Even with the launch of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu still a fair number of months away, the GM buzz machine continues to spill out new details of the car on a fairly regular basis, and one of its more recent efforts put the Malibu’s all-new I4 powerplant in the spotlight. The fresh addition to the General’s Ecotec engine lineup is being touted as “more efficient, refined and powerful than its predecessor,” which is exactly as it should be. IMHO, if you’re going to go through the effort of building a brand-new engine for a brand-new car, it should at least be superior to the old combination and, ideally, set a new benchmark for its class. I believe that’s what they call a strategy of “continuous improvement.”
This is especially important with the new Malibu, because Chevrolet clearly is trying to position the car at the top of the mainstream mid-size heap, and that would seem to require top EPA ratings. Or does it?
Despite all the public focus on hybrids and EVs, the fact of the matter is that a surprising number of theoretically “all-new” vehicles have started following the Ford/Chrysler model in which “more efficient” means achieving more power without sacrificing fuel economy instead of offering better fuel economy without sacrificing power. Consider the Ford F-150 EcoBoost or the Pentastar-powered Chrysler 200. Both vehicles offer best-in-class power numbers and have seen strong sales this year—the 200 grew sales by more than 140 percent in August as compared to the Chrysler Sebring—but neither has best-in-class EPA ratings.
(It’s also important to point out that Ford has begun to change its ways now that the four-cylinder EcoBoost engine is migrating across the lineup.)
Pictured: 2012 Chevrolet Malibu
The Camry Effect
But the prime example of what I’m talking about as regards newer models can be seen at Toyota. While the most-efficient players in the subcompact segment—e.g., Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio—all hit the 40-mpg mark on the highway, the new 2012 Toyota Yaris tops out at 38 mpg. And while the 2012 Toyota Camry did surprise me by claiming the title of most-efficient gas-only mid-size sedan with a four-cylinder engine, the automaker took the easy way out with the Camry’s V6.
Yes, that vehicle posts the best EPA line of any six-cylinder mainstream mid-size sedan, but if you reframe its competition as being any of the high-output models from its segment, you see that the Camry V6 trails the relevant Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima models—which rely on turbocharged I4 motivation—in both horsepower and fuel efficiency. And we are talking about a not entirely negligible difference in the latter, with the Camry seeing 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway/25 mpg combined and the South Koreans capable of 22/33/26.
The Malibu Spec Check
Getting back to the 2013 Malibu, Chevy is currently claiming the new engine will be capable of 190 hp (about 12 percent more than the current Malibu’s current Ecotec I4) as well as 180 lb.-ft. of torque (an increase of about 16 percent). Those numbers would trail only those of the standard Sonata and Optima among the mainstream I4 mid-sizers, but as far as fuel efficiency goes, the party line from Chevrolet right now is that the engine will offer “estimated highway fuel economy of more than 30 mpg”—which, at this stage, is akin to saying it will come with four wheels.
After all, every mainstream mid-size sedan with an I4 can reach 30 mpg highway, with only the old-school Chrysler Group products unable to top that number. Heck, even the 2012 Ford Edge can get 30 mpg (an example of the “Ford changing its ways” business). If Chevy isn’t able to engineer the new Malibu to be more efficient than the Edge, then Team Bow-tie better head back to ye olde drawing board.
The real question is whether Chevrolet is willing to let the new Malibu’s four-cylinder EPA line slip below that of the current model’s strong-ish 22/33/26, and unfortunately, I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility. My concern is that Chevy will consider the presence of the 38-mpg Eco model in the 2013 Malibu lineup as “enough” of an effort to boost fuel efficiency and not feel the need to really enhance the mileage of the “regular” model. (Remember, while the Malibu Eco does holster a four-cylinder engine, it also incorporates GM’s eAssist light-electrification system so it can’t be considered a direct rival to gas-only I4 products.)
But I also suppose that wouldn’t be out of line for a near-lux auto brand like the new Chevrolet.