Just in: 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

Right now, Chevrolet is selling two very different cars with the same Malibu nameplate. Thing is, one of them is much nicer than the other. That one would be the model we just bought, a 2013 Malibu Eco.

General Motors stepped up the hybrid Malibu Eco’s introduction date to better compete with the latest, more-efficient family sedans like the Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry. Not all versions of the 2013 Malibu were ready to go at the same time, so the hybrid came first. Other versions will follow over the next few months.

The Malibu Eco has a light hybrid system that is intended to give a mild boost to fuel economy and performance. GM tried this approach with previous Malibu and Saturn Aura hybrids, but that hybrid system wasn’t fully realized, providing little improvement in fuel economy and burdened by some battery problems. GM stuck to the idea, though, and this time around upgraded to a lithium-ion battery and improving overall refinement.

We were quite impressed with this system in our tested 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist. The big Buick’s new base powertrain improved performance over the non-hybrid four-cylinder and returned an impressive 26 mpg overall. We expect better fuel economy from the Malibu.

While this powertrain isn’t as efficient as the full hybrid system in the Toyota Camry or Ford Fusion, the Malibu Eco doesn’t cost as much as those cars either. Our Malibu is well-equipped, with an optional $1,000 sunroof and a $965 Convenience Package that added a full power driver seat and a backup camera. Crystal Red paint added another $325. Sticker price is $28,285, or about $1,000 less than a comparably equipped Toyota Camry XLE hybrid.

But if hybrids aren’t your thing and if you want a regular, four-cylinder Malibu that competes right in the heart of the $22,000 family sedan segment, you’ll have to buy a 2012 Malibu for now. That car remains the older design. And if you want a V6, better get one now as the redesign drops the availability of those two extra cylinders.

Based on our early drives of the 2013 Malibu, you might want to wait. The redesign brings considerable improvements in interior fit and finish, available electronic features, ride, and handling. The turbocharged four-cylinder that takes the place of the V6 should be plenty quick and more fuel efficient. But the Malibu doesn’t have a particularly spacious rear seat, which might hurt it in the family hauler market. Most rivals have more room.

This Malibu will be the first of several we’ll be buying in the coming months. We’ll find out how it compares to family sedan benchmarks, as well as the new 2013 Ford Fusion that comes out later this year. For now, enjoy a video we shot earlier using a borrowed 2013 Malibu.

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