The D segment—mid-size, to those of you who aren’t automotive product planners—is the car world’s golden heifer. In annual sales terms, this is among the largest classes of vehicles in the United States. “A” grades in the D class are essential for any brand aspiring to sales dominance. Feeling Hyundai and Ford heat and anxious to thwack perennial mid-size kings Honda (with its Accord) and Toyota (Camry), Chevrolet has a new Malibu poised on the launch ramp for an early 2012 roll-out. Proving that it’s serious about this assault, Chevy has cleared the Malibu’s passport for international travel. The goal is to sell the classically American sedan with the beachy name in 100 countries spanning six continents. Fittingly, then, the Malibu’s introductory hoopla consists of an HD web broadcast concurrent with an unveiling at the Shanghai auto show. 

GM’s newest mid-size family sedan also will be Chevy’s star attraction at the New York auto show. Underpinning the new Malibu is an evolved version of GM’s long-running Epsilon architecture, which is found under the Buick Regal, Opel Insignia, and Saab 9-3. The update brings a stiffer body structure, better suspension systems, and more-inviting interior dimensions. While overall length is down half an inch and the wheelbase has been trimmed by 4.5, a 2.7-inch gain in overall width plus 2.5-inch (front) and 2.0-inch (rear) wider track dimensions bring worthwhile gains in hip and shoulder room. The net result is 2.3 additional cubic feet of passenger space, moving Malibu from the bottom to the middle of the mid-size segment. (Passenger volume rises from 97.7 to 100.0 cubic feet, while trunk room rises from 15.1 to 16.3 cubic feet; compared to a maximum of 106.0 cubic feet for passengers and 14.7 cubic feet for cargo in the Accord.) To minimize the inevitable weight gain associated with a wider, better-equipped Malibu, GM engineers specified high-strength or ultra-high-strength steel for two-thirds of the unibody.

A rubber-isolated front cradle supports the powertrain, electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and the lower portion of the strut-type front suspension. In back is a multilink suspension. Vented front and solid rear disc brakes are standard.
The state of powertrain affairs is best described as give and take. Anticipating intense interest in maximum gas mileage, Chevy will offer no V-6. There is an all-new, dual-overhead-cam 2.5-liter Ecotec four-cylinder boasting aluminum-block-and-head construction, direct fuel injection, balance shafts, and variable intake- and exhaust-valve timing. While calibrations aren’t final, Malibu chief engineer Mark Moussa says to expect about 190 hp, 180 lb-ft of torque, sub-eight-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration, and an EPA highway mileage rating comfortably over 30 mpg. A 2013 Malibu Eco using GM’s eAssist hybrid system was just announced (with EPA estimates of 26/38 mpg), and Moussa told us that at least one other four-cylinder engine is coming. Our guess is that the Malibu’s upgrade engine will be the Buick Regal’s turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec, which produces 220 hp. A six-speed automatic transaxle with engineering changes aimed at quicker shifts, improved efficiency, and superior smoothness is standard.

The new Malibu’s evolutionary exterior is conservatively elegant. A more prominent grille, a subtly creased hood, and the decklid’s neatly integrated spoiler are the main visual attractions. Projector headlights and Camaro-like dual-element LED taillights merge the Malibu into the fashion mainstream. Extensive wind-tunnel work has yielded a drag coefficient near the Volt’s 0.28 figure, according to Chevrolet. Various five-spoke wheels ranging from 17 to 19 inches in diameter will be offered.
Chevy designers emptied their piggy banks for the interior. As before, three trim levels will be offered. Cool-blue direct lighting, contrast-color stitching, and accent upholstery welting set a pleasant mood. Eight airbags are standard and second-row side-impact airbags are optional. The radio’s color touch screen hinges up to reveal a six-inch-deep illuminated storage cubby, and an all-new MyLink infotainment system includes both Pandora and Stitcher SmartRadio. The optional-goodies list includes navigation, lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems, and a rearview camera.

Anxious to flush out the old with new and improved products, GM CEO Dan Akerson cracked his whip to advance the Malibu’s introduction by four months. We never had much of a problem with the old model (we put it on our 10Best list for 2008), but we’re pleased to see GM striving hard to make the grade in this important class.

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