published Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Test Drive: New Chevy Malibu loaded, luxurious

On our test drive, the new Chevrolet Malibu got enthusiastic thumbs up from another motorist. 
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
On our test drive, the new Chevrolet Malibu got enthusiastic thumbs up from another motorist. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2013 Malibu 2LT

Exterior color: White Diamond Tricoat

Interior color: Cocoa

Engine: 2.5 liter, four-cylinder

Horsepower: 197

Transmission: six-speed shiftable automatic

Fuel economy: 34 mpg highway, 22 mpg city

Dealer: Integrity Chevrolet

Price (as tested): $29,913

I've been test-driving cars for years, but until last Tuesday, I had never had another driver pull beside me at a traffic light and flag me down.

"Excuse me," the woman said, reaching through her car's driver-side window and waving her hands frantically. "What is that car you're driving?"

I toggled down my passenger-side widow. "It's a new Malibu," I said, as she smiled and drifted away in the flow of traffic.

OK, I've driven Porsches, Jaguars, Cadillacs, BMWs, you name it. But I've never had another driver react like this. If I had only had the presence of mind to pull out my smart phone and video this encounter, I would probably be in a national GM commercial next week.

"It's probably the most under-recognized car in GM's arsenal at the moment," Dwight Morgan, sales manager of the new Integrity Chevrolet dealership on Chapman Road, said of the new Malibu.

Earlier this year, I drove the first of the new Malibus to arrive in stores, a mild-hybrid Eco model. It left a good first impression, but the just-arriving mainstream Malibus -- with gas-only engines -- are even more desirable.

STYLE AND COMFORT

The most arresting feature of the new Malibu is a distinctive dashboard that looks the outline of a stealth fighter jet. The curvature of the dash flows into the door panels creating the illusion of extra space. The dash architecture is similar to other GM brands, including Cadillac and Buick. As a result this mere Chevy feels much more luxurious than most of its mass-market peers.

Our test car also came with nicely-stitched leather seats -- a $1,000 upgrade. The combination of beige leather and Cocoa-colored dash and door trim -- and a few judiciously placed wood-grain accents -- results in a distinctively modern interior. After dark, the cabin is bathed in blue ambient light.

Our test car came with White Diamond Tricoat paint, which gives the car a pearly-white sheen that pops in the sun. From the front, the predominant feature is a layered hood that makes the car look as if it has been sculpted out of granite.

Our car was a mid-trim Malibu 2LT, which has such upscale extras as a seven-inch touchscreen -- the nexus for GM's Mylink media system. Our test car also comes equipped with a back-up camera for safely navigating parking lots and driveways, 18-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, a remote-start feature and XM radio.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Malibu 2LT is powered by a strong, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes an impressive 197 horsepower. On a mid-day test drive on Highway 153, the Malibu merged and maneuvered with spirit. The electric-assist steering, while effortless, is also a bit numb -- although most Malibu drivers probably won't be looking for a copious amount of steering feedback.

Cruising down the highway, the Malibu's high points are a comfortable ride and high-content cabin, a combination that represents great value in a sub-$30,000 sedan. For drivers who want a sportier experience, the six-speed automatic transmission on our test car comes with a simulated, manual-shift mode.

BOTTOM LINE

Like all modern sedans, the Malibu will likely represent a step up in fuel economy for most buyers. The government says our 2LT test car will get 34 miles per gallon highway and 22 mpg in the city. Even with several upscale options such as leather and remote start, out test car stickers for just $29,913. The base Malibu LS starts at $22,390 according to the automotive website Edmunds.com.

Sales of the new Malibu are crucial to GM, so expect to find a car that fits perfectly your budget and taste for extras. For under 30-grand our test car is a near-luxury sedan with all the right creature comforts.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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