By BJ Killeen
Writing comparison tests used to be a lot easier. There were really good cars, good cars, bad cars and really bad cars. Today, there are really good cars and good cars. That line is often razor thin, so picking a winner comes down to the details. So will the details matter in our faceoff between the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid and 2013 Chevrolet Malibu ECO?
Before the redesigns of these two midsize fighters, it would have been a much closer battle. Both the Fusion and the Malibu were affordable, good-looking, solid performers whose purchase decision could be based on a coin toss. For 2013, a lot has changed.
Design Evolution or Revolution?
We really liked the looks of both the previous Fusion and Malibu. However, the Fusion’s new skin is definitely a revolution, while the Malibu is more evolution. And while we know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Ford Fusion wins based on its sleek modern styling, with swept-back headlamps, a strong side character line, and a flush back end.
The Malibu ECO is a bit more bold in front, with a pronounced grille that seems a bit too in your face. The sides are plain, and the rear taillamps don’t seem to match the front design. The difference in aerodynamic design can be translated to numbers: the Malibu ECO has a drag coefficient of 0.30, while the Fusion’s is 0.28. We’re not saying the Malibu is ugly—it isn’t. But we like the more forward-vision appearance of the Fusion.
The Malibu ECO is more appealing inside than outside, with a rounded approach to the center console display. The use of premium materials, the excellent fit and finish, and the quiet cabin put a lot of checks in the win box. Comfortable seats, good ergonomics, and a great tactile feel to the knobs, buttons and switches make a great impression even on a short drive. On a longer drive is where you appreciate it even more. On our test vehicle, the leather package was a $1,000 option, and included 8-way power heated seats for the front row.
The Ford Fusion’s interior styling is a close second to the Malibu. It looks good, also uses high-quality materials, and also is quiet, but doesn’t seems as modern as the exterior. If you want leather seats in the Fusion Hybrid, you’ll have to step up to the Luxury package for $2,000, but in addition to 10-way power heated leather seats, you also get electrochromic exterior mirrors, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift lever.
For those who care about the hard numbers, the Fusion beats the Malibu in just about ever dimension. The Fusion has 5 inches more wheelbase than Malibu, more front and rear head room, more front and rear leg room, more front and rear shoulder room, the same front hip room and more rear hip room. It even has more passenger volume. The Malibu does win on cargo capacity, by a significant 5 cubic feet, but the differences are because of the hybrid systems. In a non-hybrid comparison of these two vehicles, the Malibu cargo space edges out the Fusion by a scant 0.3 cubic feet.
We also must talk about connectivity, since we spend a lot of time in our vehicles and feel the need to be connected to the world. The Malibu offer’s Chevrolet’s MyLink system, which features a large color touchscreen and easy access to navigation, weather, traffic and satellite radio (if equipped), Pandora and Stitcher Radio, as well as other audio controls. The system is quick, easy to see, and easy to use. The Fusion features MyFord Touch, a system that’s much maligned because no one bothers to take the time to learn it. As an early adopter of technology, I like the system mostly because you can control it via voice, touchscreen and even buttons on the steering wheel. It offers many excellent features, and once you get accustomed to it, it’s darn good. However, it’s true that the system is a bit on the slow side, and needs a significant overhaul before the general public will be more accepting.
Power to the People
Now is a good time to discuss the real purpose of these vehicles: fuel economy. Both the Fusion Hybrid and Malibu ECO are aimed directly at buyers who are trying to spend less money at the pump and get more mileage on the highway. This category offers the easiest win to the Fusion. The reality of that statement is the Fusion is a true parallel hybrid, while the Malibu ECO is a mild hybrid, which accounts for the major different in the fuel economy numbers.
The Fusion Hybrid’s motive power comes from the combination of a 2.4-liter Atkinson cycle inline four-cylinder engine along with an 35kW electric traction motor and a 1.4kWh lithium-ion battery. The Fusion Hybrid can run in pure EV mode or in hybrid mode with the gas engine and electric motor working together. The Fusion claims fuel economy figures of 47 city/47 highway.
The Malibu’s numbers of 29-mpg city and 37-mpg highway don’t come close. Why? Because the 2013 Chevy Malibu ECO cannot run in pure EV mode. It has a 15W motor with an 0.5 kW lithium-ion battery designed to assist (hence why Chevy calls the system eAssist) the gas engine when extra power is required. The Malibu also uses neat tricks like shutting down fuel delivery when decelerating (coasting) to help save fuel. And while this is a good start, it’s no match for a true hybrid drive system like in the Fusion. Remember, fuel economy numbers are estimates, and every driver can do better or worse depending on endless factors and driving styles.
The Malibu features a 6-speed automatic transmission while the Fusion has a CVT, and both offer standard electric power steering. They both also have regenerative braking to help generate power back into the battery. If you dont know what is a hybrid, you can read more about eco friendly car modelshere.
So how do they drive? Regardless of how the power is delivered, both the Fusion and the Malibu offer good ride quality around town and on the road. Like the Malibu, which shares a platform with GM’s European Open Insignia, the Ford Fusion also is a global car, and will be badged Mondeo when it reaches the shore across the ocean. The difference is the Malibu’s ride was softened for Americans. It would have been nice to keep a bit sportier feel in both steering and handling. The Fusion, however, is designed and engineered in America, but with the European market in mind. The goal was to make it ride and handle well for both continents, without changing any suspension or tuning. And Ford did just that. The new Fusion feels more like a European sport sedan, without sacrificing ride quality. For 80 percent of U.S. buyers, both vehicles will be fine. But for those who want a bit more road-going feel, the Fusion gets the edge here.
Money Makes the World Go ’Round
As much as we’d like to disbelieve it, most people go into a dealership with price and monthly payments as their first question for the salesperson. It’s hard to talk value instead of price, but I’ve always said you drive the vehicle, not the price. Who cares if you paid $2,000 less if you hate every minute you’re behind the wheel?
Value is how much car you get for the money, resale value, and driving pleasure. The truth here is pricing is close. The 2013 Malibu ECO is available in 1SA and 2SA trim, and starts at $25,795, with the 2SA basing at $27,405.Our test model was the 2SA, with destination charges of $810, the leather package, crystal red tintcoat, and cocoa fashion trim for a total of $28,950.
The Fusion Hybrid comes in SE trim for $27,200 or Titanium at $32,200. Our SE test model also had a handful of options: Reverse Sensing System, Technology package for $895 (Rearview Camera, SYNC Services and MyFord Touch, 110v outlet), Adaptive Cruise Control for $995, and voice-activated navigation at $795. Add $795 for destination and delivery, and the Fusion SE out the door will cost you $31,625. The difference is the $3,000 worth of technology most of which is not available on the Malibu.
While we believe you will do well with either vehicle, we have to give the nod to the Fusion, by virtue of its fresher styling, impressive technology features, and sportier ride. The midsize sedan segment is responsible for over 2 million unit sales each year, and there’s a lot of money and pride at stake for these manufacturers. The Fusion and Malibu compete in a crowded market that also includes the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, all strong players as well, and the Camry also offers a hybrid model, with the Accord Hybrid due in a few months. It’s a tough segment, and it’s almost a fight to the death to be on top. The 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid is doing a great job of making the trek to the peak.