Tuesday, June 16, 2009

2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid Car Review

Chevrolet is relegating its 2009 Malibu Hybrid to fleet buyers only due to poor sales. The bow-tie brand will begin working on a “two-mode” hybrid system that should be available in about a year, but until then, non-fleet customers won’t be able to get a hybrid Malibu. So that makes the tester that I had recently one of the last Malibu Hybrids available to the general public. As special as that is, something tells me these cars won’t be showing up at Barrett-Jackson in 20 years. But you never know.

The Basics

The Malibu Hybrid is a “mild” hybrid, meaning that it has an electric motor/generator that assists the gasoline engine, in order to improve fuel economy. A “mild” hybrid works differently than a “two-mode” system. “Two-mode” hybrids can be powered by either the electric motor or the gasoline motor or both, depending on driving needs. “Mild” hybrids, by contrast, use an electric motor to assist the gasoline engine. In the Malibu’s case, the hybrid system does allow for the gas motor to shut off at stoplights, and it also shuts off the fuel supply early during deceleration. Finally, the electric motor can give the gas engine a boost while at full throttle. All this adds up to an EPA-rated fuel economy of 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.

That electric motor/generator mates to a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, and the hybrid powertrain is matched up with a 4-speed automatic transmission. Available safety features include ABS, traction control, an antiskid system, front side airbags, and curtain side airbags.

Standard features on my tester included air conditioning, satellite radio, a CD player, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, and a tilt and telescopic steering wheel. Base price? $25,555. The only options were a power 6-way adjuster for the driver’s seat ($200), and the black granite metallic paint ($95). With the options and the $670 destination fee, the as-tested price was $26,520.

Drive Impressions

Turn the key in the Malibu Hybrid, and it fires up in the same manner as a conventional gasoline-powered car. Step on the gas and acceleration is lively, particularly for a midsize car. Back off the gas, and an “eco” light comes on in the gauge cluster, indicating that you are driving in a more eco-friendly way.

Speaking of eco-friendliness, one of the reasons that the Malibu Hybrid wasn’t selling well was its lack of a major fuel-economy boost over conventional Malibu models. Indeed, 4-cylinder Malibus get 30 mpg highway with the 4-speed automatic and 33 mpg with the 6-speed automatic, which is just one mpg shy of the hybrid, according to the EPA. Real-world results were a tad disappointing: I averaged 20.5 mpg in mostly city driving, which isn’t great. I applaud the Malibu Hybrid for shutting off the gas engine when the vehicle is stopped as a fuel-saving measure, but I still expected better results overall.

Ride and handling are on the sporty side, with just a smidge of stiffness. That’s not to say the ride is punishing, it isn’t. But it is firmer than say, a Toyota Camry. Thankfully, its handling responses are also tauter. Sure, it’s not a sports car, but the Malibu Hybrid isn’t as averse to cornering maneuvers as some of its competitors are. Light, accurate steering helps it cause. Settle into a highway cruise, and the Malibu is generally planted, although some sharper bumps are felt.

The interior is a pleasant place to do business, although too much engine noise intrudes, especially under acceleration. The design is pleasing to the eye, and most of the switches are within easy reach, and are easy to use. Small-item storage is above average. There are a couple of downsides: The seats are a bit stiff on longer drives, and there are too many plastic surfaces throughout the cockpit. One other demerit: Interior space seems a bit cramped compared to others in this class.

Out back, the trunk is plenty large, and it should fit luggage or golf bags with no problems. The decklid is nicely integrated into the car’s overall exterior styling, which is handsome while still hewing to the conservative tastes of the class. No more rental-car look, which was the burden of the previous Malibu. No, this is a handsome ride--in an understated sort of way. The look is marred a bit by a couple of large “Hybrid” window stickers, but that’s a small price to pay for showing off your “green” sensibilities.

Final Thoughts

The Malibu is already a very strong choice in the midsize segment, so it made sense for Chevy to make a hybrid version to compete against Toyota’s Camry Hybrid and the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Unfortunately, the “mild” hybrid doesn’t bring the same fuel-economy gains as a “two-mode” system would. The Malibu is a great car, but unless you really need the one extra highway mpg or you really like the eco-friendly image of being a hybrid driver, I’d stick with the conventional 4-cylinder models.

Positives: Upscale interior, sleek exterior styling, sporty handling

Negatives: A tad noisy, a bit small inside, slightly stiff seats

Base Price: $25,555

Price as Tested: $26,520

Key Competitors: Ford Fusion Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid


Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder combined with electric motor/generator

Horsepower: 164 @ 6,400 RPM

Torque: 159 @ 5,000 RPM

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 112.3 inches

Length: 191.8 inches

Width: 70.3 inches

Height: 57.1 inches

Curb Weight: 3,537 lb

Cargo Volume: 15.1 cu. ft.

Fuel Capacity: 16.3 gallons

Seating Capacity: 5

Front Head Room: 39.4 inches

Front Leg Room: 42.2 inches

Rear Head Room: 37.2 inches

Rear Leg Room: 37.6 inches


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