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By MALCOLM GUNN, www.wheelbasemedia.com

To be a mid-sized sedan in this day and age means that you actually have to be a lot more than just a mid-sized sedan.

You have to have a super-attractive entry price. You also have to show that you like clean air, trees and fluffy rabbits romping in fields. And, you also have to be sporty enough for moms and dads who gave up their two-door cars when the stork came calling.

But, since you can’t really put all of that together in one car, the Malibu – and others in this class – have a separate models to take care of very broad buyer base.

Once considered somewhat plain and uninspiring in a rental-fleet sort of way, the Malibu regained its groove for the 2008 model year with sharp styling, thoughtfully designed interior appointments and competent road manners. The reviews bordered on gushing, sales spiked and the mid-size Chevy was once more walking proud.

The new 2013 Malibu has been repurposed for new challenges and increased sedan-class competitiveness. From top to bottom it’s a completely different automobile, starting with a more rigid platform based on the Opel Insignia (Opel is part of General Motors’ European division).

Exterior dimensions are closely aligned with the outgoing Malibu, except for 4.5 inches of shrinkage between the front and rear wheels. Despite this deficit, most key passenger- and cargo-area measurements except legroom have actually increased. Cabin styling, which was the previous Malibu’s strong suit, hasn’t veered off course for 2013. The dual cockpit-style seating arrangement, with its wrap-around dashboard and center stack, returns in roughly the same format, but the controls and switches are laid out in a more straightforward fashion. A neat trick here is a storage area hidden behind the flip-up radio faceplate that’s suitable for phones, wallets or other small items.

The speedometer and tachometer gauge pods are located in what are clearly Chevrolet Camaro-inspired housings. As with other recently launched GM sedans, the Malibu comes with 10 standard airbags, including a set of front-knee inflatables.

On the outside, the Malibu’s athletic lines reveal a more prominent grille and Camaro-influenced taillights at the opposite end. The range-topping LTZ is upgraded with brighter high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights and faster-acting light-emitting diode (LED) taillights.

For 2013, the Malibu is available in three strengths for three kinds of buyers. The priceleader base model has a 197-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which replaces the 169-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder.

For added performance, you can select a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that puts out 259 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The turbo replaces the 252-horsepower V6 option. Those values are roughly comparable, however the turbo’s 21-mpg city/30 highway fuel consumption is hands-down better than the V6′s 17/26. By the way, Chevy rates the turbo’s zero-to-60-mph time at 6.3 seconds.

For buyers with a green streak, the Malibu Eco features a 182-horse 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a special 15-horsepower electric motor/generator that adds “eAssist” via a belt to the engine during acceleration and passing.

Called a “mild hybrid” because the Malibu Eco cannot run on electric power alone like the Toyota Camry Hybrid or Ford Fusion Hybrid, it’s rated at 25 mpg city and 37 highway, compared the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder’s 22/34 numbers.

The lithium-ion battery location robs the Malibu of some trunk space, but not a whole lot. The eAssist’s regenerative braking system feeds energy to the batteries when the binders are applied. A system shuts off the engine when stationary and restarts it once the gas pedal is depressed.

All powerplants operate through six-speed automatic transmissions, with the turbo version’s receiving manual controls located atop the shifter.

At an all-in starting price of $23,150, the Malibu S comes with not much more than the essentials. The next-level 1LT’s more complete package adds a seven-inch color touch-screen with voice recognition that operates the audio and communications side. Picking the eAssist will require about $3,000 extra, but it does include dual-zone climate control plus some other niceties. The LT trim can be ordered with the turbo engine, but for the full effect you should step up the LTZ with its added luxury content and richer-sounding twin exhaust pipes. Turbo pricing is not yet known.

The 2013 Malibu actually does a decent job of not necessarily being all things to all people, but by providing enough of a variety models to a diverse group buyers. Welcome to the modern mid-size sedan.

What you should know: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu

Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan

Engines (hp): 2.5-liter DOHC I4 (197); 2.0-liter DOHC I4 (259); 2,4-liter DOHC I4 with 15-kilowatt motor (182, net).

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Market position: Malibu is one of a number of new 2013 mid-size sedans and it faces some tough competition from domestic-and import-base models. In this class, offering a variety of powertrains, including hybrids, is almost mandatory.

Points: More tautly styled body improves Malibu’s looks; Base four-cylinder engine provides good thrust; turbo option adds sporting attitude; “Mild” eAssist hybrid’s fuel consumption numbers nowhere near “full” hybrid competitors; No V6 option, but it likely won’t be missed; 10 airbags sets the safety bar high in this class.

Safety: Front airbags; front/rear side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; front knee airbags, anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.

MPG (city/hwy) 22/34 (2.5)

Base price (incl. destination) $23,150

By comparison

Ford Fusion

Base price: $21,500

V6 option is gone,two hybrid choices join three four-cylinder gas engines.

Nissan Altima

Base price: $21,900

All-new 2013 version comes with fuel-sipping I4 and upgraded CVT.

Mazda6

Base price: $22,000 (est.)

Out-next-year 2014 odel shows what Malibu’s competition is up to.

 

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