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Published: 04/18/2012 - by Ed Hellwig, Editor
There's an odd-looking gauge just below the tachometer in the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco. It has no numbers, just the letters "eco" and a green band of bars in the middle.
Dig into the gas pedal with any authority and the needle swings to the right, an obvious attempt to remind you of your gas-guzzling ways. Coast to a stop and the needle stays buried in the forest of green, a visual pat on the back for being efficient. We're not sure what it takes to make the needle swing to the left, but since there's no green there it's probably not good.
Is the gauge helpful? Well, if the idea that pushing on the gas pedal will use more gas is a difficult concept for you to grasp, then yes, it might seem useful. For the rest of us, that little green gauge is merely a reminder. A reminder that this Malibu isn't going to deliver big-time fuel mileage numbers unless its driver helps out.
That's because unlike full hybrid sedans, the Malibu Eco doesn't have a complex combination of electric motors hooked to its gas engine. Instead, this Malibu uses a simpler, less costly belt-alternator-starter motor that's capable of contributing an extra 15 horsepower for short bursts of acceleration. In some ways, it's the anti-hybrid, a simple and affordable sedan that's so normal you would hardly know there's anything "eco" about it.
An All-New Malibu
Put aside the whole green angle for a moment and instead consider the fact that this is a fully redesigned car for 2013. The Chevy Malibu now rides on the same underpinnings as the Buick Regal. That means it's still front-wheel drive, but it's slightly shorter in overall length and rides on a considerably shorter wheelbase.
Those changes aren't very noticeable from behind the wheel, mostly because this Malibu is about 2 inches wider between the wheels than before, a change which makes the whole interior feel more spacious. Even the rear seats, which lost out the most when the wheelbase got cut, are still comparable to any sedan in the class in terms of leg- and headroom.
This is one of those increasingly rare cars you can jump into and drive without feeling the need to figure anything out, a good sign given its healthy features list. The updated interior design is neither tacky nor overly sophisticated. The gauge cluster is straight out of the Camaro while the large, well-spaced out center stack arranges the radio and climate controls in a logical order. There are actual knobs for tuning the radio and adjusting the volume; same goes for the standard dual-zone climate control system.
Most importantly, interior materials are of good quality and the basic build quality is solid.
Nothing Eco About Its Performance
There's less to pick apart once the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is out on the road. The 2.4-liter, 182-hp engine feels smooth and strong for a four-cylinder. Its 8.2-second sprint from zero to 60 (7.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout, as on a drag strip) affirms that fact, as most sedans in this class are half a second slower.
The ride and handling of this Malibu have also been stepped up a notch. Much like Toyota's Camry SE, this Malibu combines tight, precise chassis tuning with a ride quality that's perfectly compliant in day-to-day driving. It doesn't try to be a sport sedan by any means, but it doesn't feel needlessly soft and under-sprung either.
Even the relatively tame Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max tires deliver decent grip and road feel. Our test drivers noted a surprising amount of grip during the Malibu's 0.83g skid pad run and predictable handling through the slalom cones, which yielded a best run of 62.8 mph. Both figures are about average for the class, so this Malibu's drive for fuel efficiency doesn't translate into stiff and lifeless handling.
The electric steering, another fuel-saving measure, works well, too, as it's largely unnoticeable. Even the brakes feel normal, which is rarely the case for full hybrids. They stop the Malibu from 60 mph in 119 feet, which is average for the segment.
As with most hybrids, packaging is a compromise. The battery pack in the Malibu eats up some of its trunk space. Chevrolet likes to point out that it's only about a cubic foot of space, but it's a cubic foot that preludes folding down the rear seats for extra room. That's a deal-breaker for a family sedan.
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu's relatively strong performance at the track translates into a pleasant, comfortable and largely unremarkable sedan in day-to-day driving. And that's a good thing.
Instead of feeling the compromises it makes in the name of mileage, this Malibu largely masks them. Sure, you notice that it shuts the engine off when you come to a stop, but it starts again so seamlessly that it's never very noticeable. The standard six-speed automatic transmission snaps quickly from gear to gear and resists the urge to constantly drop into 6th for better mileage.
Chevrolet also took some additional weight out of this Malibu through the use of an aluminum hood, thinner carpet and a smaller dash pad, among other things. Such "mass reductions" often result in a car that feels tinny and fragile on the road. You get none of that in the Malibu, though, as it feels substantial and quiet at highway speeds. Its thick steering wheel and minimal road noise help out in this regard.
Long-range seat comfort is lacking despite a wide range of adjustment and a good seating position. It's much the same story in the back, as there's decent room, just not very decent seats.
Convenience features work well — cupholders are well placed, the center console is big enough and the remote steering wheel controls are intuitive. Chevrolet's new MyLink system that combines various apps together on the 7-inch touchscreen is useful, at least when it comes to accessing music.
Stuck in a Hard Place
With so many good things going for it, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco sounds like a slam dunk. From an engineering standpoint it is, but in the world of midsize family sedans it's a much harder sell.
One big drawback is the Malibu Eco's price. It starts at $25,995 for what is a well-equipped base model. There's only one option, a $965 convenience package that doesn't include navigation. For that, you have to step up to the upgraded model that starts at $27,605 and then add the $1,020 navigation package. Our test car also had a leather package that boosted the bottom line to $29,230.
Forget all the extras for a minute and consider the base price of $26K. It's not bad given the Malibu's extensive features list, but for only $600 more you could get either a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid or a Toyota Camry Hybrid, which offer EPA mileage ratings of 35 city/40 highway and 43 city/39 highway, respectively.
Rated at 25 city/37 highway, the Malibu Eco offers fuel efficiency on par with its competition, according to the EPA. Still, over 801 miles of mixed driving our test car produced 24.7 mpg — a far cry from its 29 mpg combined EPA rating.
Maybe you don't care about hybrids at all. In that case you could just save yourself a few thousand dollars up front and opt for a standard four-cylinder version of either the Sonata or the Camry. Well-equipped versions of those start around $23,000 and still boast mileage ratings of 22/35 and 25/35, respectively.
Chevrolet got all the basics right with this Malibu. The ride quality is perfectly suited to the segment. The steering is precise and the engine is smooth, silent and sufficiently powerful.
Despite its slightly smaller footprint, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is still plenty comfortable inside. The design might not be the most sophisticated we've ever seen, but the controls are easy to use and all the right convenience features are there.
Later this year, Chevrolet will introduce the standard Malibu with an updated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. It will offer 190 hp, 180 pound-feet of torque and a price that will likely mimic its foreign competitors. It will have a proper trunk, too. That's the Malibu worth considering.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation, which originally appeared on insideline.com.
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