Five years ago, the notion that Japanese midsize sedans would be outgunned in reliability, features, style and fuel economy by an American car would have seemed unlikely. But today's midsize market, long dominated by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, is dramatically different.

The Volkswagen Passat, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima have all had a hand in setting this long-stagnant market on its heels. Yet it's the resurgent American brands, led by the hotly anticipated 2013 Ford Fusion and the redesigned 2013 Chevy Malibu, that have arguably made the strongest turnaround of the lot.

Sensing an opening prior to the release of the next Fusion and Accord, Chevy pushed up the launch of the 2013 Malibu to bring the "Eco"-badged version of it to market seven months ahead of schedule. While the familiar LS, LT and LTZ versions of the Malibu will arrive later this year with two all new engines (both with 4 cylinders, one with a turbo) the lightly electrified Malibu Eco with eAssist borrowed its drivetrain from the road-tested Buick LaCrosse and was ready to go.

During the Malibu Eco's press launch in Austin, Texas, we ran it around crowded city streets, through mud holes (unintentionally) and over rough highways, and came away impressed with the car's handling, comfort, convenience and fuel economy. Given that the Eco shares almost all of its components with the other trim levels expected later next year, not only is it clear that the Eco is worthy of praise, but the entire 2013 Malibu lineup is situated near the top of the midsize sedan pack.

What's So "Eco" About It?

The Eco model's "eco-ness" comes from a number of features largely borrowed from other GM nameplates. Although the company has spent a great deal of effort to call it everything but a hybrid, the Eco actually is one. It's not a full hybrid like a Toyota Prius, mind you, but it's what is generally referred to as a "mild" hybrid. In GM-speak the mild hybrid system is called "eAssist," and can already be found as standard equipment on the Buick LaCrosse and optional on the Buick Regal.

The eAssist system can never power the car forward on electricity alone - hence the "mild" label - but it mounts what is essentially a large starter motor/generator to the engine and connects that to a half kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack in the trunk. During acceleration, and going uphill, the electric motor provides up to 15 hp of boost to the engine to help reduce fuel consumption. During deceleration the system works in reverse, providing energy to the battery pack.

With the electric motor the system can also shut off fuel flow to the engine when the car is slowing down, allowing the engine to spin down under electric power, and when the car comes to a stop the engine completely shuts off. When the driver takes his foot off the brake pedal the engine instantaneously and almost imperceptibly turns back on thanks to the large and responsive electric starter motor.

This type of mild hybrid system can be used on everything from subcompacts to full-size pickups, and GM plans on rolling eAssist out on multiple nameplates across its brands over the next few years.

But eAssist isn't the only thing that makes the Malibu Eco a fuel miser. Flaps on the front grille open and close in response to things like keeping the transmission fluid warm in cold weather, reducing drag at high speeds or cooling the engine down in hot weather.

A large amount of high strength and ultra high strength steel is used throughout the frame, providing extra protection in crashes as well as reducing the overall weight of the vehicle and increasing fuel economy. The Eco also sheds weight with an aluminum hood and rear bumper, as well as high-tech lightweight insulation and padding material.

Special low rolling resistance tires reduce the amount of friction between the tires and the road, and the vehicle has been optimized for aerodynamics with a sleek exterior, integrated trunk lid spoiler and underbody shielding. In fact, the 2013 Malibu is only a tick less slippery than the high tech plug-in Chevy Volt - a notable feat for a vehicle the size of the Malibu.

All of these features add up to good fuel economy gains for a relatively low premium. Official numbers for the Eco place it at 25 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, and during our mixed driving of 15% city, 85% highway, our average of about 34 mpg jived with the official ratings. Considering that the 2013 Malibu Eco starts at $25,995 with what amounts to LT mid-grade standard equipment, that good fuel economy isn't all that expensive either.

Innovative Design, Inside and Out

The new Malibu borrows a couple of cues from the Camaro, including the rear taillamps and the square-ish gauge cluster, which, from a distance, alert passers-by that this isn't your average mid-size car.

On the inside, attention was paid to the smallest details, including specially printed dash material that has a deep, three-dimensional look. Storage spaces crop up everywhere, and if you opt for the infotainment system with the 7-inch touchscreen you are rewarded with one of the most innovative features in a vehicle in years: a relatively large hidey space that can be accessed by flipping up the touchscreen. Realistic fake wood accents round out the interior and add a touch of luxury.

Although the battery for the eAssist system is relatively small compared to the battery in a Prius, it still takes a chunk out of trunk space. Engineers and designers were able to maintain the 60/40 split rear bench with access to the trunk on one side, but it is still a bit less convenient than non-eAssist models.

Sporty and Comfortable

Although it might be a bit of a stretch to say the 2013 Malibu is sporty, it's definitely sportier than most other midsize sedans. Handling was confident and planted through tight corners and during simulated emergency maneuvers. Our one grip is that the steering felt a bit twitchy, especially noticeable when making small corrections at highway speed.

Dash buttons are intuitive and within easy reach. Smartphone integration (available with the upgraded infotainment system) is among the best out there, offering connections to apps such as Pandora Radio with a few simple steps. We found the seats, although generally comfortable, lacked enough lumbar adjustability to fit every taste and body type, so we definitely recommend taking it for an extended test drive to assess personal comfort levels.

When it comes to rough roads the 2013 Malibu shined, eating up everything but the biggest potholes with nary a whimper, creak or groan. Interior noise levels maintained luxury-like quietness over almost every surface, thanks in large part to the large amounts of insulation and shielding, as well as the attention paid to high quality door, trunk and hood seals.

When taken as a whole, the 2013 Malibu Eco represents one of the best values out there. It's fuel-efficient and it handles well while being comfortable and stylish, all for a reasonable price. If you've been hesitant to buy a midsize car from an American automaker, there's simply no reason to be skeptical any longer.

author photo

Nick Chambers is a "next generation" car enthusiast, recognized for his green automotive coverage in Gas 2.0, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. In addition, he's been syndicated in Matter Network, AP and Reuters.

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