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With the Return of $4 Gas, GM Again Looks to Mild Hybrids
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Last week, General Motors unveiled the first Chevy-brand model to use the company’s new eAssist technology, the 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco. The car will get an estimated 26 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, making it among the most efficient mid-size vehicles available without a full hybrid system—or a full hybrid premium.
The rebirth of GM’s mild hybrid technology coincides with rising gas prices, at a time when more mainstream consumers are looking to increase the fuel economy of their vehicles. In 2009, Chevy abruptly discontinued the original Malibu hybrid, which featured the much-maligned first-generation Belt Alternator Starter (BAS) system, an inexpensive but relatively ineffective fuel-saving system that failed to impress critics or consumers.
But as fuel costs approach the $4 mark for the first time since 2008, GM completed a round of extensive tweaking with mild hybrids, and is preparing to launch variants of both the Buick LaCrosse and Buick Regal featuring eAssist in the next year, followed by the Malibu Eco and other platforms soon. Automotive News reports this week that the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain are among several vehicles being considered for eAssist, quoting a top executive who said that GM has been convinced by recent buyer behavior that consumers will continue to flock to offerings with better fuel economy.
eAssist couples a regenerative breaking system featuring a 0.5-kWh lithium-ion battery and more powerful electric motor with a 4-cylinder gas engine and computer-controlled idle-start system. Though eAssist is still technically a Belt Alternator Starter, the increased energy storage capacity in the second-generation BAS system allows it to provide much more assistance to the gasoline engine—helping to create the impressive fuel economy gains seen in the Malibu and LaCrosse.
Will GM’s Mild Hybrid Redux Be Better Received?
Can the new wave of eAssist mild hybrids—which have been strategically branded to avoid any mention of the word “hybrid”—triumph where their predecessors failed? Early reviews of the LaCrosse are positive. At just a 10 percent price premium, the LaCrosse delivers nearly a 30 percent improvement in fuel economy—flipping the equation on the first generation of mild hybrids.
The improvements in efficiency and cost could put MPG numbers that were previously unattainable for many consumers—thanks to the higher price premium for similar mid-sized full hybrids—into play for the first time. “Not everyone can afford those. We know that,” GM North American president Mark Reuss said to Auto News. “The customer base finds cars like this very attractive because they pay for themselves.”