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.
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.
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.