The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, one of the most impressive cars out of Detroit in decades, is detailed in a separate review, so I’m reporting on the 2008 Malibu Hybrid, focusing on the hybrid aspects and my experiences with it on an interstate trip as well as around town.
A funny thing happened on the way to buy hybrids: Shoppers figured out that they cost more than comparable gas-only cars — sometimes a lot more. Then another funny thing happened: Federal tax credits for the most prolific hybrid manufacturer — Toyota — ran dry, and Honda’s dropped to half the original amount for Civic Hybrids sold between January 1 and June 30, 2008. (Come July 1, 2008, they drop to 25 percent of the original.) Suddenly, more affordable “mild” hybrids that people once dismissed because their overall mileage numbers weren’t as impressive are beginning to seem like a better idea, as are models from non-traditional hybrid manufacturers, like Chevrolet. With its $1,300 tax credit still intact, the Chevy Malibu Hybrid looks like just such a car. But is it? That depends on how much fuel you hope to save, how much you’re willing to pay up front and what you compare the Malibu Hybrid to. If you’re comparing it to other hybrid cars, you’d have to be looking for some specific aspect of the Malibu (such as its size) for it to compete.
The 2008 Malibu Hybrid is sold only in about a dozen markets — or, rather, it was sold in only about a dozen markets. It’s sold out. Fear not; the 2009 models will begin production in June and will be sold nationwide. It will be identical to the car reviewed here.
So you’ll have perspective on this car, I’ll emphasize that this is a mild hybrid whose technology first appeared in the 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line and was later used for the Saturn Aura, which is the Malibu’s sister car. It’s called the GM Hybrid System. A newer, more efficient and more expensive system, called 2-Mode Hybrid, is now hitting the streets in the Chevy Tahoe and its sister SUVs and pickups.
Chevy has made no promises about an all-new 2-Mode Malibu, but GMHS will be updated for 2010 and is expected to triple assist power and increase efficiency to roughly 20 percent over the non-hybrid. The current system is good for a gain of up to 9 percent.
Aside from some Hybrid badges, nothing distinguishes the exterior from the non-hybrid: no additional spoilers or aerodynamic treatments, and no ginormous “HYBRID” decals like those on the Tahoe Hybrid SUV. Inside, the instrument panel has a few unique elements. The tachometer gauge adds the positions “AUTO STOP” and “OFF” to distinguish between the two instances where the engine isn’t running. Opposite the fuel gauge is a charge/assist gauge — common among hybrids — that shows when the electric motor is assisting in acceleration or recharging the battery. In my time with the Hybrid, the needle almost never rose more than a half-tick into the assist range, even under heavy acceleration. The charge state appeared when I was coasting and braking.
Just above the fuel gauge is a green “eco” indicator that comes on when the system is operating most efficiently. It helps drivers train themselves to drive gently and maximize fuel savings. The instantaneous mpg rating on the trip computer also helps in this regard. Finally, the air-conditioning controls have a special mode that keeps the A/C on without running the gas engine full time, as the regular setting would.
How mild is GMHS? Compared to the most ambitious parallel hybrids, it’s pretty mild. The operative component is a belt-alternator-starter. Similar to the motor-generator in all hybrids, it’s smaller, runs on lower voltage and is connected to the four-cylinder engine by means of a belt rather than incorporated into the transmission. Now, you might be thinking, “How can a motor possibly help accelerate a car through a glorified fan belt?” If so, I’m right there with you, but a GM Powertrain engineer assured me that it’s good for a few horsepower that, at a minimum, relieve some of the engine’s inherent losses — friction and such. The result is the same: less work for the gas engine and thus less fuel burned. It also allows the engine to turn off when the car is stopped, restarting it instantly when your foot comes off the brake. It performs these tasks with no drama, as buyers have insisted.
The Chevrolet Malibu sedan has a conventional starter motor, too, so the first time you start it up for a drive it sounds just like any other car. From that point on, the alternator/starter component handles it. Unlike most hybrids, which use continuously variable gear ratios, GM has stuck with conventional transmissions in all of its models. The result is a hybrid that feels less like a hybrid. The engine revs up and the transmission shifts into the next gear, then the process repeats. The transmission is a slightly modified four-speed automatic. Where the drivetrain does feel different is when you’re coasting. All hybrids capture energy through regenerative braking. That’s where the motor that had been assisting the engine serves as a generator, powered by the car’s momentum, to recharge the high-voltage battery. In this way, it captures and reuses energy that a normal car would waste through braking.
Where the regeneration gives some hybrids a weird braking feel, the Chevrolet Malibu is pretty natural. It’s the coasting that feels different. Most automatics stay in a high gear as you coast, allowing for gradual deceleration that feels like you’re in neutral. The Malibu Hybrid’s transmission remains locked in a gear and you feel engine braking (though in this case it includes the drag of the electric generator). It’s more like the feel of a manual transmission with the clutch engaged. If you coast from highway speed to a standstill, the transmission will sequentially downshift along the way, squeezing whatever energy it can from the car’s momentum to recharge the battery pack.
This characteristic drove Cars.com reviewer Kelsey Mays mad when he tested the same system in the Saturn Vue Green Line. I had no real problem with it in the Malibu. To decelerate more gradually, you just have to maintain some pressure on the accelerator pedal. GM modified the transmission for this behavior to maximize regeneration. It’s necessary for the hybrid computer to control deceleration; Honda stopped making hybrids with manual transmissions (And dropped the Honda Accord Hybrid altogether) specifically because efficiency relies on behavior that drivers couldn’t be expected to execute.
