DETROIT -- The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco, the mild-hybrid version of Chevy's muscular mid-sized redesign, has been turning plenty of heads in Jim Stutzman's showroom. There just haven't been many takers.
Instead, customers are clamoring for the outgoing 2012 Malibu, which lacks the mild-hybrid technology. With incentives, the 2012 can be had for around $6,000 less than the newer model.
"I can't really say a whole lot about how well the Eco has taken off because all of the focus has been on pushing the '12s," says Stutzman, owner of Jim Stutzman Chevrolet-Cadillac in Winchester, Va. "There's cash on the hood."
General Motors sought to jump ahead of a slew of rival mid-sized sedan launches by releasing the Malibu Eco in March. That was about six months before the 2013's new 2.5-liter four-cylinder base engine was to be ready for a national launch.
GM CEO Dan Akerson ordered that the eAssist version of the next-generation Malibu, the first redesign since 2007, be pulled ahead. That leapfrogged redesigns of the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Honda Accord. GM advertised the Eco launch during the NCAA men's basketball tournament in March.
But the Eco has become a sideshow amid torrid sales of the incentive-laden 2012 model. From the March launch through June, GM sold about 7,000 Ecos, compared with about 100,000 of the 2012s.
The 2013 Malibu with the new base engine is scheduled to arrive in showrooms early in August. A version with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine will arrive this fall.
"It's been confusing in the marketplace with the new car sitting aside the old one for that long," says Alan Baum, an independent automotive analyst in suburban Detroit.
The Eco is a mid-level trim with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine teamed with GM's eAssist mild-hybrid system. It's priced at $26,095, including shipping, and gets 25 mpg in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway. The more powerful 2.5-liter version will be priced at $23,150 with shipping, with a highway mpg "approaching the mid-30s," GM says.
Russ Clark, Chevrolet's director of marketing for performance and mid-sized cars and crossovers, says Eco sales are meeting GM's expectations of about 10 percent of retail sales. In June, GM sold nearly 2,000 Ecos, which was about 12 percent of retail sales.
"So far it's been well received and well supported by the dealers," Clark says. "The car's performing about where we thought it would."
GM bills the Eco model as a way for buyers to boost fuel economy without the expense of a full hybrid system. But some fuel-efficient new rivals that are priced near, sometimes below, the Eco could make that a tough sell.
The base Toyota Camry hybrid, for example, sells for $655 more than the Malibu, including freight, and gets 43 mpg city/39 mpg highway. The recently launched 2013 Nissan Altima starts at $22,280 and gets 27/38 mpg with a 2.5-liter engine.
Clark says the base models of those cars don't have as much content as the Eco, which has Chevy's MyLink infotainment system.
"It's an extremely competitive segment. Somebody is always going to win on fuel economy," Clark says. "The customer looks at the total package of style, comfort, features, efficiency and confidence while driving the car."