University of Washington engineering students are turning a gas-powered car into an unusual electric-diesel hybrid as part of a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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At first glance, the new Chevy Malibu jacked up on the ground-floor lab of the University of Washington’s mechanical-engineering annex doesn’t look like anything special — except that it’s missing its engine.

When they’re done with it, though, several dozen of the school’s engineering students will have transformed it into one of two electric-biodiesel hybrid Chevy Malibus in the world that run on two separate motors — one for the front wheels, one for the back.

The car will use battery power for the first 45 miles, then switch over to a biodiesel engine. Students estimate it will get the equivalent of 96 miles per gallon.

Last year, the UW was one of 15 universities selected to participate in a car-design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors. The EcoCAR 2 competition, which takes place over three years, aims to give students real-world, hands-on experience in redesigning a car to run on different fuel mixes.

The car-design challenge has a 23-year history, and in the past, participating college students gained enough experience to step immediately into jobs in the auto industry when they graduated. Some of the UW students already have received auto-industry job offers or internships.

And their design innovations could one day be incorporated into cars we all drive, as auto manufacturers work to meet a 55-miles-per-gallon federal fuel standard scheduled to take effect in 2025.

The UW students took a major step toward the Malibu’s conversion last month when they removed its gas-powered engine. A diesel engine comes next. By spring, the car will also gain an electric motor.

“It’s a ridiculous amount of work, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done — and it’s great because of that,” said Trevor Crain, a project leader who is pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

The students in the 30-member EcoCAR 2 program say they have spent thousands of hours on the car design — working until late at night, coming in on weekends.

Much of the work takes place away from the car itself, on computers equipped with high-end software. It’s the same software that car manufacturers use when designing new vehicles, and it allows students to test different parts for performance and safety, and to figure out how those parts will fit in the engine compartment.

Josh Wilke, a mechanical-engineering student, spent more than 100 hours on a single analysis of one of the car’s components — and he’s not done yet. “It’s a great learning experience,” he said.

Brendan Boyer, a mechanical-engineering student, said one of the biggest challenges is learning how to use the powerful design software. The real-world aspect of the work makes it more interesting: “I’m actually modeling a real part that has to survive a crash, that has to meet federal safety standards,” he said.

The mechanical-engineering department first got involved last year, when students entered the competition by writing a proposal to turn a gas-powered car into an electric-biodiesel hybrid. After they were selected, they received hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and software needed to redesign the car. They also got the car — a 2013 Chevy Malibu, donated by General Motors.

Crain said students are redesigning the Malibu with two motors — a diesel to power the front wheels, an electric for the back wheels.

The car is designed to run 45 miles on an electric charge, with the rear wheels doing all the work. When it runs out of juice, power will switch to the front wheels, and it will become a front-wheel-drive car running on biodiesel.

It’s called a “through-the-road” hybrid because the front and back wheels are not connected through a drive train; the car’s two ends are, in effect, connected by the road it drives on, Crain said. Another team of EcoCAR students, at Purdue University, is using a similar strategy to power a car, so the UW’s won’t be the competition’s only electric-and-diesel car.

Crain said the team likes the idea of a two-motor car. It will be engineered so that if a driver floors the gas pedal, the car will go into performance mode and both motors will kick in simultaneously. The car should be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds — an improvement to the gas-only Chevy Malibu, which goes from 0 to 60 in 8.2 seconds.

“The goal of the whole thing is to get it where the consumer doesn’t see the difference between this and a conventional vehicle, other than that it’s smoother and quicker,” Crain said.

The competition won’t conclude until 2014, but at the end of the first year, the UW team placed fifth overall among the 15 teams — the highest rank among any of the schools new to the competition.

The UW placed first in three categories — the best electrical presentation, the best energy-storage design and the spirit award.

“We really have this unique character, this team,” said Tyler Rose, a business and marketing major who is part of EcoCAR 2.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.