Eco Version Leads the Malibu Charge

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2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco.

Here’s a definite sign of the times (“the times” being gas at above $4 per gallon … again). Chevrolet decided that as they launch their new 2012 Malibu, they’d start with the higher-mileage Eco model.

The mid-size sedan contest is an ultra-competitive one. Sure, Chevy can brag all they want about the power and handling of the Corvette and Camaro. But when it comes down to posteriors in the seats, a sensible sedan like the Malibu is the bread and butter of the company. With a new Toyota Camry already out, and an updated Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord coming later in the year, timing is crucial for Chevrolet to get their new Malibu out there and get it noticed.

You’ll probably notice the car right off the bat if you’re behind it in traffic. Up front, the grill is just updated a bit. But at the aft end, a stylish pair of taillights mimics the ones on the Camaro. Inside, a further tribute to the Camaro appears in the form of the dual nacelle instrument binnacle right before the driver.

OK, so it’s a handsome car, taking cues from its chest-thumping two-door cousin. But in the sedan world, practicality and economy take center stage. Behold, the Malibu Eco. Like the smaller Cruze Eco that came before it, this champion of frugality offers to make the most of each gallon of unleaded gasoline you feed it.

Starting with the engine and power system. Four cylinders do the job here, backed up by a 6-speed automatic transmission. Nothing special there, but on top of the engine is an electric motor that makes it a “sort of” hybrid. A few years ago, GM used an earlier version of this system to create hybrid models, labeled “mild hybrids.” Now, they just call it eAssist.

A true hybrid will propel the vehicle at low to medium speeds via electric power alone, whereas a mild hybrid can’t do that. (It could be argued that Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist falls into that category, but Honda still calls the vehicles with it regular old hybrids.) But there are benefits in fuel savings nonetheless.

When you roll to a stop, the engine can shut off, thanks to the high-voltage battery in the rear keeping accessories humming. And when you mash the gas pedal hard (like when passing) the electric motor helps out with a few extra horsepower. (Fifteen to be exact, adding to the engine’s 182.) And when you gently brake, the car is reversing the electric motor and putting juice back into the eAssist battery.

The big upside is that this system costs a whole lot less than a true scoot-along-without-gasoline hybrid, like Toyota, Ford, and others offer. The downside is that you don’t get those extraordinary miles per gallon numbers that you might get with a mid-size car like the Camry Hybrid or Fusion Hybrid (the latter about to be completely revamped).

To make up for the lack of mpg just from the engine, Chevy gave the Malibu Eco a few tricks to help it live up to its name. Aerodynamically, the shape of the front and even some panels underneath help it slip through the air a little better. Further, electric shutters in the lower grill can close at highway speeds to smooth the airflow a bit more.

The numbers are impressive. EPA ratings are 25 mpg in the city cycle and 37 on the highway. Not quite true mid-size hybrid numbers, but no true hybrid price tag either. Base price for the Malibu Eco is $25,995 including destination. If GM had decided to go with a full hybrid system, they would have either had to charge a couple thousand more, or strip the car down to keep the price reasonable. (The example I tested got the second highest option package, which brought the price to a tick under $30,000.)

The regular Malibu model is coming along soon, with engine choices including a powerful turbocharged 4-cylinder making over 250 horsepower. But for now, the Eco leads the charge in a world of gasoline at over $4 per gallon.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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