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2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco review: luxury hybrid fuel economy without the hybrid quirks

General Motors doesn’t call the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco a hybrid because – while it offers similar fuel saving technology through the eAssist drivetrain packed in a good looking, upscale midsized sedan – it doesn’t come with many of the quirks of the other popular hybrids on the market today.

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In the modern age of the “green vehicle”, pretty much any car that has any sort of electronic fuel saving system is slathered in hybrid logos to make certain that everyone around knows that the car in question is a hybrid but the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco doesn’t have the word hybrid anywhere on the car. In fact, GM doesn’t refer to the Malibu Eco as a hybrid – instead referring to it by the company branded eAssist name. The eAssist system offers many of the same upsides as those vehicles that boast of being a hybrid while not having many of the downsides of the most popular hybrids on the American market today. Add to that fuel sipping drivetrain the new sportier exterior with a very upscale interior and you have yourself a hybrid that doesn’t feel like a hybrid – and that is a very good thing.

The Exterior
Some hybrids on the market have distinctly unique fascias to go with their incessant hybrid badging but the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco doesn’t really look that different from the non-Eco Malibu sedans. The styling is nearly identical with the most significant changes being smaller, more aerodynamic exterior mirrors and a set of lightweight 17” aluminum wheels with a very attractive split spoke design wrapped in low rolling resistance tires. Add to those two features the subtle Eco badge on the passenger’s side of the trunk lid and those are the only features that differentiate Malibu Eco from the rest of the lineup.

The front end of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco has a design that is obviously an evolutionary advancement from the 2012 Malibu but the new midsized sedan has a far more chiseled front end with features that make it look both more aggressive and more upscale. The Malibu has come a long way from the uber bland exterior design of the late 90s and early 2000s and for the eighth and current generation – the front end is the star of the exterior show. The 2013 Malibu front end has sharp body lines that start at the center of the bottom of the fascia, flowing upward around the lower grille opening and out into infinity under the headlights. The headlight housings have been sharpened to provide a more powerful countenance while the HID projection headlights add to the upscale look of the front end while also providing incredible amounts of light during nighttime driving. These headlights are aided by fog lights that are part of the Malibu Eco 2SA package with these extra lights being mounted in the chrome trimmed black openings found low on the fascia. A big, bold Chevy bowtie badge mounted in the middle of the split design upper grille helps the new Malibu to have a distinct personality of its own…allowing it to stand out from the crowd where the outgoing Malibu did not.

Along the sides, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is simple in its styling with a splash of chrome around the windows while pretty much everything else is finished in a matching body color including the door handles and the mirrors. The 2SA package also comes with body side moldings that I am not a fan of so I wasn’t disappointed to see that they had been opted around when this test car was built. The unique 17” lightweight wheels serve a purpose of helping the Eco put more power to the road but unlike other hybrids that feature odd looking wheels that help improve fuel economy – the Malibu Eco wheels improve fuel economy without making the exterior look funny with weird wheels.

Finally, the back end of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco wears a set of headlights that two distinct lighting units mounted in a lens that splits to allow the trunk to open in the middle. These headlights are loosely similar to what is seen on the Camaro and they are a great addition to give this car some personality. A low profile spoiler design that is built into the rear deck lid adds height to the trunk space while also giving the Malibu a rakish stance that bolsters the look at my design of the new Malibu.

The midsized sedan segment was once dominated by boring, drab vehicles but the modern age of the midsized sedan demands that a car stand out in the crowd and the exterior design of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco does just that. While some critics will gripe that the 2013 Malibu isnt aggressive enough, the changes made between the 2012 and 2013 model year take the Malibu a big step in the right direction.

The Interior
My 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco test car was fitted with the optional leather interior package and navigation system that works with the Chevy MyLink touchscreen infotainment system. The addition of these two option packages go a long way in making the interior far more luxurious with the upgraded two tone leather option giving the Malibu a very upscale look. The front and rear seats are clad in light brown leather with brown trim piping and that light brown/dark brown theme is echoed throughout the door panels, the center console and the dash. There is more dark leather on the center arm rest, the shifter and on the steering wheel with light colored contrasting stitch work that work with the bits of wood paneling and chrome trim scattered throughout the cabin. Both front seats have built in heating elements for toasty buns on cold days and the driver’s seat has 8 way power adjustments to continue to upscale theme while the 9-speaker premium sound system allows you to pump out the tunes from the radio, compact discs (in case anyone still uses those) and auxiliary inputs including a USB thumb drive or an iPod connection.

Another area where the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco differs from competitive hybrids is the simple gauge cluster that has a large speedometer and tachometer flanking a central driver information display that will show all sorts of things from fuel economy to trip mileage to navigation to vehicle speed with the push of a button. Unique to the Malibu Eco models is the Eco gauge that shows the driver the “sweet spot” between acceleration and braking to help you maximize your fuel economy along with a special designation on the tachometer that lets the driver known when the auto start/stop system has shut down the engine. The large touchscreen infotainment system allows for full controls of the stereo and navigation system with the help of a handful of buttons and knobs located on the center stack and a few buttons mounted on the leather wrapped steering wheel. Also, the infotainment screen has a power usage screen that shows the wheels of the Malibu along with the gasoline engine, the electric battery and the channels through which the power flows. This is the only way that you can really tell when the eAssist system is engaged, helping the gasoline engine power the front wheels and for those who are not used to hybrid vehicles with technology like this – the power flow screen can provide entertainment to passengers young and old.

Finally, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is a midsized sedan with lots of space in the front and rear seats for the driver and passengers. There is plenty of shoulder space for two adults in the back and while leg space can be a little tight out back when the front seats are moved all of the way back, adjusting the driver and front passenger seat to accommodate a driver under 6 feet tall provides plenty of room for an average rear rider. The amount of travel in the front seats will allow for both a very, very short driver and a very tall driver with tons of head room, leg room and knee room for those seated up front.

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco doesn’t have a luxury price tag but the level of amenities throughout the cabin make the Malibu Eco more like a luxury car than your average midsized sedan. When you consider the fact that you can get this interior spread with a hybrid drivetrain for right around $30,000, the Malibu Eco offers a ton of interior content for the low price.

The Drive
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is powered by a 2.4L Ecotec 4-cylinder engine that provides 182 horsepower and 171lb-ft of torque which is sent to the front wheels via a traditional 6-speed automatic transmission. While many hybrids call upon the use of the continuously variable transmission for their hybrids – which provide an unfamiliar feel to those not accustomed to this technology – the tried and true 6-speed automatic with real gear shifts and a non-hybrid feel is a welcomed piece of old school technology. Where the Malibu Eco differs from other non-Eco Malibu sedans is the addition of the eAssist electronic motor and battery system that provides a fuel saving boost to the gasoline engine when the car is pulling away from a stop light, climbing a hill or under other periods of hard acceleration. In short, when the gasoline engine is at its most inefficient, the eAssist setup kicks in to improve fuel economy measures. Best of all, the eAssist is like an anonymous benefactor so there is no real way of knowing when the electric assist motor is helping to power the Malibu shy of the power screen that shows the flow of power to the wheels from the engine and the eAssist system.

In terms of handling, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco offers confident cornering abilities whether you are driving around town in tight quarters of if you are out on the open road at much higher speeds. There is some body roll under hard cornering but as hybrid packages go – the Malibu offers every bit as much handling as comparable midsized sedans available today. Also, the Malibu offers a nice smooth, quiet ride even at highway speeds with very little road noise transferred through the suspension or the steering while the cabin keeps out much of the wind and traffic noise. This is especially impressive considering that the Malibu Eco is fitted with low rolling resistance tires that are harder than traditional tires of a similar size.

One other area where the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco thrives is in its regenerative braking system. This system helps to charge the battery during braking simply by using the forward motion of the car – essentially capturing free power – and this is a system used by pretty much every hybrid on the market. However, where many hybrid braking systems are oddly squishy or seem not to grab until they really grab hard, the Malibu Eco braking system doesn’t force the driver to deal with any of those annoying traits. This regenerative braking system feels like a tradition braking system that is only designed to stop the car – except this system also recharges the battery under braking.

The EPA rated the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco as offering 25 miles per gallon in the city, 37mpg on the highway and 29mpg combined over the course of a tank of fuel. I found that those numbers are very realistic with the combination of the eAssist system and the auto start/stop system helping to cut down on fuel use when traditional midsized sedans are most inefficient. I frequently find myself sitting in Detroit traffic with my engine idling – listening to the engine swallow up money in the form of fuel wasted by the areas brutal congestion. However, the seamless auto start/stop system prevents that. When you come to a complete stop, the engine seemingly stalls but almost intuitively, as you take your foot off of the brake pedal and head for the gas, the engine fires back up with the help of the eAssist system and the car immediately responds to the request to speed up. There is no real delay between when you hit the gas and when the Malibu Eco begins to accelerate but better yet, the system recognizes when you are creeping forward and when you are truly stopped in traffic. This way, there is no fuel wasted when traffic has come to a stop but there is also no concern about having to get up to speed when you are in repeated stop and go traffic. In my tests, driving along the predominantly flat highways of Detroit with the cruise set at 70 miles per hour brought about numbers that were right in line with the 37mpg estimate so I suspect that a driver with a lighter foot will be able to exceed the EPA estimates.

Maybe GM didn’t use the word hybrid on the Malibu Eco because it doesn’t have the annoying characteristics of many traditional hybrids. No CVT, no oddly squishy brakes and no lag in the start//stop system makes the Malibu Eco a hybrid without the annoyances.

The Final Word
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco doesn’t offer the same level of fuel economy as the Toyota Camry Hybrid but if you are looking for a very fuel efficient midsized sedan with a loaded up, luxurious interior that is as friendly on the pocketbook when you pick it up at the dealership as it is at the gas pump – the Malibu Eco could be the ideal car for you. When you configure a Toyota Camry Hybrid with the leather package and navigation system (which can only be added via their configurator to the Camry XLE), the price is right around $35,000. Compare that to the price of my Malibu Eco test car of just $30,070 which includes “unnecessary” upcharges of $395 for the deep metallic red paint and $150 for the two tone leather layout and the Malibu offers the buyer much more car for their money. If you can live with black leather and a less flashy paint scheme, the loaded up Malibu Eco with leather, navigation and the rest of the available goodies costs under $30k – substantially less than the Camry Hybrid.

Price aside, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco has a sharp exterior and a very plush interior that work with the high tech eAssist drivetrain to make for a luxurious midsized sedan that offers great fuel economy without the compromises that come with driving some hybrids. A luxury interior, sharpened exterior design and 37 miles per gallon on the highway make this one great option for those shopping for a fuel friendly midsized that wont drive you broke.

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