Timing is everything. The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco, equipped with a mild hybrid powertrain with an EPA rating of 25/37 city/highway and 29 mpg combined, began arriving at dealers a few weeks ago, just as gasoline began edging past $4 a gallon in several regions of the U.S. The arrival of the new family sedan at the same time that gas hit the $4 benchmark was likely more luck than astute planning, however. The Detroit Free Press reports that General Motors pushed the production of the Malibu Eco ahead by nearly seven months in January 2010 – when the average pump price was $2.74 a gallon.

It’s safe to say that GM didn’t have a crystal ball that foresaw increases of fuel prices, so why did it move the production forward? According to the Free Press, “To get a jump on key competitors including the new Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.” All three of these vehicles will be replaced this fall accompanied with big advertising budgets.

That places the Malibu Eco in between the latest Toyota Camry that debuted last fall and the upcoming fall introductions of the Fusion, Accord and Altima. That looks like an enviable position to be in, the new Eco won’t have to contend with the big dollar ad spending from three competitors around the same time. The question is, can Malibu Eco’s starting price of $25,235 and fuel economy rating attract enough buyers until the conventional gas powered models arrive in late summer?

Some E Juice Under The Hood

A belt-alternator-starter (BAS) mild hybrid system is the major contributor to the 2013 Malibu Eco’s fuel economy numbers. General Motors calls it “eAssist” and it is already offered in Buick’s 2013 LaCrosse and 2013 Regal.

The eAssist name is quite appropriate. The system enhances fuel mileage by “assisting” the gasoline engine, either by shutting down the engine when the car comes to a stop or cutting off the fuel supply when cruising or decelerating. It can provide some electric assist to the engine at speed, but not all-electric operation.

eAssist has a 15-kilowatt liquid cooled motor-generator that generates 79 pounds-feet of torque. It is mounted on the engine in place of the alternator, providing both motor assist and battery charging via a belt-drive system connected to the engine’s crankshaft. A 115-volt air-cooled lithium-ion battery pack bolsters the engine with approximately 11 kilowatts (15 horsepower) of electric power assist during rapid acceleration or on demanding inclines and 15 kilowatts of regenerative braking power.

Under the Malibu Eco hood, the eAssist teams up with a 182 horsepower 2.4-liter direct injection four-cylinder engine that generates 172 pound-feet of torque. The engine has an aggressive fuel shut-off during deceleration that provides added fuel savings.

A new Hydra-Matic six-speed automatic transmission has high final-drive gearing that maintains lower engine revs at highway speeds, boosting mpg. An auxiliary electric-driven oil pump is added to the transmission, which keeps it primed and the fluid flowing when the engine shuts down at a stop. That sustains the transmission’s readiness to perform when the driver accelerates. The engine and transmission are engineered to enable regenerative braking and battery charging during coasting and braking.

About the eAssist system, Motor Trend says, “On the road, the electric motor imperceptibly blends in up to 15 horsepower and 79 pound-feet of torque, which, in addition to increasing accelerative power, also smoothes out power delivery and improves throttle response.”

Curvaceous Styling, Aero Tricks

The exterior of the new Malibu Eco – and all Malibu models – has a coupe-like silhouette with styling that is more curvaceous than the outgoing version. It’s still recognizable as a Malibu thanks to carried-over elements such as an updated version of Chevy’s horizontal-bar split front grille that seamlessly blends with a powerdome hood. A wider stance along with broader shoulders and a rear spoiler help lend a more aggressive appearance. Taillights have a hint of Camaro and 17-inch alloy wheels complement the look.

As it did with the all-new 2012 Buick Regal, GM turns to its German-designed Opel Insignia sedan as the basis for the 2013 Malibu. That dictates a 4.5-inch shorter wheelbase than the outgoing car. Wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear axles and key to a vehicle’s cabin space. The 2013 Malibu is about 1.5 inches shorter in overall length than the outgoing model, though it’s three inches wider, which contributes to sportier proportions and a wider track – the distance between opposite wheels.

Around 60 percent of the power used at highway speeds is used to overcome air resistance. Nip and tucks to the sheetmetal, underbody panels and shutters in the lower grille that open and close all contribute to a drag coefficient of .29, nearly as efficient as the Volt electric car at .28 C d. Reducing aerodynamic drag improves overall efficiency.

The Malibu Eco’s lower grille air shutters are a major contributor to the car’s 37 mpg highway fuel economy. The shutters employ sensors to sense wind and temperature conditions. Electric motors connected to the sensors open and close the shutters, closing them at high speeds to reduce drag. During city driving, traveling up a hill or towing a trailer the shutters open to let in more air to cool the engine.

