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January 9, 2013 1:00 AM

Auto review: Chevy Malibu an all-around decent car

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The Chevy Malibu offers a quiet, smooth ride. (General Motors)

My, my, late for the morning commute. Just a quick slurp of coffee; don't spill it on the tie again, and darn it, where did I leave those car keys?

Oh, that's right: I don't actually have an office to go to.

But with a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu waiting at the curb — Detroit's gray-flannel, workaday answer to the Toyota Camry — you'll forgive me for overlooking that fact.

The redesigned Malibu faces a daunting traffic jam, with multiple midsize rivals already on the streets, shined up and ready for water-cooler warfare.

Three new hotshots are already jostling for promotions: the formidably redesigned 2013 Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. They join fresh upstarts like the Hyundai Sonata, the Kia Optima and an American-made Volkswagen Passat. The Camry sits quietly in its beige cubicle, never rocking the boat, yet outselling the rest year after year. And a new headhunting Mazda 6 is now patrolling the margins for sporty rebels and outliers who wouldn't be seen in a Camry.

Into that scrum comes this eager new Malibu, waving its resume and offering its usual pleasantries, but not making the strongest impression.

Sure, the Malibu is soft-spoken and well-mannered, and it performed any task I asked of it with little complaint. Chevrolet says the Malibu is the quietest car it's ever made, and the cabin does soothe the ears in the manner of an entry-priced luxury car.

And yet, especially for a class underdog, I expected this revamped Chevy to bring something more to the office party, some claim to specialness — in styling, fuel economy, technology, anything. Instead, the Malibu does only what's expected, and it loses points on rear-seat comfort. The sedan lands smack in the middle of its class — hello, Camryville — with a muffled thud.

Charmingly or not, depending on your view, the Malibu has tried to improve its formerly staid wardrobe. Taking cues from its macho Camaro sibling, always so smooth with the ladies, the Malibu mimics that sporty car's winking rectangular taillamps and puffed-out haunches. A coffin-lidded trunk and grooved hood seem inspired by BMW.

Yet the scent of a General Motors committee meeting wafts over the exterior styling. It's as though three different design teams put ideas on the table, which the bosses then blended into a compromise that avoided screaming matches but left everyone grumbling. The interior, with its distinctive two-tiered dashboard, is more focused and thereby more successful. From the shotgun seat, New Yorkers who rode in my test car were impressed by the cabin's layout and materials. The available two-tone interior adds visual interest, though getting black and brown to work together is tricky, especially in plastic rather than natural materials. I have no argument, however, with the optional ambient blue lighting that spills from the dash and door panels, a genuinely luxurious touch.

The new car's 4.5-inch-shorter wheelbase does no favors for interior packaging, though the car has grown 2.7 inches wider. Chevy says interior volume is up a fraction in the new model. But the back seat is set relatively low to the floor, causing taller riders' knees to point skyward. I couldn't get my thighs flat against the cushion, a less-than-ideal position for long rides in the back.

Aside from the base LS model, all Malibus feature Chevy's new MyLink radio. These infotainment units feature a seven-inch color touch screen that's easier to use than Ford's stubborn MyFord Touch units, but are also less functional. MyLink uses a Bluetooth smartphone connection to control external portable devices with commands from the screen, the steering wheel or voice recognition. The system includes Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio apps. The radio also pivots outward to reveal a hidden, illuminated storage cubby, perhaps the car's most distinctive feature.

But in one oversight, you can't get an embedded, screen-based navigation system at any price — or even the Bluetooth-based Bringo navigation app that's available in the much less expensive Chevy Spark and Sonic. The fallback is an OnStar subscription — free for six months on the Turbo test car mdash; which uses a live operator to send turn-by-turn directions, including voice prompts, into the car via a small display in front of the driver.

Like every basic family sedan from Detroit, Japan, Germany or Korea — save the oddball 5-cylinder VW Passat — the Malibu starts with a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine. And with 197 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque, Chevy's all-new 2.5-liter Ecotec with direct fuel injection is among the strongest in the field.

So equipped, a basic Malibu LS with a 6-speed automatic transmission begins at $23,150, or $24,675 for LT trim, whose niceties include the MyLink radio, Bluetooth and ambient lighting.

That engine carries a competitive mileage rating of 22 city, 34 highway. For its green calling card, Chevy offers the $26,095 Eco model, a mild hybrid that nudges economy up by 3 mpg, to 25/37.

Savvy shoppers will note that the Altima and the Mazda6 manage 38 mpg on the highway, and they do it with a conventional, less-costly 4-cylinder gasoline engine. In other words, the Malibu Eco may lack the billboard-splashing economy numbers that help to sell hybrids.

Nor can the Malibu's breadth of offerings match that of Ford, whose Fusion offers not just standard and turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, but also a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid version, the Energi, that will come to market soon and is rated at the gasoline-equivalent of 100 mpg in combined city-highway driving.

Like the Fusion and the Sonata, Chevy eschews a range-topping V-6 engine, preferring a turbo 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. This engine, also used in the Cadillac ATS and Buick Regal, punches out 259 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

That Malibu Turbo starts at $30,925. Options brought my test car's sticker to $34,145. That's on par with the Honda Accord V-6 Touring, one of the shining stars in the midsize galaxy.

For such a powerful front-drive turbo, Chevy has managed to keep torque steer — a telltale sideways tugging of the front wheels under acceleration — almost entirely at bay. The car feels quick, but nowhere near the crackling performance of the Accord V-6. Fuel economy also takes a hit, to 24/30 mpg That's 4 fewer highway mpg than the Accord's stronger 278-horsepower V-6.

North of New York City, I followed an Audi A4 along the Saw Mill Parkway, and the Malibu handily kept pace with the German sport sedan. The Chevy tracked faithfully and showed reasonable tire grip. A typical sedan buyer would probably say, "Hey, this car handles really well."

But there was no joy in the car's effort. The steering may be deadly accurate, but there is almost no feedback from the road. The soft springs and dampers that burnish the ride quality leave the Malibu doing the roly-poly over crests and uneven pavement.

Arguing with myself, Socratic style, I propose that many, if not most, family-car buyers don't put a premium on sporty handling. But then I remind myself that other cars in this class, especially the Fusion, Accord and Passat, are virtuous and fun.

To stand out in a midsize class that accounts for more than two million buyers a year, you have to be known for something. The Hyundai Sonata is a striking value. The Ford Fusion is stylish, fun and offers two hybrids. The Passat is distinctively Germanic. The Altima is a fine all-around choice. The Mazda6 adds impressive fuel economy to its sporty bona fides. The Accord is the perennial, sophisticated benchmark. The Camry is the Camry, a safe choice with great resale value.

And the Malibu? It's good, but not great at any single thing. Unless you're a Chevy loyalist, it conjures no fixed image in the consumer's mind. And that leaves one selling point: the price.

A prediction: Of all the newly redesigned sedans, the Malibu will be first to blink and roll out incentives — whether they be rebates or low-interest financing. If and when that happens, this Chevy will be an even better deal.

That is, so long as you don't mind wearing gray flannel.