Here's a sign of the times when it comes to gas prices and the uncertainty of where they're heading: Chevy's new Malibu Eco. They not only created a model with better fuel economy, they introduced it before the regular Malibu.
The previous version of the Malibu was pretty successful and gave Chevrolet a much more solid entry in the very competitive world of mid-size sedans.
For 2012, the car gets a new look, borrowing a bit from the sporty Camaro in the shape of the tail lights. The Camaro-esque look continues inside, with a dual gauge pod that helps set off an all-new interior.
But it's underneath where the Malibu Eco really shows off, with lots of little tricks to eke out a few more miles per gallon. Chevrolet's smaller sedan, the Cruze, also comes as an optional Eco model.
In the case of the Malibu, Chevy's engineers gave the four-cylinder engine a bit of a boost in the form of what's called a "mild hybrid arrangement."
There's a small electric motor driven by a high-capacity battery in back. You can't drive on electricity alone, but the electric drive means the engine doesn't have to work as hard.
The payoff is an EPA fuel economy rating of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway. Not quite as good as a full hybrid, but what GM calls "eAssist" technology costs a lot less to build.
When it comes to maximizing fuel economy, it isn't just the engine and transmission, although obviously those are key. It also comes down to aerodynamics. Lower louvers below the radiator screen up front will close up at speed to help the air slip by. There are even aerodynamic enhancements underneath the car. At highway speeds, every little bit helps for maximum miles per gallon.
No part of the Malibu was ignored to create the Eco model. Air slips by much better and special tires help reduce rolling resistance. And like other kinds of hybrids, braking energy is recovered and put into the battery.
The idea behind the Eco is to let you get better mileage during everyday driving. A few more miles per gallon never hurt, and it's definitely a sign of the times.