Let's face it. Some people are just not ready for total plug-in electrification. Some aren't even ready for a full hybrid experience. For those second- and third-wave adopters, General Motors thinks it has your chariot in the form of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco.
Offering a seemingly seamless driving experience still begs the question: Does this newly redesigned Malibu have what it takes to make the scene at the big hoo-hah that is the midsize sedan segment, or is it severely underdressed?
What is it?
It seems that we are undergoing the automotive equivalent of the spaghetti test where you toss a piece of pasta at the wall, and if it is properly prepared, it will stick.
That's what auto manufacturers are doing right now as they search for something, anything, which will help them meet federal fuel economy standards. That they get the good ju-ju that comes with going green is a bonus. At this point, it could still be anybody's game to win.
Billed as the most fuel-efficient Malibu ever, with a 580-mile-per-tankful range and an EPA-estimated 25/37 mpg rating, the new Eco gets its motivation from the hand-me-downs presented by the Buick Lacrosse with eAssist. A mild hybrid with GM's new eAssist package, it makes do through electrical regeneration from a liquid-cooled, brushless 15-kW motor generator and air-cooled lithium-ion batteries. GM says that it's worth a 25 percent fuel savings. Its secondary purpose is to power all electrical systems in the car when the engine cuts off through an auto stop/start mode.
Mated to a 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder that produces 182-horsepower at 6,200 rpm, and 172 lb-ft of torque at 4,900 rpm, The General lists the electric motor's output at an additional 15 horses and 79-lb-ft of torque.
All these giblets are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. MacPherson struts with specially tuned coil springs, hydraulic ride bushings, and a hollow stabilizer bar underpin the front suspension and the ZF electric rack and pinion power steering package. The rear is a multi-link independent setup, again with a hollow stabilizer bar.
Located in the lower bout of the grille, an active shutter system closes when extra cooling is not needed to make the car more aerodynamic at speed. For instance, they are open when towing or in hotter temperatures, but then close when less engine cooling is needed during highway driving.
A cheaper base model Malibu free of all these mpg-chasing bolt-ons is due out later this year, as is a boosted range-topper. Although this is a world car, North America will be the only market to get the Malibu Eco with its mild hybrid technology.
Then there are regular gas-powered models like the Ford Fusion and the Nissan Altima, the latter of which is rated at 38 mpg without any electrification.
It's like having twelve or more different routes, that all lead to the same destination.
How does it look?
The latest Malibu's design has evolved from the outgoing model's profile, which we thought looked pretty okay.
If you are a fan of the pre-existing Bowtie-on-a-crossbar grille that resides on the front of virtually every other modern-day Chevrolet vehicle in existence, save for the Camaro and Corvette, the Malibu Eco will not disappoint. New expressive headlamps impart a sense of the Jetsons to the front end, while the power dome hood lends a sense of aggressiveness to the whole treatment.
With the Eco version, there will be only one trim level with an available leather package. If you are a fan of the LT or LTZ trim levels, you'll have to wait until the 2.5-liter naturally aspirated or 2.0-liter turbocharged engines are introduced in the fall.
In profile, the 'bu retains some of the feel of the 2012 model. Moving rearward though, the prominence of the "shoulders" on the rear fenders becomes very evident. So much so, that it casts a visual reference to a four-door Camaro, should there ever be one.
Our tester looked as though it was turned out for a black-tie event in a very tuxedo-like Black Granite Metallic scheme.
And on the inside?
Finished in a style that would make the Marquis de Sade proud, if he were to drive a Chevrolet, black leather was everywhere in our Malibu Eco.
The nicely bolstered bucket seats with full adjustments in front kept us in place during spirited highway driving. Faux wood trim accented various portions of the dashboard, the doors and the three-spoke steering wheel, which was festooned with redundant controls. The rear seat area is expansive, offering seating and legroom for three adults.
The center stack featured light-blue ambient lighting with illumination surrounding many of the controls. A seven-inch display resides in the flip-up panel that hides an in-dash storage cubbyhole directly behind it. Finely detailed stitching accents the leather seats, soft-touch materials and shift lever boot, with its awkwardly placed gear selector toggle switch on the top of the lever.
Just because the Malibu was stiffed on the cartographical side of the equation (our model was lacking the navigation system), doesn't mean that good audio was shortchanged as well. Pioneerâ€™s premium nine-speaker audio system was on board, and was equipped with Chevrolet's MyLink and SiriusXM. We may have been lost, but were having a good time.
But does it go?
Fans of Formula One will remember the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that allowed a sudden boost in horsepower when needed for passing or other maneuvers. Now used by many, but not all of the F1 teams, it is included on the Malibu as a means of increasing efficiency.
Used in conjunction with the 2.4-liter Ecotec engine, the Eco system helps to recover energy that charges a 115-volt lithium-Ion battery through regenerative braking. It can provide up to 15 horsepower under heavy acceleration and manages smooth starts from a stopped position that sometimes is preceded by a rough re-firing of the engine. The added benefit of the motor generator is realized after the gasoline engine stops. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it was totally geek how the electrical system picked up the slack and continued to run the air conditioning unit and most other electrical functions while the gas engine was at rest. Buy a premium-brand car with an auto start/stop system and you might lose some air conditioning functionality, but GM has figured it out.
During the vehicle's launch, we commented on the rather high tip-in to get things underway in the Malibu Eco. Not much has changed in the ensuing months, but we've actually grown used to this aspect of it, to the point where it has become a non-factor.
Secondly, we noticed the lack of noise intruding into the cabin. This is one quiet sedan, offering the silence of a car that should cost thousands more. Credit the Thinsulate insulation and sound baffles that are incorporated underneath. Drive characteristics are typical for a midsize family sedan, which is a polite way of saying that, while it's no sports car, it still manages to handle pretty well. Firmer than a typical sedan, it still had a bit of side wallow that is prevalent in most other cars in the segment. The ZF-built electric-assisted power steering system gave us the right amount of weight in wheel turn, but was pretty isolated when it came to road feel.
Acceleration was good for the 2.4-liter four-banger, and just to be certain that it was no fluke, we were still able to chirp the tires under heavy acceleration from a standing start. We think it was probably due to the hard compound used in the low rolling resistance Goodyear tires, but it was a satisfying chirp, nonetheless. By the way, that standing start resulted in a 0-60 mph time of just over 8 seconds.
We couldn't touch the EPA's 37 mpg figure, but we did see higher than 35 mpg on the highway.
Why you would buy it:
Leaps and bounds above the old Malibu, this newest sedan is a class act.
Why you wouldn't:
Nissan's 38 mpg Altima does without all the add-on tech.
Leftlane's bottom line
Leaving no stone unturned, Chevrolet joins others in the GM product portfolio in search of every last mile of fuel economy. This mild hybrid may not be the end-all solution since at least one rival is besting it without electrification.
But on the other hand, with such seamless and near invisible execution, it is clearly a viable alternative to a standard form of the internal combustion engine.
2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco base price, $26,845. As tested, $29,100.
Leather package, $1,300; Metallic paint, $195; Destination, $760.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.