Is GM's 'mild hybrid' eAssist system worth the money?
This undated image provided by Chevrolet shows the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco. (AP Photo/Chevrolet)
Published Saturday, February 9, 2013 7:00AM EST
One of the interesting things going on at General Motors is the big bet they’ve placed on eAssist. That’s the name they’ve given to their mild hybrid system. It’s not a full-blown hybrid in which battery power alone can move the car small distances. This is hybrid on the cheap -- and what’s wrong with saving money?
In the case of the 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco, the eAssist consists of a motor/generator that replaces the alternator. There’s a 30-kg lithium ion battery pack located behind the back seat that gets charged when you hit the brakes. The juice from the battery contributes an extra 15 horsepower to the Eco’s 2.4-litre gas engine for a total of 182 horsepower.
There are also a bunch of neat aerodynamic features on the car and an automatic stop/start system to prevent idling at stoplights.
In round numbers, instead of paying three grand for a full hybrid you can get e-Assist for about seventeen hundred bucks. GM figured that 10 per cent of Malibu buyers would pay for the eAssist package, but sales are well below that. In fact Malibu sales generally have been disappointing. GM has already announced they’re doing an early fix-up on the Malibu, perhaps as early as this summer, to try and boost sales.
So let’s take a closer look at eAssist and see if it’s a good idea or not. When I first heard about it a few years ago I thought it sounded terrific. Why waste all that energy as heat every time you hit the brakes when you could save it as electricity and cut down the fuel burn? Sounds great on paper.
Well first of all I thought it would cost an extra two or three hundred bucks – not $1,700. Secondly, I didn’t realize the battery pack and the fan to cool it would take up so much space in the trunk. And last, but not least, I expected the whole package would deliver a much greater improvement in fuel economy that it actually does.
The Malibu with eAssist is the eighth generation of Chevy’s popular mid-size sedan. I think it’s a very handsome car on the outside – although it’s going to get restyled soon. The interior is excellent and for a highway cruiser you just won’t find anything else at the price that is so quiet and smooth.
The eAssist system works like a charm in the sense that the gas/electric power comes on evenly and the stop/start feature is great.
The problem is the fuel savings from a mild hybrid are mild indeed. For almost exactly the same money as the Malibu Eco you can get a Toyota Camry Hybrid which is rated at 4.5 L/100 km in the city and 4.9 on the highway, while the Malibu Eco delivers a disappointing 8.1 and 5.3. We know there are styling changes coming for the Malibu soon and I would expect there will be a few tweaks to improve the eAssist fuel economy as well.
In the meantime there will be some great deals out there to sell off the current incarnation and especially the slow-selling Eco’s. This is one of GM’s new global cars and it’s being built in the U.S., in Korea and China.
They’ve done a good engineering job on both the Malibu and the Buick Regal which share the same platform, and you get a lot of car for the money. The six-speed automatic is just right, there’s standard traction control, stability control, electronic brake force distribution and eight air bags.
I hope GM doesn’t give up on eAssist. The mild hybrid idea – or “light electrification” as GM prefers to call it – is a good idea. It just needs to give better results for less money. If it were easy someone else would have done it by now, so keep at it GM.