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eAssist: don't call it a hybrid
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is possibly the only hybrid on the road that's not covered in "hybrid" badges. That's mostly because GM doesn't market this vehicle as a hybrid, but as a vehicle that features eAssist technology. Here's how it works:
The engine room starts with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes use of variable valve timing and direct injection. Next, GM's engineers added the eAssist tech: a 15kW electric motor and a 0.5kWh lithium ion battery pack to the mix to help the internal combustion engine out. (For comparison, the Toyota Prius uses a 1.4kWh battery pack and the Plug-In Prius uses a 4.4kWh pack.) With so little capacity, the eAssist system can't really drive the vehicle by itself like a "true hybrid" can, but with an output of 79 pound-feet of torque, it can give the main engine a bit of gasoline-free help when accelerating.
The Malibu Eco's battery is small in capacity, but it still occupies a large chunk of the car's trunk.
An additional benefit of the electric system comes into play when the autostop system deactivates the gasoline engine when, for example, you're waiting at a traffic light. The electric motor is able to supply a momentary burst of up to 110 pound-feet of torque when you tap the accelerator to get the vehicle moving while the main gasoline engine fires up. It may not seem like much, but this second or so of electric motivation smoothes out the stop-start transition and takes much of the jerkiness out of the auto-stop system. The result is restarting that's smoother than, for example, the BMW 3 Series' autostart but still not as seamless as the Toyota's Hybrid Synergy drive.
The Malibu Eco also features an array of aerodynamic tweaks that differentiate it from the standard Chevrolet Malibu, although you'll have to look closely to see any of them. One that you'll likely never see is the active shutter technology, but that's because you'd have to be outside of the vehicle at highway speeds to see this mechanical shutter close off the lower grille opening to reduce aerodynamic drag. I'll just take Chevy's word for it.
Total system power under most conditions adds up to 182 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque, but you're most likely interested in fuel economy, which the EPA estimates at 25 city, 37 highway, and 29 combined mpg. I finished up my fuel economy testing (which consisted of about 60 percent city driving and 40 percent highway cruising, all done with a light pedal foot) with the trip computer sitting at 24.7 mpg. For comparison, my testing in the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE, which outputs similar power when asked, yielded 34.2 mpg.
It's not a flaw, it's a feature
While most of my driving was done with an eye to keeping the instrument cluster's ECO gauge in the green zone, every once in a while we all need to get somewhere and get there fast. On a Sunday afternoon, as I rushed across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to get the Malibu Eco back into the CNET garage before Editor-at-Large Brian Cooley arrived to take his turn behind the wheel, I learned that it is simply impossible to drive the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco fast.
There are likely a number of reasons why the Malibu Eco didn't want to go fast, but the focus of my ire was the single-option six-speed automatic transmission. Like most transmissions geared for efficiency, this one was programmed to hustle up to top gear as quickly as it could. So under most conditions, the engine was operating well below the sweet spot where its power and torque could be found. So anytime you needed a squirt of power, there'd be a moment's hesitation while the gearbox decided what it needed to do. Unfortunately, by the time the shift actually happened, the eAssist system would also have kicked in with its additional torque. The gearbox would then assume, "That's enough power for now" and immediately upshift again. By the time all of this had happened, the opening in traffic would have already closed, leaving me swearing at the top of my lungs as my freeway exit sailed past.
The 6-speed automatic transmission made sure that the Chevrolet Malibu Eco's 182 horsepower was always just out of grasp.
Braking was just as unsettling. The Chevrolet Malibu Eco wasn't difficult to slow, but how quickly you'd be slowing was a bit vague, varying from stop to stop. Pedal travel was inconsistent, passing through random zones of free travel and resistance. Additionally, I could almost feel the balance of friction and regenerative braking being adjusted below my right foot, but I could never really accurately gauge available grip. Your best bet here is to give yourself plenty of space to slow down and be prepared to apologize to your passenger for the jerky stop.
Perhaps GM's engineers programmed this lagginess into the Chevrolet Malibu Eco's power train to discourage aggressive driving. After a week of trying to coax acceleration out of this "Camaro-inspired" sedan, I'm sure that most drivers would just give up and drive slowly. Perhaps this isn't a flaw, but a feature? Nah, it's definitely a flaw.
Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system
Standard in the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is the automaker's new MyLink infotainment system. This 7-inch touch-screen-based interface gives access to Bluetooth hands-free calling with voice dialing, Bluetooth audio streaming with metadata display, iPod and USB playback of digital audio with album artwork, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and of course the standard AM/FM/CD playback.
Connect an iPhone via USB or an Android phone via Bluetooth and you may notice two more icons illuminate on MyLink's home screen, for Pandora Internet Radio and Stitcher. If these apps are installed on your smartphone, MyLink can automatically launch them and you can take full dashboard control at the touch of a button. While listening to Pandora, you can browse your preset stations, skip songs, and speak certain voice commands such as, "Thumbs-up." Stitcher Radio integration is similarly executed, giving you access to radio shows saved as favorites in the app via the MyLink's 7-inch screen.
Also accessible via the MyLink interface are a plethora of vehicle options and an Energy screen that displays a graphic representation of the Chevrolet Malibu Eco and its power train to give you, the driver, a look at all of the eAssisting, regenerative braking, and gasoline powering happening under the hood.
