Bottom line for my often vociferous critics: Please do us a favor and actually drive a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco. Then drive the Toyota Camry Hybrid. Come back and tell us in a “Real Wheels” chat at washingtonpost.com what you think. But say nothing unless you’ve experienced both cars. Add a Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, Chrysler 200 and Volkswagen Jetta into the mix. The Toyota Camry is no longer an easy choice — or necessarily the best choice — in the midsize-sedan segment.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride (high comfort), good acceleration (moves in and out of highway traffic with competence) and an excellent-plus rating in handling (easily matches or beats anything in the class).
Head-turning quotient: Looks better, outside and inside, than all of its rivals.
Engine/transmission: Standard equipment includes a 2.4-liter, 16-valve in-line four-cylinder engine with ion-electric-battery assistance and automatic stop-go function (182 horsepower, 172-foot-pounds of torque). For those who demand more power with their fuel savings, Chevrolet will offer a more powerful, turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the spring.
Capacities: There’s little change in the new Malibu, or the new Camry. Both are a bit wider than their predecessors, allowing more shoulder room for five occupants. The Malibu Eco offers 14.3 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with the new Camry Hybrid’s 13.1.
Mileage: If most of your driving is in urban traffic, you might be better off economically to get the Camry Hybrid, which uses less fuel than the Malibu Eco in stop-and-go city traffic. But if you’re spending most of your time on the highway, you should check out the Malibu, which offers comparably good highway mileage (38 mpg to the Camry’s 39) at a lower price.
Safety: The Malibu Eco has eight air bags and will offer 10 by the spring. (The Camry now offers 10 air bags, including knee bolsters.) Both cars have ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes with anti-lock protection and electronic brake-force distribution. Both have electronic stability and traction control. Hmm . . .
Reassessment: Maybe the Camry will hold on to its sales crown in the United States. Perhaps the only thing Chevrolet has done with the Malibu Eco is catch up — arguably passing the Camry in areas such as fit and finish.
Prices: The 2013 Malibu Eco will start in the United States in early 2012 at a base price of $25,235. The Camry Hybrid will start at $25,900. Note: Look for a price war, initiated largely by Chevrolet. The GM division not long ago had a problem just getting people to sit in a Chevrolet Malibu. But Chevrolet’s quality reputation has improved.