The most disliked car of the year (so far)
"Damning with faint praise" may be an overused expression, but it perfectly describes the critical reception that has been accorded the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco.
There's a legacy attached to the Malibu Eco as well that wins it kudos. Developing a standout midsize was a signal goal for the fondly remembered Bob Lutz, who ran product development for GM. The world is watching because this eighth-generation Malibu that is the first to be sold globally.
With all that at stake, the analysts and journalists who evaluate and review new cars have tried to tread lightly after encountering the Eco. Motor Trend and Road & Track have praised it for its design, quality, and quiet. Hometown Detroit Free Press raved, "Malibu Eco is a terrific car at a good price ... Its value, fuel economy, comfort and performance add up to one of the best midsize sedans you can buy." GM says 80% of the coverage has been positive.
But underneath the comforting purr of diplomatic remarks, several prominent reviewers have raised fundamental questions about the Eco's concept, function, and value. They have concluded that the car compares poorly to other midsize cars in its segment -- not to mention another, less expensive Chevrolet -- and that, once again, GM has taken a wrong turn in its electric propulsion strategy.
The negative vibe has been building for months.
Back in December, 2011, the popular web site The Truth About Cars took a look at the 2013 Malibu and founding it wanting. Compared with the previous model, the wheelbase had shrunk by 4.5 inches, cramping rear seat passengers; the trunk was made smaller; and the handling was sluggish. Worse, TTAC found that GM's mild hybrid drive system, called "eAssist," added cost, weight, and complexity to the car while delivering few benefits. Cheaper conventional sedans got similar gas mileage, and full hybrids like the Ford (F, Fortune 500) Fusion and Toyota (TM) Camry that cost about the same were much more gas-thrifty. Reviewer Michael Karesh's conclusion: "The Eco isn't terribly fuel efficient, and also certainly isn't a driver's car."
The review was an early sign that a consensus was building: In trying to split the difference between simplicity and efficiency, GM had achieved neither. In its March issue, Car and Driver compared the Eco with five other mainstream sedans and rated it last because of its "claustrophobic cockpit," "barely habitable" rear seat, mushy brake feel, lack of steering feedback, inflexible suspension, and mediocre fuel economy. GM, it seemed, had built a hybrid car with inferior fuel economy that punished drivers just the same. "The car is never much fun," wrote longtime reviewer John Philips. "It made us feel as though we were attending AA meetings to cure an addiction to Betty Crocker rum cakes."
In May, AOL's Autoblog reluctantly panned the car, because after looking at its price, mileage, and the competition, it just couldn't make the numbers work. "Remember, we like the Malibu," reviewer Jeff Sabatini wrote. "We're trying to talk ourselves into recommending one. And we just might -- but it won't be the Eco. Because even though we enjoyed the Malibu Eco, we still can't see how the car makes sense, vis-à-vis the competition -- or even compared to other Chevys."