New Car Review: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Turbo

Front 3/4 view of Silver 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Turbo driving on rural road at dusk
Can the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Turbo lure drivers back from the imports?

It's been a long, long time since "Malibu" was the cool answer when someone asked what kind of car you drove. As in about 41 years. No question, the past few years have seen Chevrolet take some amazing steps in the right direction with their family sedan. The exterior styling and interior appointments are way better than what they'd been doing and, frankly, better than many thought they could do.

For 2013, both those areas get some more polish and there's a bold step under the hood, too...as the performance model comes with a four-cylinder engine.

Yes, Malibu has joined the growing list of cars with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four, which seems to be the powerplant of choice these days. Makes sense, really. Larger than a 2.0 liter in a four-cylinder and smoothness becomes an issue.

Rear 3/4 view of a silver 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Turbo driving on a rural road at sunset
The 2013 Malibu has "Camaro-inspired" taillights.
Put your right foot down and the turbo makes itself known...there's no lag, just an instant burst of power...a pleasant surprise to those of us whose experience with 2-liter four-bangers began with the ones under the hood of a Ford Pinto.

In fact, this four-cylinder engine is quicker than the V6 it replaces. 0-60 happens in 6.3 seconds, which is mighty quick for a family sedan. But take full advantage of that and you'll be shortchanging yourself on the gas mileage that engine swap was meant to facilitate. I didn't drive the tester I had for a week particularly hard, and I couldn't match the EPA estimated combined mileage figure of 24MPG. 22 was it for me, and that just barely happened on the final day of a 500-mile week about evenly split between city streets and freeways (the EPA city estimate is 21, the highway 30).

$30,165 was base price for our tester in 2LZ trim. That gets you the turbo, a six-speed automatic transmission with Tapshift, power windows and locks, leather trim, dual-zone climate control, a 7-inch color touchscreen for the audio system that swings out to reveal a hidden storage compartment, Bluetooth, a power sunroof, 18-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps and a bunch more.

The instrument panel of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu
Nicely styled instrument panel, but a bit busy and not always user-friendly.

The GM press fleet folks tossed another $2,895 in optional equipment on ours, a wheels and entertainment package that bumped the wheels up to 19-inches and the 6-speaker audio system up to 9, with a 250-watt Pioneer amp, a rear-vision camera system, keyless start, memory settings and forward collision alert and lane departure warning.

Chevy's MyLink audio system is great for what it promises...a single interface in the dashboard that blends AM, FM, SiriusXM Satellite and the CD player in the car with Pandora and Stitcher apps in your smart phone. But in practice, it needs some work. To cover all those options takes multiple pages on the screen...and that requires looking away from the road. Also, we found that the touch-sensitive screen was not as sensitive as it should be...and when it did respond, there was enough of a lag between asking and getting that it became distracting. It's not quite as maddening as Cadillac's CUE system, but that's mostly because it's not quite as ambitious.

Total price on our tester was $33,820. And it was very nice.

But....the competition in this segment is fierce. When this car left me last week, the new Accord arrived. A full review is coming (I'm still driving it as I write this), but consider this: It's only $400 more as tested than the Malibu, does the 0-60 in 0.2 seconds less, gets 1 MPG more combined fuel economy (and so far, it's nailing that number consistently), and does that with a silky smooth V6 and no turbocharger. And Honda's getting its mojo back...it feels a bit nicer than the Malibu (it has its own audio interface issues, too, though...and I won't be letting it off the hook in its own review).

And beyond the Accord, you've got the new Fusion (c'mon, Ford...we need a week in one), the new Mazda 6 (ditto), the new for 2012 Toyota Camry, and the all-new and amazingly good 2013 Nissan Altima.

The Malibu beats every previous Malibu of the past 15 years (since they brought the nameplate back), but everyone else is bringing their "A" game in family sedans. While I wouldn't knock anyone for buying a 2013 Malibu, it's not a slam-dunk choice.