Chevrolet's Malibu mid-size sedan is a welcoming family car _ revamped for 2013 with handsome styling, a quieter, refined interior and a pleasant ride.
The Malibu's eAssist electric motor supplements its four-cylinder gasoline engine. Unlike full hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid, the Malibu Eco cannot travel solely on electric power, even for short spurts. Still, the 2013 Malibu Eco earned a fuel economy rating of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 37 mpg on highways from the federal government.
The ratings compare attractively to the 22/33 mpg rating of the predecessor, 2012 Malibu with a four cylinder and no accompanying electric motor.
The 2013 Malibu Eco is already at dealer showrooms and is being sold alongside 2012 non-Eco Malibus.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $25,995 for a base 2013 Malibu Eco with front-wheel drive, 182-horsepower, Ecotec, direct gasoline injection, four-cylinder engine mated to a 15-kilowatt electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack.
Standard features include a six-speed automatic transmission, cloth-covered seats, remote vehicle entry, power windows and door locks, dual-zone climate control, 17-inch wheels, antilock brakes, curtain and knee air bags and electronic stability control. It is the first Malibu to offer an onboard navigation system.
Competitors include the 2012 Hyundai Sonata mid-size sedan which has a 198-horsepower four cylinder, six-speed automatic transmission and a government fuel economy rating of 28/35 mpg. Starting retail price is $21,570. The 2012 Sonata Hybrid, with 166-horsepower four cylinder mated to an electric motor and lithium polymer battery pack, starts at $26,625 and has a fuel economy rating of 35/40 mpg,
Another Malibu competitor is the 2012 Ford Fusion sedan, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $22,495 with 175-horsepower four cylinder, six-speed automatic transmission and a fuel mileage rating of 23/33 mpg. Meanwhile, the 2012 Fusion Hybrid, with 156-horsepower four cylinder mated to an electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery pack, starts at $29,570. The Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41/36 mpg and uses a continuously variable transmission.
The test Malibu Eco impressed with its exterior styling. The Eco model includes some underneath plastic panels and automatic moving "shutters" behind the grille to help smooth airflow and boost fuel economy.
There was some wind noise. But overall, the interior was quieter than in previous Malibus, and road noise was minimized.
The Malibu Eco moved along well but wasn't a sportster. Zero-to-60-miles-an-hour time is a ho-hum 8.7 seconds, and the four-cylinder engine sounded strained under hard acceleration.
The powerplant is the 2.4-liter, double overhead cam, four cylinder that's direct injected for decent acceleration. This engine also is used in the Buick LaCrosse and Regal with eAssist and uses a belt/alternator/starter system to carefully manage power and maximize fuel mileage.
In the Malibu Eco test car, electric power, drawn from the onboard battery pack, was fed smoothly, coming on during uphill climbs, for example.
Then, the battery pack would be "refilled" by electric power drawn from regenerative braking as the car slowed and stopped during travel. There is no need to plug in the Malibu Eco's battery pack, which sits behind the rear seats, in the trunk.
Unless the driver looked at a graphic display on the dashboard showing where the power was coming from at any moment, the mixing in of electric power to the engine power wasn't readily recognizable.
Alas, fuel mileage on the test averaged just 24.7 mpg. It included some aggressive driving, lots of stop-and-go, and 65 percent city traffic.
This allowed for a range of only 390 miles on a single, 15.8-gallon tank. Drivers really need highway travel to boost the mileage.
Electric rack-and-pinion power steering thankfully didn't have the artificial feel of earlier electric systems, and the car's body motions were well controlled in curves and turns.
Rear-seat legroom of 36.9 inches is a tad under the 37.6 inches in the 2012 Malibu but comparable to that in the Fusion.
The low rolling resistance tires, made of a harder rubber compound than regular tires, had some noticeable grip on the test Malibu Eco; low rolling resistance tires on early hybrid cars made travel on wet pavement feel dicey.
In lieu of a weighty spare tire, the Malibu Eco comes standard with a tire sealant and inflator kit that will take most people a while to figure out. The result is a decent-sized trunk of 14.3 cubic feet, down from the 16.3 cubic feet in a non-Eco Malibu.