As you may have begun to notice in even the most middle-class of vehicles, the future is now: Even the high-volume, plain-vanilla, mass-market automobiles that make up the bulk of U.S. auto sales have suddenly become ... well, rather good.
The much-anticipated 2013 Chevy Malibu is an excellent example. The long-time cornerstone of middle-class automotive anonymity (the car you best associate with life insurance agents in Ohio) has, rather cunningly, morphed into a pretty decent ride, with good looks, a variety of high-efficiency engine choices and a generally spiffy take on the four-door, midsized sedan world.
The model that I got to cruise around in for a few days- powered by the optional 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo engine getting up to 30 MPG on the highway - was a nice automobile, resplendent with the Chevrolet peculiarities that Chevy enthusiasts seem to love.
It's not a small car, either, with ample proportions, a long, swoopy cabin and smartly dressed wheels and chrome trim. Though the back-seat passengers I carried briefly remarked that it's not necessarily the largest car on the inside, as me and the front passenger had to considerably skootch up our seats to let the back seat folks have more than minimal legroom.
That engine does change the car's character rather considerably. The standard engine is a 2.5-liter Ecotec four-cylinder rated at 197 horsepower, good for 34 MPG on the highway; there's also a new 2.4-liter version with electronic assist (a mild hybrid configuration, though they're not advertising it as such) that's good for 37 MPG highway.
In the interest of literally keeping up with the Joneses and their V6es, I found the turbo to be just about right. It's not explosively fast like those European automobiles, but the power was consistent and meant that cruising was easy, even up at oxygen-deprived higher altitudes. Gun it a lot and you certainly won't get the full 30 MPG, but ... you will go as fast as you'd like.
That long cabin design certainly has a lot in common with some of the competitors (the new Altima looks practically identical from the front-side aspect view), but Chevrolet has chosen to fully differentiate things by adding distinctive LED tail lamps.
Which look as though they came off a Camaro. Literally. It's quite an unusual choice, more striking when the back-up lights turn on for extra illumination when you get in and out of the car at night.
Beyond that, it's a nice and up-to-date design, with a broad grille and a very broad stance. The upgraded LTZ model also gets some nice-looking 18-inch wheels and fog lamps to brighten things up in front.
Inside, I see that Chevy was really doing its best to get that European-inspired, multi-level, multi-surfaced, wraparound cockpit-style cabin thing in effect. And they've accomplished it, though the brown-on-cream-colored interior my tester sported did make for some unusual notes to the hide-like stippled leatherette and stitching on the dash. The dark-edged striping on the leather seating was also... uh, let us say, unique.
There's real leather at both of your elbows and on the wheel, plus wood grain highlights, chrome inlays and plastic surrounds on the center stack. That's a lot of competing surfaces, almost Kia-style, when you think about it.
Blue nighttime mood lighting effects do add something special, though, and I also appreciated the Volt-ish trip computer screen (featuring fuel range and such).
As is the case with the other two domestics, you can also order it with a touchscreen audio and information system you'd swear contains navigation, but actually does not (you need to call OnStar to download turn-by-turn directions). The very bright, audio-only control panel also, curiously, pops open to provide a hidden cubby space underneath.
Malibu's overall ride is also pleasantly supple, with good steering feel and adequate braking. I did get a lot of road noise in the cabin, though the car was running on absolutely brand new tires.
I did like the option of throwing the six-speed transmission into manual and then flicking through the gears using a toggle on top of the shift knob (no wheel-mounted paddles here); I also appreciate the audacity of the car telling me "Shift Denied" when it feels like it doesn't want to make the gear-shift move I request. Oh well.