2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco: Chevy’s First Global Midsize

When Crystal Windham talks about the design of the 2013 Malibu Eco, she refers to the sedan in the context of another car that wears the bright gold bowtie.

When Crystal Windham talks about the design of the 2013 Malibu Eco, she refers to the sedan in the context of another car that wears the bright gold bowtie. Seriously: we couldn’t have come up with it short of running through all of the vehicles in the Chevy showroom. It’s the Camaro.

As in: “Look at the side of the vehicle, the silhouette, the fender flares and the C-pillar shape. It has a coupe-like appearance. The forms are shear, yet full.” She’s referencing the Camaro. She points to the dual-tail lamps. Camaro. The director of Passenger Car Interior Design (she was responsible for the interior of the current-generation Malibu, the one the 2013 replaces) points to the inside of the sedan: “There are large, Camaro-like gauges.” There is the dual-cockpit form setup by the instrument panel and the center console. Camaro.

Perhaps it is like that vintage Levi’s commercial that claimed “We put a little blue jean in everything we make,” with the jeans being replaced by Camaro.

The Malibu is an exceedingly important car in the Chevrolet lineup. Before the Cruze came into the market in a big way, the Malibu was number-one in Chevy car sales: 2010 saw 187,250 sold, with Impala coming in second at 160,667. (For those wondering, Camaro: 75,685). And while U.S. customers might think of the car solely in the context of the domestic market, this is actually a vehicle that was developed for the world: it is Chevy’s first global midsize sedan; it will be sold on six continents in approximately 100 different countries. You could buy one in Seoul before you could get one here.

The development program included prototype drives not only in the U.S. but in Canada, Australia, South Korea, China, England, Dubai, and Germany. (The 170 pre-production vehicles racked up approximately 45,450 miles per month, starting in the first quarter of 2010, getting to a million test miles by December 2011.)

The car is being manufactured not only in U.S. plants (Detroit-Hamtramck now and Fairfax, KS, soon), but in Korea and China, as well. While there are certainly differences between various markets (e.g., 11 different tires are specified as original equipment for the 2013 Malibu), the cars are essentially the same.

We’re guessing that people on six continents in nearly 100 different countries have the same lust for Camaros that they do in the U.S.

One of the most important aspects of the 2013 Malibu is not something that you see. In fact, this aspect is really the absence of one. And if not complete absence, then as close to gone as possible. It’s noise.

In developing the 2013 Malibu, Kara Gordon, lead acoustic noise engineer for the car, and her colleagues spent a lot of time driving the vehicle over various routes, through various conditions. And in some cases they were joined by another head in the car, quite literally a head that’s known in the field as an “Aachen HEAD.” That’s because it resembles a human head and because it comes from a company named “HEAD acoustics,” which was founded in Aachen, Germany (head-acoustics.de/eng/index.htm). This head is a digital recording device. They were able to take the recordings and then listen to what was picked up during the drives; they listened in what they call the “Jury Room.” Gordon says that this helped focus on aspects that needed to be addressed.

Gordon also says that they spent a considerable amount of time in the car in what must have been contorted positions as they worked to find sources of noise that needed to be eliminated.

There are three fundamental ways that noise is addressed: reduce, block, and absorb. The reduction occurs through things like having an exceedingly strong and stiff body structure. The car uses approximately 65% high-strength steel and ultra-high-strength steel in its structure. The body structure is approximately 20% stiffer than the model it replaces.

The reduction occurs through having an aerodynamic form, or a low coefficient of drag (Cd). The 2013 Malibu has a 0.29 Cd (with the Eco having a 0.30 Cd, higher because of the standard 17-in. wheels and low-rolling resistance tires). What this means is that the car is designed—in terms of the overall shape (e.g., Windham says that if you look at the car from above, it has a tear-drop shape), in terms of things like active louvers in the lower grille, in terms of things like the design of details from the lamps to the mirrors—so that the car is not only slippery in the air, for purposes, also, of fuel efficiency, but that it is also quieter as it moves through the air, with a wind noise rating of 33 dB.

Then there are the blocking and the absorption of the noises. Which brings into play things like the use of laminated windshield and front door glass, 5.4-mm and 5.0-mm thick, respectively. There are 16 expanded foam baffles in various cavities. There are triple seals on the doors. Liquid-applied and melt-on sound deadening materials are applied to the floor pan.

The first 2013 Malibu available is the Malibu Eco. The Eco comes from the use of what General Motors calls “eAssist” technology. While it is certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison given the aforementioned aero improvement on the car, the 2013 Malibu Eco achieves 12% greater highway fuel economy (37 mpg) than the outgoing model Malibu equipped with the 2.4-liter Ecotec engine.

The Malibu Eco could be considered a “lite” hybrid. The 2.4-liter four is supplemented by a 32-cell, an air-cooled 115-v, 0.5-kW lithium ion battery pack that’s located between the back of the rear seat and the front of the trunk that works with an induction motor-generator that is mounted in the engine bay in the place of the alternator. In operation, when the driver presses the accelerator, the induction-motor generator supplements the performance of the 182-hp engine with up to 11 kW, or 15 hp, of electric power assist. There is also regenerative braking, which captures power and puts it back into the battery. The engine has start-stop capability; the motor-generator spins so that the engine is setup for a smooth stop and seamless restart. Under certain conditions during deceleration, the fuel delivery to the engine is shut off but the motor-generator continues to perform, capturing energy while reducing fuel use. As Steve Poulos, global chief engineer for eAssist, puts it, “The battery system is designed to provide power assistance to the internal combustion engine, rather than storing energy for all-electric propulsion. It’s really an extension of the conventional internal combustion engine, not a replacement for it.”—GSV