Currently available on three models, GM’s eAssist technology is a product and packaging gamble the automaker has made that does not appear to be paying off. While the first two Buick models to receive the mild-hybrid system received modest praise, the new Chevy Malibu Eco has drawn so much criticism it was recently named “the most disliked vehicle of 2012” according to Fortune magazine.
The impact of that title, not to mention all the bad press that’s led up to it, can’t be understated. The reputation, and sales, of an entire lifecycle of Malibu models (the Malibu being one of GM’s largest volume products) is hanging in the balance.
Most successful hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, use a full-hybrid system, which means that electric motors can provide enough power to move the vehicle, and generally speaking the improvement in fuel economy is more significant. The eAssist system, however, makes due with a more basic layout, with the electric motor assisting the gasoline engine, but never actually powering the car by itself.
So why did General Motors avoid the traditional route and create a mild-hybrid, instead of a full one?
VERSATILITY AT THE HEART OF eASSIST?
“We looked at what was coming in electrification in the next 10 years or so and there’s a lot of full hybrids, electric vehicles and range extended EVs coming, and we found that there are still significant cost premiums for those vehicles,” explained Stephen Poulos, chief engineer of eAssist. “We wanted to see how we could take some of those functions, and get it down to a very basic system that we can adapt to otherwise conventional powertrains.”
GM says that even without using a complicated full-hybrid system, a vehicle with eAssist can get 15-25 percent better fuel economy than their vehicles that aren’t equipped with eAssist.
“Our goal was to be able to integrate with the minimum amount of tear-up,” said Polous in regards to eAssist’s development. “It’s something that is fairly adaptable to different vehicles.”
So far, GM has managed to put eAssist into family-sized sedans like the Chevrolet Malibu Eco, Buick Lacrosse and Buick Regal. These cars all fit in segments where comfort, cargo space and fuel economy are important factors. One key feature of the eAssist system is its size, being small enough to have little effect on trunk space and still allow for folding seats – at least on one side.
The components that make up eAssist are chosen due to their ability to be easily implemented into an established vehicle. eAssist is made up of just a 15-kW belt-driven motor/generator as well as a compact 115-v lithium ion battery pack. All those electric components are paired with a conventional 2.4-L four-cylinder engine, and a slightly modified six-speed automatic.
“The scaling required to make a full-hybrid system is huge, and very costly.” Poulos says. With eAssist, GM is making a versatile powertrain that could theoretically move into other vehicles.
IS A MILD HYBRID REALLY THE BETTER CHOICE?
All this means that the development and assembly of eAssist vehicles should be cheaper, and should make eAssist vehicles less expensive than a full-hybrid rival. However, the Malibu Eco, which is equipped with the eAssist system, isn’t making a strong case for itself.
At $25,235, the Chevrolet Malibu Eco is $465 cheaper than the Kia Optima Hybrid, $615 cheaper than the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, $755 cheaper than the Toyota Camry Hybrid and $3,540 cheaper than the Ford Fusion Hybrid, all of which use full-hybrid systems. While the Malibu does cost less than all its rivals, with the exception of the Ford, the difference is not significant.
In terms of efficiency, eAssist is also on rocky ground. In regards to weight, a mild-hybrid is supposed to be lighter, which would make the engine work less, and improve efficiency.
For example, in the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the full hybrid system uses a large 105-kW electric motor and a 245-volt Nickel-Metal Hydride battery (compared to eAssists’ 15kW motor and 115-volt battery pack.) These two items in the Camry take up precious space and required unique engineering in order to place them optimally in the car without disturbing weight balance. Since the Malibu Eco uses a smaller motor, and a smaller battery, it should weigh less, and doesn’t need as much re-tooling to get the system in there.
Unfortunately, while the system may weigh less, the car does not. While the Malibu Eco is 100 lbs lighter than the Ford Fusion Hybrid, it’s also 130 lbs heavier than the Optima Hybrid, 42 to 163 lbs heavier than the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and 179 to 203 lbs heavier than the Toyota Camry Hybrid.
This helps identify the final issue with eAssist: fuel economy. The Malibu Eco is officially rated at 25 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, earning a combined rating of 29 mpg. The competition, on the other hand, gets significantly better ratings all around. The Kia Optima Hybrid, and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid are both rated at 35/40 mpg city/highway, with a combined rating of 37 mpg. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41/36 mpg city/highway and 39 mpg combined. Finally, the Toyota Camry Hybrid is rated at 43/39 mpg city/highway with a combined rating of 41 mpg.
That’s a huge difference, and it should come as no surprise that GM seems to be straying away from calling these cars hybrids.
eASSIST VS BASE POWERTRAINS
Polous explains that eAssist is really not aiming to compete with these products. “We’re trying to sell the base vehicle,” said Polous “we’re purposely trying not to go head-to-head against these full hybrid systems.”
That’s a tough argument to make when the pricing is so close to the full hybrid competition.
Rather, says Polous, with eAssist GM is looking to redefine a base powertrain. “The mission of eAssist is to upgrade, or replace the base powertrain,” he says. And while that might be true on the new Buick LaCrosse, it’s a $2,000 option on the Regal and is sold as an entirely separate Chevy Malibu Eco model, which will gain a non-hybrid 2.5-liter base model this year.
As for the non-hybrid models of the Malibu Eco’s competition, they all get around 28 mpg combined, except for the Ford Fusion, which gets 23 mpg. That means that the Malibu has better fuel economy by 1 mpg against the base Camry, Optima and Sonata, and 6 mpg more than the Fusion.
That sounds like a win for the Malibu, but then again, compare the prices of these vehicles. The Malibu Eco at $25,235 is $4,035 more than the base Optima, $4,340 more than the base Sonata, $4,530 more than the Ford Fusion, and $3,180 more than the Toyota Camry.
Perhaps one area where GM can succeed with its eAssist technology is in attracting buyers hesitant to adopt hybrid technology. In fact, GM has even gone so far as to avoid any use of the word hybrid in its literature. Still, with the Toyota Prius now ranked as one of the world’s best selling cars this year, consumer opinions about hybrid technology appear to have already changed.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
GM’s mild-hybrid gamble does not appear to be paying off, not for the consumer, and not for the automaker either. As mentioned, it has taken a beating in the press, including here at AutoGuide where we wrote, “Priced at $25,995 the Malibu Eco isn’t exactly a value leader, especially when you consider the hybrid Sonata and Camry both get considerably better fuel economy and cost about the same.” None of this can be good for sales.
Reviews of the Buick models proved more favorable, though as we pointed out in our Regal eAssist review, that is due in part to a lack of competition in the segment.
The upcoming non-eAssist Malibu may prove to be the ultimate test for the mild-hybrid system. The gasoline-exclusive Malibu will use a 2.5-liter engine, and if the EPA fuel ratings are comparable to the eAssist model, it could spell death for the mild-hybrid system, and could foreshadow the upcoming strategy for the Buick vehicles as well.