2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco debuts first, with a mild hybrid and a sporty flair

The midsize sedan segment is the toughest of the automotive classes. Featuring four of the top 10 best-selling vehicles in the U.S., the stakes are high, so automakers try to build cars that will appeal to a mass audience. The problem is that by trying to please everyone, the cars end up being awfully bland. Though it features an attractive design, the outgoing Chevrolet Malibu is one of the blandest of the bunch. But that all changes with the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu.

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Styling and Trims

The Chevrolet Malibu keeps its good looks, even adding some Camaro styling cues to the rear end, but more importantly it is far more fun to drive. We drove the new 2013 Malibu in Austin, Texas, and found that the new focus on sportiness makes Chevy's midsize sedan one of the best of the breed.

The next-generation Chevrolet Malibu debuts as one model called Eco. LS, LT and LTZ models will likely be added this summer. Priced at $25,235, the Eco comes well equipped with features that will later be included in the LT trim, including dual-zone automatic climate control, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, a rearview camera, and remote engine starting. It also comes with eight standard airbags, including front knee bags. Rear side airbags are due as standard equipment when the rest of the lineup rolls out.

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eAssist Mild Hybrid and Gas Engine Choices

The lone engine at launch is a 182-horsepower 2.4-liter four cylinder that is paired with General Motor's eAssist mild hybrid system. In the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu it uses an electric motor-generator that can add up to 15 horsepower and 79 pound-feet of torque, and a 15-kilowatt lithium-ion battery. A six-speed automatic is the lone transmission.

Due this summer are a 2.5-liter four-cylinder base engine and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four that replaces a V6. Power stats aren't available for either engine, but the 2.0-liter will make 270 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque in the 2013 Cadillac ATS.

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Mild Hybrid Mildly Effective

The Chevrolet Malibu Eco's eAssist mild hybrid system is simple. A motor-generator replaces an alternator. A sturdy serpentine belt allows the motor-generator to capture energy through regenerative braking or aid the engine by turning the crank. The system also has a start/stop feature that shuts off the engine at stops.

EPA fuel economy ratings are 25 mpg city/37 highway. Those figures represent a 12 percent improvement over the 2.4 in the last Malibu, but the low rolling resistance tires, improved aerodynamcis (aided by active grille shutters), and a more efficient transmission help, too. The combined rating of 29 mpg is 12 mpg less than the Toyota Camry Hybrid's rating and eight mpg shy of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Plus, the forthcoming Ford Fusion, with its 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, will get basically the same fuel economy ratings without a hybrid system as the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco.

According to Chevrolet engineers, the electric horsepower added between 1500 and 3000 rpm provides the greatest fuel economy benefit. It allows the engine to run efficiently, in a high load/low rpm mode more often (for example, rpms are about 1700 at 70 mph). When cruising in the Malibu Eco, you can feel the engine lugging a bit, like it's struggling to keep the car moving at such low rpms, but a slight throttle adjustment quickly fixes the problem. That's little, if any, price to pay for the fuel economy benefit.

From behind the wheel, the Malibu Eco eAssist powertrain feels like a regular four-cylinder engine. It delivers enough pep most every day needs. The throttle is responsive, there is decent punch from a stop, and passing power is adequate. Chevrolet quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 8.7 seconds, which is competitive with other fours.

In general, we like the eAssist system, but we'd like it to be either more effective or available at a lower price. While fuel economy is up 12 percent, eAssist likely only contributes a 6-8 percent improvement. There is obviously room here for a more advanced hybrid.

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Handling Close to a Sport Sedan

Midsize sedans are often rather dull to drive, the previous Malibu more than most. This new Chevrolet Malibu is far better. For starters, the steering wheel is much smaller, which imparts a sporty feel. The steering itself is fairly quick and direct, and the car provides some road feel, which is rare for the class. Handling is agile, too. The car responds quickly to changes of directions and stays impressively flat through corners. The brakes feel natural, which isn't typical of a hybrid.

At the press drive, Chevrolet provided a Toyota Camry Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata and Sonata Hybrid for comparison. That's not exactly the most accomplished competition in terms of driving dynamics. Among this group, the Malibu was by far the most fun to drive, with the most sophisticated suspension. It was sportier than both and did a better job of absorbing bumps than the Hyundai. The Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Mazda6 would have provided much stiffer competition, though the Chevrolet Malibu is still likely sportier.

It's quieter, too. Chevrolet made considerable effort to reduce, absorb, and block sound in the cabin, and it worked. The Malibu is as quiet as a luxury car. Engine noise is even fairly subdued under acceleration, which is impressive for a four-cylinder.

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Bigger, Smaller and Better Inside

The materials in the Malibu's interior take a step forward for 2013. The dual-cockpit design is still there, but the hard plastics are replaced by more substantial soft-touch materials, highlighted by ambient lighting on the dashboard and accent stitching on the center console and gauge hood.

The control layout is simple and easier to follow than in most GM products of late. Malibu controls are within easy reach, including a seven-inch touchscreen for the standard MyLink system. MyLink pairs with smart phones to provide access to the Internet radio apps Pandora and Stitcher. You need a cell signal to access the apps and continual use could exceed the data limits of your plan, so be careful or you might get a big cell phone bill.

The Chevrolet Malibu touchscreen is well organized and easy to use. It is customizable, too, so common commands can go on the home screen. It also works with voice activation. Like other such systems, it can be frustrating to get it to understand your voice, but it is useful when it works. Eco owners can monitor the hybrid system on this screen and on a smaller screen in the gauge cluster. As an added touch, the touchscreen flips up, revealing a hidden storage bin behind it.

Interior space in the 2013 Malibu is a mixed bag. Front seat occupants sit on contoured, supportive seats and have plenty of head and legroom. By widening the car and shortening the wheelbase, Chevrolet has made the rear seat both bigger and smaller. It has more hip room, making three across seating more comfortable. But a 4.5-inch shorter wheelbase takes away some legroom. Adults will fit back there, but tall passengers front or rear will cause rear legroom to disappear. Headroom also gets tight for anyone over 6-feet tall. Compared to the Camry and Sonata, the Malibu has noticeably less rear legroom.

At 14.3 cubic feet, the trunk is pretty big, and it would be bigger without the Eco's mild hybrid system. The 65-pound lithium-ion battery is mounted behind the rear seat, taking up two cubic feet of cargo space and blocking one side of the access afforded by the 60/40 split-folding rear seat.

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The Verdict

Surprisingly sporty and fuel efficient, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco takes several steps forward for the new model year. It's now one of the better cars in a constantly evolving class. The value, however, is somewhat questionable. The $25,235 base price is only about $600 less than the Camry Hybrid and the Sonata Hybrid, both of which have more advanced hybrid systems that deliver far better fuel economy. To be fair, the Malibu comes with more standard equipment than those cars, especially the Camry, and the Malibu's base price will come down when the 2.5-liter base engine debuts this summer. Given the sporty character Chevrolet has added for 2013, however, we're looking forward to the more powerful 2.0-liter turbo engine. www.chevrolet.com

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