2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco

AUSTIN, Texas — The mid-sized sedan segment has probably never been more competitive than it will become during 2012 as a number of all-new models hit the market. Perhaps for that reason Chevrolet decided to get its completely redone 2013 Malibu into the hands of consumers six months ahead of the original schedule. The new Malibu will go on sale in mid-February with just one drivetrain, a mild hybrid system that General Motors calls eAssist.

It's nearly identical to the setup in the Buick LaCrosse with a 2.4-liter 182-horsepower 4-cylinder engine mated to a 15-horsepower electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery that can give the sedan an acceleration boost when needed. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

The early introduction gets the Chevy out to the public ahead of an all-new Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima and right on the heels of the recently released 2012 Toyota Camry.

But if you want to opt out of the hybrid model for a more conventional 4-cylinder or the performance of a turbocharged engine, you must wait. Coming in about six months is an all-new 2.5-liter 4-cylinder making around 190 horsepower. It will be followed by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four that will probably add 60 or 70 more horses.

We knew how the hybrid drivetrain performed — very well, thank you — having just experienced it in the 2012 LaCrosse. We were equally impressed with the Chevrolet's performance in city driving and on winding roads in Texas hill country.

The Malibu reached highway speeds in very acceptable times — it has been measured from 0-to-60 in 8.7 seconds — and responded quite nicely during passing and merging situations.

For those who view fuel economy as paramount, the Malibu Eco is rated at 37 mpg highway, 25 mpg city and 29 combined.

But more than the hybrid performance, the driving experience gave us the opportunity to discover that the newest Malibu is extremely quiet with multiple layers of sound-deadening material; has a rigid, taut structure that translates into a confident driving experience; and contains perhaps the most attractive interior in the segment — so far — continuing with the dual cowl theme of the current-generation Malibu.

The interior has a premium-level model look with nice feeling, intuitive controls. One of the highlights is a seven-inch display screen that controls everything from the radio to the climate control. Redundant knobs give easy access to climate and audio controls. The neatest feature — a large storage bin behind the screen.

The exterior styling continues with the current conservative, handsome theme, but with a more chiseled, aggressive appearance, which includes a raised spoiler-like trunk lid, Camaro-style taillights, and headlights pulled tight around the corners surrounding a signature Chevrolet grille.

The Malibu Eco starts at $25,995 including destination charges for the well-equipped standard version. Add such things as navigation and leather and the price will rise to about 30 grand.

This summer the new 2.5-liter model will offer a less-expensive alternative, probably starting at just over $20,000. The performance Turbo pricing was not made available but expect a starting price above that for the Eco.

— Jim Meachen