The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu demonstrated that GM could build a midsize family sedan to challenge the segment leaders head-on. With its sleek exterior, roomy cabin, comfortable ride and fuel-efficient drivetrains, the Malibu has become Chevrolet's best-selling car.
Chevrolet also sells a hybrid version of the Malibu — aptly named the Malibu Hybrid — which is the model I tested. It's different from other midsize sedan hybrids, like the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid, in that it uses a less complex mild-hybrid system, and it undercuts both of those models' base prices. (See a side-by-side comparison of these three models here.)
However, the Malibu Hybrid doesn't achieve the impressive city fuel economy estimates of the Camry and Fusion hybrids, which get 33 and 41 mpg, respectively. The Malibu Hybrid is rated at 26/34 mpg city/highway, which doesn't look all that special when you can buy a gas-only Malibu that gets 22/33 mpg. In the end, the Malibu Hybrid keeps most of what's good about the gas-only model, though it suffers from a four-speed automatic transmission that isn't particularly refined.
Acceptable Power, Underwhelming Transmission
The heart of the Malibu Hybrid is its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which is paired with an electric motor that can offer supplementary power when necessary. Unlike the Camry Hybrid and Milan Hybrid, the electric motor alone can't propel the Malibu Hybrid; it's merely an alternator/starter attached to the engine by means of a belt. While the gas engine will shut off when you come to a halt — called "auto-stop" — as soon as you lift your foot off the brake pedal the engine springs back to life to be ready to accelerate the car.
The Malibu Hybrid won't shove you back in your seat when accelerating — its hybrid drivetrain makes 164 horsepower — but it has no trouble keeping up with traffic if you're not opposed to pressing hard on the gas pedal at times. It builds speed like a traditional four-cylinder midsize sedan — quick enough, but not blazingly so.
There's something not quite right, however, with the automatic transmission's shift quality. It tends to lurch between gears, whether it's upshifting when accelerating or downshifting when slowing to a stop. This isn't one of those cases where the transmission makes an occasional unpleasant shift that you could probably live with; it happens all the time, even once the car is warmed up. The unrefined nature is only magnified when compared with models like the Camry Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid, which use continuously variable automatic transmissions that do a fine job transmitting power smoothly to the wheels.
The nature of the Malibu's hybrid system also means that it isn't necessarily the best choice if you do a lot of stop-and-go driving. During the course of a 35-mile drive that took me on highways, suburban roads and city streets, the Malibu Hybrid averaged as high as 30 mpg in steady highway traffic. However, as soon as I hit a patch of stop-and-go traffic on my return trip, I began to see my average fuel economy fall. That's normal for gas-only cars, which achieve their best gas mileage when traveling at a constant speed, but this is where many other hybrids excel because they can rely more on the electric motor. Not so with the Malibu Hybrid, which was averaging 26 mpg at the end of my trip. That's right in line with its city gas mileage estimate, but notably less than its hybrid competitors.
The Malibu Hybrid's regenerative braking system deserves credit for its good, firm pedal feel. It's very easy to control braking response and avoid jerky stops.
Ride & Handling
One of the Malibu's better qualities is its ride comfort, and that hasn't been lost in the hybrid. A too-firm ride was one of my chief complaints in my review of the Mercury Milan Hybrid, which is related to the Fusion Hybrid, and there is a fine line between a suspension that's merely taut and one that's harsh. The Malibu stays on the right side of that line with its suspension tuning, which gives you a feel for the road but at the same time prevents potholes, larger bumps and manhole covers from jarring you. Whether you hit a big dip in the road or are hustling the car through a corner, the setup does a good job controlling body motions, too.
The sedan's steering isn't especially communicative, but it is precise, and there's a moderate degree of weight to the wheel when you turn it. Like the Saturn Aura to which the Malibu is related, the steering wheel makes you feel like you're driving a bus; a smaller one is in order.
The Malibu Hybrid's cabin is quiet, particularly at higher speeds. There's just a hint of wind noise on the highway, and the relative silence in the cabin makes you feel like you're in a more expensive car.