Dual Cockpit Zone

Inside the 2013 Malibu Eco, the dash assimilates a subtle take on Chevy’s trademark “dual-cockpit” layout with main gauges housed in rectangular binnacles similar to those on its Camaro sports coupe and convertible. Malibu’s central dashboard section innovates, however, with an articulated radio faceplate that swings up to reveal a 6-inch deep illuminated covered storage bin behind the seven-inch touch-screen radio display.

The cabin reaches for a more upscale feel with higher-grade materials, additional soft-touch surfaces, ice-blue ambient lighting, and chromed accents. About the interior, the Washington Post said, “The Malibu’s interior beats the Camry’s (hybrid) in overall feel—more pleasantly touchable surfaces, in supple vinyl and, where optional, leather; easier-to-use and more ergonomically pleasing instrument panel; design more in tune with the exterior.”

Chevy says generous use of sound-deadening materials helps make it quieter, too, confirmed by a Car and Driver statement that, “Thanks to the acoustic glass, as well as sound-insulating material injected virtually everywhere the eye can’t see, the 2013 Malibu is extremely quiet inside. Even the windshield wipers operate in virtual silence.”

Front seats are firm and well bolstered, while rear seating will comfortably seat three adults. The increased width of the new Malibu adds nearly four cubic feet of interior room compared to the outgoing model along with more hip and shoulder room, front and rear.

As for standard features, the Malibu Eco has a nice array that includes remote keyless entry; power locks, windows, and mirrors; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering column; steering wheel audio and cruise controls; and a CD/satellite audio system with an auxiliary input jack for connecting a portable digital audio device.

Chevrolet’s new MyLink infotainment package is also standard. It builds on the OnStar security- and service-assist system and seamlessly integrates online services like Pandora Internet radio and Stitcher SmartRadio.

Four option packages are offered that add comfort and convenience items like front power seats, sunroof; a premium Pioneer audio system, leather seats: and, for the first time in a Malibu, a navigation system and a rear backup camera.

Pushing the midsize-class safety envelope, the new Malibu Eco will offer optional lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems, features usually available only on higher priced midsize cars. Lane departure warning alerts if the car drifts from its highway lane and forward-collision warning sounds an alarm if sensors detect the car closing too fast on traffic ahead. Also, the Malibu Eco will be one of the few cars in its price range to offer torso-protecting rear side airbags in addition to the usual array of front-side and head-protecting curtain side airbags.

On The Road

The Malibu Eco won’t whisper in your ear every time you encounter that brilliant twisty piece of two-lane blacktop, but who needs a midsize family sedan that gets you in trouble? Expect the Eco to furnish a reasonably smooth ride but gain handling precision as a by-product of its newfound European roots.

A press launch of the Malibu Eco that included hybrid competitors for comparison elicited the following comments from Motor Trend: “On city streets and county roads in and around Austin, Texas, the Malibu Eco’s solid chassis and impressive body control easily out-shone the Hyundai Sonata, Sonata Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid comparison cars Chevrolet brought along for back-to-back evaluations.

“Also class-leading are the Malibu Eco’s steering and brakes. The former offers a fairly quick ratio and no on-center dead spot, responding surprisingly quickly to your inputs. For the average midsize buyer, it’ll feel downright sporty and even returns a bit of road feel for those who’ll appreciate it. The latter offers better brake feel than any other hybrid on the road by virtue of its mild hybrid system.”

The Car For You?

The Malibu has traditionally been Chevrolet’s top-selling car and the 2013 edition will certainly continue at the top of Chevy’s car lineup. Plus, it is well positioned to gain on its competitors in the battle for hearts, minds and hard-earned dollars in the midsize-family-sedan segment. What the Malibu Eco adds is mpg numbers that were not previously available at a reasonable price.

However, The Malibu Eco faces some stiff competition on the price front from other fuel-saving midsize sedans. Hyundai’s Optima Hybrid, for instance, starts at $25,850, which is $615 more than the Eco but offers a city/highway fuel economy rating of 39 mpg versus the Chevy’s 29 mpg. Then there’s the all-new 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid with a starting price of $25,900 that has a 41 mpg combined city/highway rating.

In other words, the 2013 Malibu Eco is not a slam dunk. It is, however, a nicely styled automobile with a class-leading interior and, for those who drive cars for more than just going from point A to point B, it has handling characteristics not found in the competitors.

Prices are Manufacture Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of writing and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing..