One more nail in the coffin of the V6 engine

In San Francisco, Calif.

The midsize sedan market is splitting into two factions. On one side of the divide are those that persist with a large six-cylinder engine as the step-up choice for buyers wanting more muscle than base four-cylinder engines supply. Among the traditionalists you can include Chrysler/Dodge, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, Subaru, Honda, Mazda and Volkswagen.

Then there are the new-age thinkers. Among mainstream brands alone, Ford, Hyundai and Kia have pursued the down-size-and-turbo-ize route to efficient performance. Now add Chevrolet and its 2013 Malibu, which retires the previous 3.6-litre V6 in favour of a turbocharged 2.0-litre "four."

What's new?
Of course the entire Malibu line-up is all new for 2013, but we won't repeat the full overview story already posted.. Our focus here is the new 2.0T engine option, which was missing in action when MSN first experienced the 2013 line-up.

GM has offered 2.0-litre turbo fours before, but this one springs from an all-new Ecotec engine family designed to increase efficiency and refinement (a 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated version is the base engine in Malibu). The 2.0T exploits direct injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger to punch out 259 horsepower and a 260-lb-ft. torque plateau that extends all the way from 1,700 to 5,500 rpm. Those outputs are respectively seven hp and nine lb.-ft. higher than the old 3.6 V6's.

Premium gasoline is recommended but not mandatory, while official fuel-consumption ratings say 10.1 L/100 km city and 6.6 highway (way better than the old V6, but, surprisingly, thirstier than some V6 rivals). The 2.0T is an option on the 2LT trim (a bargain, we'd say, at just $1,620) and standard on the LTZ.

What's it like to drive?
Our first-taste drive was brief and "out of context" — there were no competitors available for comparison. But I didn't need an extended comparison test to be immediately and deeply smitten by the Malibu's new engine. In a nutshell, this small over-achieving four-banger delivers "big stick" performance with a softer voice than most V6s: from idle to red line, it's impeccably smooth and subdued.

It's possible that a stopwatch comparison might reveal some rival V6s come on harder in the first second or two from launch, but subjectively the Malibu's power delivery is linear, effortless and highly effective. The deep well of torque minimises the need for downshifts, and at 120 km/h on the highway the car cuts calmly through the air with fewer than 2,000 rpm on the tacho dial.

It says a lot for the basic chassis that the only upgrade GM mentions for the turbo was internal rebound springs in the front shocks. The steering feels just right, and the ride is European taut (sure, you feel more of the small stuff, but the payoff is tight control over rougher surfaces). Raise the pace along roads that swoop and swerve, and the chassis is fully up for it (and the 2LT I drove didn't even have the LTZ's more-aggressive 19-inch wheels). The only nit-pick: the steering response seems to go a little soft when you're really piling on the Gs. Trust me, most drivers will never experience this.

Should you buy one?
I can only think of two reasons why you wouldn't at least seriously consider this Malibu. First, if your reason for buying a midsize sedan is to get a roomy rear cabin, the Malibu doesn't have one: pretty much all of its peers have meaningfully more rear-seat legroom. On the other hand, maybe the Malibu just isn't on your radar because you always buy import. In which case, I respectfully suggest it's time to open your mind.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu 2.0T
Base price / As-tested: $29,535 / $32,265
Type of vehicle: FWD, midsize sedan
Engine: 2.0 L, 16-valve, DOHC, DI I-4 turbocharged
Power/Torque: 259 hp / 260 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption (city/hwy/as-tested): 10.1 / 6.6 / NA L/100 km
Competition: Chrysler 200 V6, Dodge Avenger V6, Ford Fusion 2.0T, Honda Accord V6, Hyundai Sonata 2.0T, Kia Optima 2.0T, Mazda6 V6, Nissan Altima 3.5, Subaru Legacy 3.6R, Toyota Camry V6, Volkswagen Passat 3.6

QUICK SPIN SUMMARY

PROS
Turbo engine speaks softly and carries a big stick
Impressive all-round refinement
Well-sorted suspension and steering

CONS
What did they do with the rear-seat legroom?
Official fuel-economy figures don't support the benefits of a downsized engine
Centre-stack control layout not the most user-friendly