Just below the touch screen, you may notice an odd switch. Flipping this causes the entire display and the bezel surrounding it to swing up, revealing a secret cubbyhole for storing your bric-a-brac. This little nook would be perfect for tossing your smartphone or MP3 player into while driving, if only Chevrolet's interior designers had had the foresight to put the Malibu's 12-volt power outlet or auxiliary inputs in there. Instead, all of these connections are located below the armrest in the center console, which makes the cubbyhole sort of redundant. However, having space you don't need is better than needing space and not having it. I'm sure you'll find something to shove in there.
Navigation is not standard on the Chevrolet Malibu Eco but can be added after first adding a Leather Interior package and a Navigation package. Unfortunately, once you spec Nav, you'll lose MyLink, so choose wisely.
MyLink users aren't left completely lost and alone. Like most GM vehicles, the Chevrolet Malibu Eco is equipped with standard OnStar connectivity and six months of free service. I was able to dial in to the OnStar system to request navigation to an address and have turn-by-turn directions beamed into the vehicle. While navigating under OnStar guidance, I could see visual prompts for turns on the MyLink interface and on the smaller auxiliary display in the instrument cluster and spoken prompts were read to me aloud. However, there is no visible map. Also, requesting a destination via OnStar takes about 2 to 4 minutes when using the automated portion (less so when talking to an actual person), so it's not exactly as convenient as punching the address in yourself. Still, if you only occasionally use navigation and plan on subscribing to OnStar for the safety and convenience features, skipping GM's navigation in favor of the everyday convenience of MyLink seems to be the best way to go.
You can't get both the MyLink system and navigation. Fortunately, OnStar is there to fill the gap.
Pioneer premium audio system
Our Malibu Eco was actually a Malibu Eco 2SA, rolling in the 2SA option package, which includes power seats, a rearview camera system, a Universal Home Remote, leather trim on the steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps, and a Pioneer Premium Audio System.
Audio quality from the 9-speaker, 250-watt Pioneer system was good, but I'm not sure that the Malibu's cabin was up to the task of containing the sound. Even at quarter volume with the three-band EQ set at Flat, I noticed an irritating rattle coming from the rear end of the Malibu with each bass kick during the song "Send It On" from artist D'Angelo's album "Voodoo." This R&B track features a combination of a strong bass guitar track and a powerful bass drum kick that underlie a quiet brass section and a subtle lead guitar melody that you'll easily miss if you're not listening to it. Well, it was missed in the Malibu -- lost under a torrent of rattling interior panels that wouldn't go away until I tuned most of the bass out of the EQ curve. I experienced a similar problem with rattling while listening to the track "Tomorrow Comes Today" from Gorillaz's self-titled debut album -- a song that is driven by its bass guitar track, but isn't what I'd consider to be bass-heavy.
Switching over to music that isn't as bottom-heavy seemed to be exactly what Pioneer and Chevrolet's sound engineers wanted me to do. Rock music that's driven by guitars, pianos, and vocals seemed to be this rig's strong suit. Ben Folds Five's "Fair" from the album "Whatever and Ever Amen" came in loud and clear with excellent forward staging, drums that didn't overwhelm, and crisp sound from Ben's vocals and his lead piano, even when the accompanying vocals and distorted guitar wail begin to swell. When I was done with my testing, I ended up listening to most of Spoon's discography simply because its type of music sounded best on this Pioneer system.
Oddly, when I switched over to more sonically complex electronica and pop tracks, the rattling did become less prevalent. However, that's most likely due to the fact that these types of music often come with built-in distortion and past a certain volume, the Pioneer system is simply capable of overpowering the buzzing with sheer brute force. For example, I heard nary an out-of-place buzz while listening to Skrillex's "Right In" from the album "Bangarang," but that's likely due to the fact that the song is primarily composed of distorted bass hits and buzzing mids.
Those of you who enjoy talk radio or audio podcasts, or who want to really take advantage of that Stitcher Radio integration with your smartphones, will be satisfied by the stereo's quality. The same center-channel speaker that helped with the staging of the piano rock's vocals helped to place my favorite podcast presenters front and center where I could hear them clearly.
The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco is a handsome-looking sedan and a comfortable freeway cruiser. It's definitely a good buy for the money, but it's maybe not the best buy.
It starts at a base price of $25,235, but our 2SA package bumps the price up to $25,845 with the addition of power seats, rear camera, and that Pioneer audio system. The only other major options are a $1,300 Leather Interior package and $1,020 Navigation package that you don't really want to sacrifice MyLink to get. Our tester was equipped just the leather package and a $195 upcharge for its Black Granite Metallic paint, which brings our as-tested price to $29,100 (including a $760 destination charge.)
GM claims that the eAssist technology is a lower-cost system for those who don't want to go full-hybrid, and the Malibu does work out to about $5,000 less than the Camry. However, for the difference in fit and finish, fuel economy, and cabin technology (it's got navigation and infotainment), I'd say that's $5,000 well spent on the Toyota.
|Model||2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco|
|Power train||2.4-liter, direct-injected gasoline engine with eAssist, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||25 city, 37 highway, 29 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||24.7|
|Navigation||OnStar voice-guided navigation|
|Bluetooth phone support||yes|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM Radio, CD/MP3, Pandora Internet Radio, Stitcher Radio|
|Audio system||9-speaker, 250-watt Pioneer audio system|
|Driver aids||rearview camera, cruise control (non-adaptive)|
|Price as tested||$39,100|