Test Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is a very good car, but even better things will come to those who wait.

The new ‘Bu is a handsome mid-size sedan that combines the strong face of Chevy’s crossovers with Camaro-inspired taillights and sculpted fenders that give it a much more interesting look than the car it replaces, which comes across as featureless as a week-old bar of soap in comparison.

Inside you’ll find the best interior in Chevy’s current crop. Its dual-cockpit design finished with high-quality materials, an elegant horse collar-shaped center control stack, more than a smattering of shiny trim and a Karaoke bar’s worth of blue accent lighting. The also-Camaro-inspired square gauges looking more impressive than the ones in the actual Camaro.

Chevy’s new cloud-connected MyLink infotainment system is standard and offers Pandora and Stitcher Radio apps that work through tethered Apple and Android smartphones, satellite radio, and can be upgraded to include navigation. Neat trick: the screen flips up to reveal a hidden storage bin behind it. Where’s the actual stereo? If I told you, someone might try to steal it – although it wouldn’t do them much good.

The cabin is tighter in the legroom department than the car it replaces, owing to five inches of shrinkage in the wheelbase, but it is wider and taller. The resizing of the Malibu in part to accommodate the more than 100 other countries it will be sold in, but also opening up a bit more daylight between it and the full-size Impala in Chevy’s showrooms. A relatively large trunk is some consolation, but what’s that big box there in the back?

That would be the car’s lithium-ion battery pack. Chevy doesn’t go out of its way to promote the Malibu as a “hybrid,” but that’s what the Eco model is. It uses GM’s eAssist powertrain, which is also found in the Buick LaCrosse and Regal. Comprised of a smallish battery and a low power electric motor that offer assistance to a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, but not pure electric drive, it aims to improve fuel efficiency at a lower cost than more robust hybrid systems. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The Malibu Eco has a base price of $25,995 and a fuel economy rating of 25 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. Good by conventional car standards, but the $26,660 Toyota Camry Hybrid gets 43 mpg city and 39 mpg highway, so game over there. Further complicating Chevy’s marketing position is the $21,570 Hyundai Sonata that delivers 24 mpg city, and 35 mpg highway without any sort of hybridization whatsoever.

So, what happened?

As the story goes, the Malibu was originally scheduled to launch later this year with an all-new, very fuel efficient 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that would likely deliver the same, if not better numbers than this eAssist model does now for a few thousand dollars less. But faced with a large gap in its product calendar, and not wanting to lose any of the big ‘mo it has been enjoying of late, Chevy decided to stuff the most efficient powertrain it had handy under the hood and put the car on sale before getting swamped by the introductions of the new Ford Fusion and Honda Accord that are also set for the second half of 2012.

The new engine is still on the way, as is a more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged version that will take the place of a V6 in the Malibu lineup, but for now the Eco is carrying the flag all on its own.

Nevertheless, not everyone will be cross-shopping the Malibu hard against its competitors, and in a bubble it does impress. The power provided by the eAssist system is strong and seamless, while the ride quality hits a happy medium between comfort and handling that fits the character of the car perfectly. At speed it’s quiet as a Buick – no irony intended there -- and the stop/start function for the engine works without a shudder.

Chevy Cruze owners antsy to move up a notch likely will. That is unless they choose one of the last generation Malibus that will remain on sale until the rest of the new models arrive. It was the 2008 North American Car of The Year, after all.

(They can do better, they just might have to wait a little longer.)


2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

Base Price:

As Tested

Type: 4-door, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger sedan

Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with electric assist

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 25 city/37 hwy