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2013 Malibu: GM turns an also-ran into a winner

The Malibu's styling, if not its zero-to-60 acceleration, outshines the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Illustrates WHEELS-MALIBU (category F), by Warren Brown Special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Dec. 28, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: General Motors)

The Malibu's styling, if not its zero-to-60 acceleration, outshines the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Illustrates WHEELS-MALIBU (category F), by Warren Brown Special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Dec. 28, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: General Motors)

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu is faith rewarded. It is the belief that excellence in automotive engineering and design can be found in any car company, including General Motors.

It is a simple faith, the genesis of this holiday season: Most of us, given a chance, can step up after we’ve messed up.

General Motors, maker of all things Chevrolet, has stepped up. The proof is in the product - amply represented by the 2013 Chevrolet LTZ front-wheel-drive sedan driven for this column.

This is the eighth generation of the Malibu, a car whose name is derived from the swanky California beach-front town. But since its inception as a model line in 1978, the Malibu has been anything but swanky or otherwise emotionally appealing.

It’s been an also-ran, a “renter car,” a “this’ll do.” It’s been clobbered in the marketplace by other mid-size sedan favorites: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord and, lately, the Ford Fusion.

The Malibu mostly has been reliable. But reliability alone is not an adequate customer draw. A motorized celebration of the ordinary, the Malibu did not have the swagger to compete.

Consider that history . . . history.

In exterior sculpture and interior appeal, the 2013 Malibu looks better than the Toyota Camry and the new Honda Accord. It has a more aggressive stance. That’s not “aggressive” as in “bully.” The new Malibu simply seems more likable, more confident, and very proud of what it is - an affordable, attractive family sedan. It is more concerned about safety, overall quality, comfort and fuel economy than it is about moving from zero to 60 miles per hour in record times.

That means that not everyone will like it. Equipped with its standard 2.5-liter, inline four-cylinder gasoline engine (197 horsepower, 191 foot-pounds of torque), the new Malibu can feel like a slug if you are trying to blitz from a stoplight in nanoseconds. (My average zero-to-60 time was nine seconds. Maybe that’s just me.)

None of that really matters in real-world driving, anyway. Traffic in the Washington area, where I spent most of my time with the Malibu LTZ, seemed forever congested. By the time I consistently moved at 60 miles per hour in any direction, the car was humming along.

That is, I was humming. The Malibu LTZ is super-quiet, I wonder if GM/Chevrolet got carried away with sound-deadening engineering. I could barely hear any outside noises - and absolutely no vehicular squeaks or rattles - sitting in the Malibu LTZ’s tufted cabin.

The Malibu truly honors its geographical namesake. It’s pretty. It’s swank: two-tone leather seat coverings with piping and contrast stitching; subtle blue mood lighting encircling the car’s interior at night; one of the mid-size car segment’s most appealing instrument panels, this one highlighted by a seven-inch touch screen using Chevrolet’s trademarked MyLink communications technology.

Through voice commands or touch-screen controls, you can use MyLink to tune into Stitcher Smart Radio or Pandora, listen to commercial-free radio on Sirius XM (the Malibu comes with a three-month trial subscription) or install your own music via a flash drive or MP3 player in an available USB port.

This, finally, is a no-excuses Chevrolet Malibu, easily competitive with anything in its size segment or price category.

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