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2013 Chevrolet Malibu (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
2013 Chevrolet Malibu (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu

All the world’s a Malibu stage Add to ...

General Motors of Canada is launching its new 2013 Malibu into a mid-size segment coming to life with shiny new models from rival makes. However, the car itself projects a level of confidence and competence that makes it a competitive offering.

You might in fact say it’s ready to take on the world, which happens to be what the plan is. The Malibu becomes Chevrolet’s first global mid-sizer and will be marketed in about 100 countries, where it will lead the way in expanding the 60 per cent of the bow-tie brand’s products currently sold outside North America.

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The 2013 Malibu is in Chevy dealerships now and available in six versions starting with the $24,995 LS and moving up to the $26,325 1LT and $27,915 2LT, which are equipped with 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engines. Also offered are the $27,940 ECO 1LT and $29,160 ECO 2LT with 2.4-litre fours and fuel-saving eAssist technology. Topping the range will be the $32,540 LTZ with 2.0-litre turbocharged four.

Thinking outside the North American box actually began with the positively received 2008 seventh generation, which moved to the GM Epsilon platform that also underpinned the Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6 and Opel Signum – the Malibu first appeared in 1964, 8.5 million have been sold so far and it was the fifth-place mid-size nameplate here last year.

The eighth generation is based on the latest and stiffest version of this platform, also used for the European Car of the Year Opel Insignia, which influenced the tuning of the MacPherson strut/multi-link independent suspension. Although it has been softened a bit to suit North American posterior sensibilities. So it’s got good bones.

The 2013 Malibu also marks the move to an all four-cylinder engine lineup – all equipped with six-speed automatic transmissions – designed to deliver acceptable (Chevy hopes) performance and improved efficiency.

The base engine is GM’s all-new Ecotec 2.5-litre, with direct injection and a more than competitive by the numbers 197 hp and 191 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy is rated at 9.4 litres/100 km city and 5.9 highway.

The fuel-saving ECO model comes with a 2.4-litre four rated at 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, but with an extra 15 hp on tap from the eAssist system. This group of gadgets comprises a lithium-ion battery recharged by regenerative braking, which powers an electric motor that kicks in some extra urge when required, a stop-start feature that kills the engine at stoplights and aggressive fuel cut-off when the throttle’s lifted.

This is enhanced by an active-shutter aero-grille and underbody panels to reduce out-of-sight drag. ECOs score fuel numbers of 8.1 city/5.3 km highway. Sounds like a hybrid, but it isn’t being marketed as one.

The LTZ’s prime mover is a pumped up to over-achiever status 2.0-litre turbocharged four making 259 hp and 160 lb-ft. Fuel figures are estimated at 10.1 city/6.6 highway. The turbo-motor will also be optional on the 2LT model.

Wrapped around the mechanicals is North American/Korean fusion styling that, while not exactly head-turning, is certainly attractive with Chevy’s global twin-port grille up front and a Camaro-inspired look at the rear – which is aero-slippery with a Corvette-like drag coefficient of 0.29.

Overall length is virtually the same at 4,865 mm but the bodywork is wider by 68 mm, which translates into improved room inside. Passenger volume is up 110 litres and there are significant improvements in shoulder and hip room front and rear. And trunk space is improved by 34 litres to 463 litres.

What Chevy claims is the quietest car inside it has built also has one of the most attractive interiors with nicely trimmed flowing lines divided by a centre stack that swoops from dash top to console, incorporating logical and large enough audio and climate controls.

Neat touches are a flip-up display that reveals a “secret” compartment and “ice-blue” mood lighting for after dark. Depending on the model, four- and seven-inch screens provide infotainment, with Bluetooth standard, smartphone pairing with MyLink and other clever electronic stuff.

The Malibu has already earned international safety kudos and is expected to garner more from North American agencies thanks to a broad spectrum approach including structure, electronics and multiple airbags.

For its Canadian launch, Chevy chose a place that is the antitheses of the languid sun and sand image evoked by the Malibu’s name, ruggedly beautiful Cape Breton, N.S. A lap of the Cabot Trail last week – and in my case unintended acceleration deep into the back of beyond after driving right past a ferry landing – provided plenty of opportunity to get a feel for both the 2.5 and ECO versions.

The interiors lived up to their billing, quiet at dual lane highway speeds and over less smooth surfaces. Materials are pleasant to look at and touch, the front seats are supportive and comfortable, the steering wheel feels good, the instruments are big and bright and all-round vision fine. It’s a pleasant and comfortable place to spend a few hours.

These new Malibus have come a long way from the legendary SS models of the 60s with their 396-cubic-inch V-8s. But both the 2.5 four and the eAssisted 2.4 litre make more power than most Malibu drivers over the past couple of decades had at their disposal (and the LTZ engine makes more than recent V-6s).

With help from the six-speed automatics, they produce performance that falls in to the all-you-really-need category with the 2.5 getting to 100 km in a bit more than eight seconds and the ECO a second and a half or so more. They had no problem dealing with Cape Breton’s climbs, dropping out of the tall top gear when necessary. And passing performance is okay, although there’s not much in reserve to resolve miscalculation issues.

What I found most pleasant was the overall composure of both versions, a combination of stiff chassis, well-set-up suspension and direct steering. Hurrying back from our wrong-slot time in the wilderness, the Malibu cornered competently and at one point whumped through an oh-oh deep compression dip completely unflustered.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2013 Chevrolet Malibu 1LT

Type: Mid-size sedan

Base Price: $26,325; as tested, $28,690

Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 197 hp/191 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.4 city/5.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Honda Accord

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