A more practical tradeoff involves an obstruction in the trunk. It’s common for a hybrid car to lose trunk space and/or its folding backseat to the high-voltage battery pack. In the Malibu, this sacrifice exists, but it’s not as great as it is in some other cars. The pack spans the width of the trunk, creating a hump just behind the folding seats. It blocks almost half of the pass-thru height, but it doesn’t eliminate the feature entirely and it has minimal effect on the trunk itself.
I took the Malibu Hybrid on a round-trip between Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa. If you ever get the opportunity to make this drive, it’s a great way to develop new respect for the airplane. As usual, my travel companion for the interstate jaunt was Pepe Zapato-Pesado, who always insists on driving at least 15 mph above the speed limit. Because this can make a profound difference in fuel economy at highway speeds, I — a law-abiding citizen if ever there were one — looked the other way in the interest of science.
The westbound leg, with the incorrigible Pepe behind the wheel, delivered surprisingly high mileage numbers on the trip computer. Though the EPA-estimated mileage is 24/32 mpg, the readout displayed an average of 37 mpg. On the return trip, I headed back east, driving the speed limit, and was thrilled to see the instantaneous mileage readout hovering close to 40 mpg. With time and practice, I hit and then exceeded 40 mpg — 41, 42, then 43. My foot was feather light. The “eco” light was on most of the time. My skill at the helm of a hybrid was unparalleled. I was a genius! Then I stopped at a gas station for my first fill-up, and the wind nearly ripped the door off its hinges. There were tornado warnings throughout eastern Iowa and western Illinois. The Einstein of car reviewers had been enjoying a 20-mph tailwind.
The relentless wind blew the car all the way home, simultaneously blowing my examination of speed versus gas mileage. Near the end of the interstate trek, the computer showed average mileage of 39.5 mpg from an average of 64 mph. After a few miles of surface routes, it had dropped to 37.1 mpg and 60 mph, average. Over the next few days, the Malibu Hybrid traveled another 120 miles in Chicago and the suburbs, and even then the mileage was still 33 mpg overall at an average speed of 36 mph.
Out of curiosity, I calculated the mpg per tankful and came up with about 30 mpg over 410 miles and 31.5 mpg over 388 miles. This method is reliable only if you do it consistently for tankful after tankful, so two tanks isn’t enough. I’ve come to trust onboard mpg meters, but even if this one is skewed and the true mileage is somewhere between what it says and what I calculated, more than 30 mpg in mixed driving is more than simply acceptable in a car estimated to get a combined 27 mpg. Before 2008, EPA mileage numbers overestimated hybrid efficiency. My experience this year suggests that the new, generally more realistic 2008 method now underestimates their efficiency.
Now, is the Malibu Hybrid worth the money? It depends. At the same time those funny things are happening on the way to buy hybrids, something decidedly not funny is happening: Gas prices continue to set and break new records. So here we are, sinking a minimum of $50 into virtually any car we pull into the filling station, and facing an economy that hardly puts premium-priced cars atop anyone’s shopping list.
With the double-whammy of high gas prices and a soft economy, we’ve soured on the typical “comparably equipped” calculations, believing that a comparison to the most affordable gas-only version of a hybrid is a more relevant one when the objective is to save money.
|2008 Malibu Hybrid vs. Gas-Only Malibu and Competitors
||24/32 — 27
|22/30 — 25
|22/30 — 25
|22/30 — 25
|Malibu LTZ 4-cylinder
|22/32 — 25
|Malibu LTZ V-6
|17/26 — 20
|48/45 — 46
|Honda Civic Hybrid
|40/45 — 42
|Toyota Camry Hybrid
|33/34 — 34
Malibus come in four versions, each with a different price. Once you subtract the $1,300 tax credit for which it is eligible, the Hybrid’s price falls right in the middle, $445 less than the 2LT. The 2LT’s roughly 7 percent worse mileage might make the Malibu Hybrid worth choosing over this trim level, but it probably doesn’t justify the price premium over the LT or base Malibu LS.
Compared to the more expensive and less efficient LTZ versions, it’s a no-brainer. Remember that I’m not addressing differences in equipment; the goal is to save money. Only you can decide what the various standard features are worth to you, so fire up this side-by-side comparison and see for yourself.
A complicating factor: The LTZ with the four-cylinder engine has a new six-speed automatic transmission that replaces the standard four-speed. This boosts its highway mileage estimate to 32 mpg, equal to the Hybrid’s (or its EPA estimate, at least). The Hybrid costs less and still gives you an estimated 24 mpg in the city, versus the LTZ’s 22 mpg, so in this case it doesn’t much matter. However, come 2009, the Malibu 2LT will get the six-speed as standard equipment, raising its highway efficiency to that of the Hybrid. If the price spread remains the same (2009 pricing hasn’t been announced as of this report), the Hybrid minus the tax credit will cost about $400 more than the 2LT and deliver an estimated 9 percent higher city mpg. At this point, the 2LT’s slightly nicer interior and more standard features — like six-way power seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror, simulated and genuine suede and leather — might make the Hybrid moot. We’ll have to revisit this exam when the next-generation GMHS debuts in 2010.
Compared to other leading hybrid cars, the difference, again, depends on what you want. The remarkable Toyota Prius is neither as refined as the Malibu nor as roomy in most interior dimensions, but it delivers 48/45 mpg (conservative estimate) for a $21,100 list price. With its tax credit expired, the larger and more refined Toyota Camry Hybrid demands $25,200 for its estimated 33/34 mpg. A closer competitor is the Honda Civic, which, minus rebate, you can get for $21,550 if purchased before July 1 and $22,075 thereafter. It delivers an estimated 40/45 mpg. The Malibu is larger in some important dimensions, including backseat legroom and cargo space and flexibility, but if you can work with the smaller size, the Civic Hybrid’s cost/benefit ratio gives it a clear edge.