Chevrolet's midsize hybrid Malibu helps many causes

Sunday, May 31, 2009

There's at least one way to help domestic automakers and their U.S. workers while reducing use of imported oil: Buy a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid.

The gas-electric hybrid Malibu built in Kansas is a roomy, 16-foot-long family sedan with a generous-sized trunk and the best fuel mileage of any midsize or large Chevrolet.

The Malibu Hybrid also comes fully stocked with safety features, including curtain air bags, electronic stability control and antilock brakes, and earned five out of five stars in government crash tests.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2009 Malibu Hybrid is $26,275. It comes standard with automatic transmission, fabric-upholstered seats, 17-inch wheels, power door locks and mirrors, split-folding rear seats and AM/FM stereo with CD player.

It also has some things no foreign-based hybrid car has: General Motors Corp.'s OnStar emergency notification system and a warranty backed by the U.S. government.

The federal government said it would back the warranties of new GM cars when Chevrolet's parent company, GM, presented its financial struggles to Washington and received government bailout funds this year.

To be sure, the Malibu Hybrid's price is higher than smaller gas-electric hybrid cars.

For example, the 2009 Toyota Prius, which also seats five people but is a hatchback that's 16.8 inches shorter than the Malibu, carries an MSRP plus destination charge of $22,750. The 2010 Honda Insight, another smaller-size hybrid hatchback with seats for five, starts at $20,470.

But the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid is a tad higher in base price than the Malibu Hybrid -- $26,900.

The Malibu Hybrid has the same pleasing exterior styling that other, non-hybrid Malibus have. The look is modern without being showy, and the shape is pretty much like that of Honda and Toyota's mainstream family sedans such as the Accord and Camry.

About the only obvious sign that the Malibu is a hybrid is the badge on the car.

Inside, the look is clean and there's nothing gimmicky about the controls and gauges.

But this car doesn't have the eye-catching energy display -- complete with a diagram of a car -- that the Prius typically has. The reason: The Malibu Hybrid is a "mild" hybrid whose fuel savings come primarily from the ability of the four-cylinder engine to turn itself off automatically when the car is stopped at traffic lights and stop signs and cued up at school loading zones.

Thankfully, there's an "auto stop" light that comes on in the instrument cluster at these times so the driver knows the car is still OK and hasn't stalled or quit working. But with the engine off, the Malibu isn't using gasoline, resulting in improved fuel mileage.

The 2.4-liter, double overhead cam, Ecotec four cylinder starts up on its own the instant a driver begins to lift a foot from the brake pedal after a stop.

On hot summer days, passengers won't swelter in a car whose engine turns off automatically at stoplights. The Malibu Hybrid monitors air conditioning needs and in the test car readily starts up the engine even at traffic lights when cool air is needed.

Better yet, the test car started up smoothly, not rough and unrefined, as I had experienced in an earlier, 2008 model.

The 164-horsepower, Ecotec four cylinder, with a maximum torque of 159 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm, got buzzy in demanding acceleration, and I needed to plan ahead to pass other vehicles on highways.

Indeed, on one uphill section of highway, the car struggled to maintain its momentum in the passing lane. It felt like there was only enough power to climb the hill, not pass another vehicle at the same time.

And, in contrast with the Prius and Honda Insight, there was no gratifying "oomph" from electric-motor torque in the Malibu. Remember, the Malibu is a mild hybrid, so it doesn't propel the car by battery power alone.

Watch for the Malibu Hybrid's unwieldy turning circle of 40.4 feet. This compares with 34.1 feet in the Prius.

In combined city and highway travel, I got more than 28 mpg. Note that even the Malibu Hybrid's government rating of 26/34 mpg is less than those of the Prius, Camry Hybrid and Insight.

Still, at 3,537 pounds, the Malibu Hybrid doesn't feel lightweight. Rather, there's a stable feel to the car, and the interior is quiet. There's also generous room in the back seat. I could sit there, with the front seat up a ways on its track, and stretch my legs. Seats are comfortable, although I'd expect the driver's seat to have standard power adjustment in a car starting at more than $26,000. But here, a power-adjustable driver's seat is a $200 option.

And rear-seat headroom of 37.2 inches is less than what's in the Prius, Insight and Camry Hybrid.

Rear-door openings on the Malibu Hybrid are good-sized, and the test car rides smoothly over most roads.

The 15.1-cubic-foot trunk is a bonus, because hybrids typically sacrifice trunk space for storage of their energy-storing battery pack. Not so in the Malibu.

Buyers can get a $1,550 U.S. tax credit on the Malibu Hybrid, while hybrid tax credits for Toyotas and Hondas have ended.

The Malibu Hybrid credit doesn't come at the time of purchase and isn't cash. But buyers can document their purchase to reduce their 2009 federal income taxes by $1,550. Taxpayers subject to alternative minimum tax may not qualify.

Finally, 77 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrids from the 2009 model year were recalled to reprogram the ventilation system so fog and frost wouldn't build up on the windshields.

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