An Almost-World-Class Cabin
Chevrolet took a chance with the interior styling of the Malibu by giving it a look that sets it apart from the traditionally bland midsize norm. The design is enhanced by the use of upscale materials for the dash, buttons and knobs that have a quality feel and dazzling aqua-blue backlighting that highlights the instruments and center control panels.
The cabin is only about four-fifths of the way there, however, as there are still too many rough-edged trim pieces in plain sight, particularly where the door trim meets the side windows. Also, the driver's armrest — which you use to pull the door shut — doesn't really feel solidly attached to the door.
Those things aside, the Malibu Hybrid has a comfortable driving position and large bucket seats that offer good thigh support. The seats are finished in cloth, and the driver's seat can have optional power adjustments (the bottom cushion is powered, while backrest and lumbar adjustments remain manual).
There's decent room in the backseat for adults. While it may not be as large as the Camry Hybrid back there, it's not far behind, and there's enough legroom for taller passengers thanks to deep cutouts in the back of the front seats. Where the backseat comes up a little short is in headroom, where there's not a lot of extra space, and in its backrest cushioning, which is notably harder than the comfortable bottom cushions.
The Malibu Hybrid's trunk is slightly smaller than the regular model's — 13.3 cubic feet versus 15.1 — because part of the space is taken by the hybrid system's high-voltage battery pack. The battery is rectangular in shape and runs along the forward part of the trunk, but unlike the Fusion Hybrid and Milan Hybrid, which lose the folding backseats of their gas-only siblings, the Malibu Hybrid retains a 60/40-split folding backseat. The opening between the trunk and cabin is smaller because of the battery pack, but it's nice to see that this feature was retained.
Though the Malibu Hybrid's gas mileage estimates are lower than those of competitors like the Camry and Fusion hybrids, gas mileage is only part of the financial equation if you're trying to decide between the most affordable and the hybrid version of a car.
|Base Models Versus Hybrids|
|2010 Fusion S||2010 Fusion Hybrid||2010 Camry||2010 Camry Hybrid||2009 Malibu LS||2009 Malibu Hybrid|
|Federal tax credit*||--||$1,700||--||--||--||$1,550|
|Gas mileage (city/hwy/combined)||23/34/27||41/36/39||22/32/26||33/34/34||22/30/25||26/34/29|
|Hybrid price premium||--||27%||--||28%||--||11%|
|Hybrid efficiency increase†||--||44%||--||31%||--||16%|
|Years to recoup hybrid's extra expense‡||--||10.5||--||14||--||9.6|
|*As of publication. The Fusion Hybrid's credit changes to $850 beginning Oct. 1, 2009, and disappears on April 1, 2010.|
**Includes price of optional automatic transmission or subtraction of tax credit, where applicable.
†Over base model using combined mileage ratings.
‡Compared with the gas-only sibling when driving 15,000 miles a year, assuming regular gas costs $3 a gallon.
It's worth noting that the extra cost of a hybrid can't be entirely attributed to the hybrid system; the Camry Hybrid, for instance, has a higher level of features, like automatic air conditioning and keyless entry.
Though the Malibu Hybrid takes the shortest amount of time to recoup its extra cost when compared with a base model, the base Malibu is at least $1,160 more than a base automatic-transmission Camry or Fusion, but gets the lowest combined mileage of those three — 25 mpg, versus 27 mpg for a Fusion S and 26 mpg for a Camry. Both of these things work in the Malibu Hybrid's favor when calculating how long it will take to make up its price difference. Still, nearly 10 years is a long time.
Malibu Hybrid in the Market
It's a distant memory now, but the price of gas really did average more than $4 a gallon last summer, which greatly increased demand for efficient cars — even used econoboxes.
If you're already considering a midsize sedan like the Malibu, you'll get decent gas mileage with just a gas-only model if you stick with a four-cylinder engine. Hybrid versions come with a higher price tag, but if you're of the mind that gas prices will go way up in the future, the extra cost might not seem so steep, especially when you look beyond your pocketbook and consider the environmental benefits.
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