First Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

Spicing up the mild hybrid
Chevrolet originally intended to launch the Malibu with an all-new, direct-injected four-cylinder. We heard some particulars about that engine -- a 2.5-liter that should produce around 190 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque -- but it won't appear until mid-2012. GM CEO Dan Akerson had no intention of waiting that long for the whole car to launch and, according to a recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek, pushed the development team to find a way to get the car to market sooner. The solution is the Malibu Eco, which employs the four-cylinder hybrid powertrain from the closely related Regal and LaCrosse.

The system, dubbed "eAssist," is an evolution of the belt/alternator hybrid system that Chevy unsuccessfully peddled as the 2008-2010 Malibu Hybrid but incorporates some important upgrades. A new lithium-ion battery located behind the back seats teams with a more powerful motor/generator (assistance of up to 15 hp versus 5 hp in the old car), a six-speed (versus four-speed) automatic, and, most important, a direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Fortified with low-rolling-resistance tires and several aerodynamic aids, including underbody panels and motorized shutters in the front air dam, the Malibu should achieve a 38-mpg EPA rating on the highway -- 4 mpg better than the last-generation hybrid.

As the only Malibu on the market for about six months (the outgoing model will live on as a fleet special), the Eco cannot afford to turn away mainstream mid-size buyers. We don't think it will. The powertrain is far smoother and more refined than most hybrids, with no noticeable surging or shuddering as the gas engine powers on and off and with none of the telltale sponginess from the regenerative brakes. The 182-hp four-cylinder, aided by the electric motor during heavy acceleration, never sounds or feels strained as we repeatedly flog it around the Proving Ground's ride and handling course. Only back-seat passengers will realize just how hard the powertrain is working, as they'll be able to hear cooling fans under the package shelf suck in air during hard acceleration. All this battery and cooling hardware also sucks up two cubic feet of trunk space, leaving 14.3 cubic feet.

If the system suffers fewer drawbacks than typical hybrids, though, it still offers far less impressive quantitative gains. Although it more or less matches the highway ratings of most competitors, its expected 26-mpg city rating falls short -- 10- to 15-mpg short -- of mid-size hybrids like the Ford Fusion and the new Camry. The Malibu Eco will certainly undercut those competitors in price. You also won't see the word "hybrid" anywhere on the car. Nevertheless, a downsized, front-wheel-drive-compatible version of GM's two-mode hybrid system, something the company has been discussing for years, cannot come soon enough. Chevy should also consider importing the diesel engines that will power the car in Europe and China.

Drives like a Buick -- and that's a good thing
The outgoing Malibu already drove well for its segment. This upgrade to the same underpinnings as the Regal -- and by extension the Opel Insignia -- definitely has its advantages, though. The biggest difference we noticed from our memories of the old model is how solid it now feels. Over rough stretches of pavement -- GM's ride and handling course purposely has lots of them -- the Malibu is compliant yet confidently planted. This early-build model, with its unfinished interior bits, refuses to squeak or rattle and doesn't seem upset when we crash over a pothole going much faster than the recommended speed (this writer isn't getting a job at the Proving Ground any time soon). Only when we absolutely hurl the car over a midcorner bump does its rear end step out enough to earn us a slap on the wrist from stability control. Like any front-wheel-drive sedan, it's more liable to understeer at the limit, but most of the time, it goes exactly where we point it. The electric power steering, new for the Malibu, is quick, accurate, and communicative. We'd ask for less power assist, but then, we almost always do. A few panic stops reveal reliable, fade-free braking. Overall, the Malibu isn't the sportiest mid-size sedan -- a four-cylinder Ford Fusion is more fun to drive fast (it helps that Ford offers a manual transmission; Chevy will not). But like the Regal, it clearly has deeper reserves of poise and capability than a typical mid-size sedan. It's also, thankfully, more involving than the smaller Cruze.

As noted, a broader lineup powered by a more powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder arrives next summer. It will offer a wider choice of trim levels (the Eco can be equipped with leather and navigation) and wheel sizes as large as nineteen inches (the Eco has seventeens). Six-cylinder power seems unlikely -- Chevrolet says some 90 percent of current Malibu buyers opt for a four-cylinder. Even so, adding power should be as easy as installing the 260-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder from the Regal GS.

Conclusion - Surviving with the fittest
It took longer than we'd have liked -- Akerson's last-minute push couldn't recover all the development time lost during bankruptcy -- but the new Malibu proves that Chevrolet can at the very least hang tough in the mid-size segment's war of attrition. And although the decision to start production with the Eco model opens it up to (justified) criticism for not meeting hybrid competitors head-on, it also demonstrates a willingness to think outside the box and, if our educated guess on pricing is correct, provides real value. Most important, it looks great inside and out and drives well. We look forward to spending more time behind the wheel and getting the '13 Malibu together with some of its competitors. Stay tuned.

THE SPECS
On sale:
Early 2012
Base price: $26,500 (est.)
Engine: 2.4-liter I-4/electric hybrid, 182 hp, 172 lb-ft (gasoline engine only)
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA fuel economy: 26/38 mpg city/highway (est.)

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