First Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

Chevrolet tosses us a mild hybrid version of its new Malibu - but the General doesn't want us to call it by its real name!

Through the years, there have been plenty of highs and lows in the Chevrolet product lineup, but the Malibu nameplate has had some of the biggest extremes. Winners include the Malibu SS 454, while the Malibu Maxx fulfilled a niche nobodycould have possibly wanted.

But as strong as the current Malibu has been for General Motors, maybe it was time for a jolt. Enter the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco with eAssist technology. What's that lengthy name mean? Well, it's "mild hybrid" to you and me, but not the fine folks at GM.

GM calls Malibu their first global sedan (wait, what about the Cruze?), but North America is the only market to get this Eco version, which combines what we used to call "mild hybrid" tech with an all-new overall package.

To compete against such rivals as the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and the Toyota Camry Hybrid, both of which cost about the same but promise better fuel economy, Chevrolet was able to get a few hand-me-downs in the form of the mild hybrid technologies used in the Buick Lacrosse with eAssist.

Not a full hybrid like rivals, eAssist instead uses engineering know-how to take advantage of power stored in an air-cooled lithium-ion battery and liquid-cooled brushless 15-kW motor generator as well as regenerative braking through friction to recoup energy losses to its batteries. The result, claims the General, is fuel savings of nearly 25 percent and mileage in the range of 25/37 mpg with an average of 29 mpg, which, as befits the technology, slots in somewhere between normal gassers and full hybrids. Do the math and you'll see that Malibu is a bit weak compared to, say, the 43/39 mpg Camry Hybrid.

Think of it as the trickle-down of modern technologies, in this case like the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) seen in Formula 1 race cars.

The Malibu Eco's 115-volt power unit is used to recharge the batteries, as well as step down the output to a vehicle-usable 12 volts, and in the process, run the air conditioning, in-car entertainment system and other items while the car is at idle.

Equipped with automatic start/stop, it powers all electricals while the gasoline engine is at rest. During an idle or stop situation, the gasoline engine kicks in as soon as the brake pedal is released.

The added bonus is that through the 15 kW power generator,there is also an acceleration boost of 15 horsepower that adds oomph to the vehicle from its next stoplight startup. The range has increased to 580 miles per full 15.8 gallon fuel tank, itself a fairly small item by class standards.

Epsilon II or III, but who's counting?
Based on the latest Epsilon world-platform, the new Malibu Eco is an evolutionary adjustment of the current model, itself one of the better looking Malibu designs in years. But that's not to say it's not without flaws.

There is clever use of aero shaping to improve the wind cutting abilities of the Eco but there is a lot going on at the model's rear. GM designers say the Malibu channels a four-door Camaro, and from certain angles we can agree. From other angles we even get a whiff of Camry and even Cadillac, by the strong shoulders that set the front and rear fenders off. But it falls flat to say that and have the signature two-tier split grille at the same time. It's not an impossible move: Just look to the four-door Dodge Charger for proof of practical aggression, if you will.

Panels in the grille help to cut wind resistance while other windcheaters, such as underbody baffles and Thinsulate sound absorption materials aid in making this the quietest Chevrolet ever. Think of it as a huge noise-cancelling headphone, only this time it's due to passive and not active technologies. There is no noise-cancelling 60-cycle-per-second hum to cancel out the road noise from the outside, but truth be told, it was extremely quiet, to the point of hushing passing big-rigs on the highway. The exception would have to be on marginal roads with coarse aggregate surfaces which, when contacted with the low resistance tires, did manage to kick up quite a racket. Either way, Chevrolet is boasting best in segment noise suppression to 35.5 dBs.

C'mon in
The new Malibu Eco's interior boasts of bigger space and more comfort. Base offerings include cloth seats, while upscale models feature leather seating surfaces and soft-touch materials on the doors and dashboard. An ultra-thin seven-inch flip-up LED monitor in the center stack acts as a hatch for the mid-level storage bin. The "Ghosts of Chevrolets Past" influence the gauge binnacle with a pair of large, squarish surrounds, like, you guessed it, the Camaro. Further to the right, the center stack retains the use of dial controls rather than the touch panel buttons found in corporate sibling Chevy Volt.

Now included with the Malibu is a new MyLink Color touchscreen radio. Pandora and Stitcher are also a part of the new lineup and work once your Bluetooth-enabled cellular phone is connected, although we see large data usage bills in the future for those with less than accommodating cellular data phone plans.

But does it go?
Operating with the same powertrain system as found in the Buick Lacrosse with eAssist, the direct injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and 15 kW electric drive system produce a combined total of 182 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 172 lb-ft of torque at an estimated 4,900 rpm. There is a more conventional direct injected 2.5-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder coming by late Spring, but for the first run, all Malibus will be built as Eco models.

Power comes on relatively strongly, once you get past a rather tall tip-in. Once underway, the tires can easily cause a bit of chirp under heavy acceleration on damp roads. While definitely not a speed demon, this Eco is capable of 0-60 mph in 8.7 seconds, although it generally feels faster than that number might suggest.

Mated to GM's HydraMatic 6T40 six-speed transmission, it is the right tranny for this application. We just question the inclusion of an awkwardly placed plus/minus toggle button on the top of the shift lever. By itself, it is awkwardly placed too far to the rear to be comfortable. We think a gated manumatic mode, where the lever is shoved to the side and then tapped up or down, would be a far more elegant solution, especially considering how much of an improvement this car is over the outgoing model.

It also boasts of the most advanced braking system on a Chevy, which includes Hillside Assist to hold the brakes for three seconds - usually sufficient to get moving again while on an incline.

Driving the Malibu Eco through Austin, Texas, displayed truly how far GM has come in terms of midsize sedans. Steering is some of the best electric power setups we have experienced with fine center weighting as well as a lack of that too-boosted effect we have seen in other vehicles, including those that once bared the GM logo. Handling proved about par for the segment in our testing thanks to ordinary MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup out back. Specially manufactured low rolling resistance Goodyear all-season tires were along for the ride in a wider (225/55R17) configuration, which in addition to providing less drag, also compensated to provide a quieter ride.

That you can cruise all day at highway speeds without adding any undue stress or burden on the engine is very impressive.

Leftlane's bottom line
According to Chevrolet Malibu vehicle line director Jeanne Merchant, The Malibu Eco's goal was to provide the best acceleration, fuel economy, refinement, braking, handling, safety and value in the segment.

That they achieved them at an out-the-door price of just under $30,000 with leather and navigation is remarkable but not totally overwhelming. We just wish GM wasn't quite so afraid of the hybrid moniker.

2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco sedan base price, $26,845.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.