deliver a lower co-efficient of drag.

The extra investment pays off, as the Malibu smoothes out the bumpy downtown side streets, without compromising proper feedback, and tones down road noise generated at high speeds by wet, grooved Texas pavement.

The rear bench seat features ample leg room, and its high back provides extra occupant protection in a crash, although it does diminish sightlines.

WardsAuto editors had the opportunity to test the Malibu Eco’s powertrain and ride-and-handling previously, and the drive here reiterates earlier findings.

The Malibu Eco’s eAssist powertrain, which combines conventional internal-combustion technology with an advanced 115V lithium-ion battery pack and 15kW (20-hp) motor-generator, provides 4-cyl. fuel economy and V-6 power.

The motor-generator, in short, backs up the car’s 2.4L 4-cyl. direct-injection gasoline engine at key moments, such as quick starts or climbing long grades. However, its primary duty is as a stop/start system, killing the engine at idle to save fuel and restarting it seamlessly after the brake is released.

The system operates as smoothly in the Malibu as it does in the Buick LaCrosse, the first application of eAssist that bowed last year. If not for icons alerting the driver when eAssist engages and disengages, it is doubtful the average driver would notice it operating.

In predominately city driving here, where speeds average 35 mph (56 km/h), the Malibu Eco turns in 26.5 mpg (8.9 L/100 km). That’s north of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) city estimate for the car and 21% better than the previous Malibu’s 4-cyl. powertrain.

Compared with the previous-generation 6-cyl. Malibu, the Eco’s city numbers are 56% higher.

Ride-and-handling remains impressive, as well, with a stiffened body structure of more than 65% ultra-high- and high-strength steel, hydraulic ride bushings and isolated lower A-arms combining to tame chatter bumps in the roadway without numbing the driving experience.

However, the Malibu Eco also takes advantage of low-rolling-resistance tires, which save fuel but typically sacrifice grip. Our test car slides slightly through one off-camber corner during the drive, although it’s unclear whether the tires or the wet conditions are to blame.

Whatever the case, it ends up showing off the Malibu’s new performance-braking technology nicely.

Unlike the LaCrosse eAssist model, which offers the mild-hybrid system as standard on base models, the Malibu Eco will charge a premium of some $2,600 compared with a similarly trimmed ’12 model.

In fact, a base new Malibu, which will use GM’s newly developed 2.5L 4-cyl. GDI engine, will not come until later in the year. That engine was not ready, but the eAssist powertrain was, giving GM a chance to pull-ahead the Malibu Eco launch and get a jump on redesigns from key competitors coming in the fall.

That’s a bold move for the restructured auto maker and one that could pay off handsomely when shoppers discover what’s inside the car matches what’s under the hood.

jamend@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

Vehicle type: front-engine, 4-door, FWD 5-passenger sedan

Engine: 2.4L DOHC DI Ecotec all-aluminum I-4

Power: 182 hp @ 6,200 rpm

Torque: 172 lb.-ft. (233 Nm) @ 4,900 rpm

Compression ratio: 11.2:1

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Electric drive: 15 kW belt-driven motor-generator

Battery: 115V lithium-ion

Maximum electric power: 15 hp @ 1,000-2,200 rpm

Wheelbase: 107.8 ins. (273.8 cm)

Overall length: 191.3 ins. (485.9 cm)

Overall width: 73 ins. (185.4 cm)

Overall height: 57.6 ins. (146.3 cm)

Curb weight: 3,620 lbs. (1,642 kg)

Price as tested: $29,820

Fuel economy: 25/38 mpg (9.4-6.2 L/100 km) est.

Competition: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat

 

Pros

2-tone Cocoa interior

Fuel-saving eAssist

Attractive exterior

Cons

“King’s joint” gap

Faux wood unconvincing

Slip-slided sideways