Forget the Snake. I don't care what your menu said at the Chinese restaurant: 2013 is the Year of the Midsize Sedan, thanks to four strong new players in the popular segment.
A 2013 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ with the 2.5-liter base engine is the latest to land in my driveway. It features a capable European-engineered chassis, good power, an appealing look and feel and advanced features. The Malibu's fuel economy trails its best competitors, however, and the car I tested had a slightly misaligned trunk lid. The optional electronic lane-departure alert also went off so often that I turned it off early in a long test drive that included a round trip from Detroit to New Orleans.
Despite that, the Malibu is an appealing alternative to the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, all of which are new for 2013.
The midsize sedan market, traditionally a stew of tepid family cars, is suddenly as hot as a Szechuan pepper. The Hyundai Sonata, shockingly new when it debuted as a 2011 model, is suddenly the oldest midsize on the market. Other one- and two-year-olds that may suddenly seem dated are the Kia Optima, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat.
Prices for the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu start at $22,930 for a car with the 191-horsepower 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. All Malibus have a six-speed automatic transmission. The Malibu Eco, which uses electricity to boost fuel economy, starts at $25,335. The performance model boasts a turbocharged 259-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Prices begin at $26,950.
I tested a very well-equipped Malibu LTZ with the 2.5-liter engine. Its features included a good voice-recognition system, two-tone leather seats, Pioneer audio and collision alert. It stickered at $31,600. All prices exclude destination charges.
The car's price fell roughly in the middle among well-equipped midsize family sedans.
The 2013 Malibu is 0.3 inches shorter than the '12 model, but 2.7 inches wider. The result is more passenger and luggage space.
The car was comfortable for long drives-including a marathon stretch as I tried to get through Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio ahead of Superstorm Sandy. There's plenty of room in the front seat, and extravagant interior storage that includes a bin hidden behind the touch screen in the dashboard and a big drawer by the driver's left knee. Rear leg, shoulder and headroom are fine.
The attractive interior materials are cushioned at all the touch points.
The controls combine excellent voice recognition with a touch screen and traditional dials and switches on the center stack and steering wheel. The gauges are big and readable. There's very little wind noise, but the sound of rough road surfaces can be intrusive.
The voice-recognition is fast and accurate, requiring a minimum of commands and getting things right the first time.
I was pleasantly surprised when navigation commands from my iPhone's new Apple Maps feature piped through the audio system and interrupted music streaming from the phone.
The directions were wrong, of course. I'd still be roaming around Ohio if I listened to the notoriously faulty Apple Maps, but that's Apple's fault, not the Malibu's. Chevy says any phone with Bluetooth streaming and a navigation app with spoken directions works with MyLink.
The Malibu uses a platform developed with engineers at GM's European Opel brand. Its ride and handling benefit from that collaboration. The car is smooth and composed in fast driving. The steering is responsive, with good on-center feel and feedback.
The 2.5-liter engine's 191 horsepower and 197 pound-feet of torque easily top the competitors' similar-sized engines. The Malibu accelerated well, its transmission shifting fast and smoothly to get up to speed. The engine is a bit noisy during hard acceleration.
The 2.5-liter Malibu's EPA fuel-economy rating of 22 mpg in the city, 34 on the highway and 26 in combined driving is unimpressive. Comparably powered models of the Altima, Accord, Camry, Optima and Sonata all beat it.
The Malibu's styling is dynamic but understated. The car has a forward-leaning stance and wide track. Four square taillights and rear fender flares consciously echo the Camaro sport coupe. Subtle lines stamped into the hood and trunk lid add visual appeal. The trunk lid of the car I tested was slightly misaligned. Aside from that, all the Malibus I've driven had good fit and finish.
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu's features, looks, comfort and performance make it a strong contender as we roll into the Year of the Midsize Sedan.
2013 CHEVROLET MALIBU LTZ 2.5L:
-Type of vehicle: Front-wheel drive, five-passenger midsize sedan
-Rating: Three out of four stars
-Reasons to buy: Features, handling, power; looks
-Shortcomings: Misaligned trunk lid; fuel economy; tuning of lane-departure alert
-Base price: $27,830
-Price as tested: $31,600
All prices exclude destination charge.
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