The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid gave us a strong sense of deja vu. We read the accolades accorded to the gas-only version, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, after its launch late last year, which reminded us of the good press received by the Saturn Aura the year before. And the Malibu Hybrid, with its belt alternator starter (BAS) hybrid system, reminded us of the mild hybrid system of the Saturn Aura Green Line. It seems that GM pioneered a good car launch story with the Aura and chose to repeat it with the Malibu this year. We've started taking bets around the office whether GM will repeat the strategy with Buick or Pontiac later this year.
From a tech standpoint, the Malibu Hybrid doesn't stand out. The hybrid system doesn't improve the emissions rating and delivers only a small economy boost. The cabin electronics rely on OnStar for most of their functionality. We like the stereo interface, which is simple but functional. The Malibu Hybrid works primarily as a value proposition, giving you a lot of car for relatively little money.
Test the tech: Fuel economy challenge
We spent our first few days with the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid driving it around the traffic-choked streets of San Francisco. During that time, we saw our average fuel economy hold around 19 mpg, far below the 24 mpg city economy promised us by the EPA. On the highway, the Malibu Hybrid is supposed to get 32 mpg. Strong hybrid systems, such as that found in the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, get better fuel economy in the city than on the highway, but the BAS system in the Malibu Hybrid doesn't produce that type of efficiency.
To try and get the Malibu Hybrid into its EPA fuel economy range, we took it on a road trip. And, as our car was a hybrid and we were in California, we couldn't think of a better test than a run to the wine country. Of course, most of California is wine country, so we opted for a region on the Central Coast, around Paso Robles, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
We set out in the morning, driving in minimal traffic down Interstate 280 then on to Highway 101 after San Jose. Our entire round trip would be about 450 miles, with most of it multilane highway driving. The I-280 section involved speeds closing on 75 mph with lots of hills, while 101 was a little more sedate, with speeds ranging between 60 and 70 mph.
Our trip computer had dropped below 19 mpg in San Francisco, and we were pleased to watch the mileage climb as we drove down the freeway. But how far up would it go? The instrument cluster has a green Eco light that turns on when you are driving in an economical manner, which means light acceleration at the most. But in practice, we couldn't keep that light on as we had to climb hills and pass slower traffic, pushing the gas pedal hard to get the 2.4-liter four-cylinder powerplant revving.
By the time we reached Paso Robles, more than 200 miles from San Francisco, we got our average mileage up over 23 mpg. But then we took a drive into the hills on a mountain road dotted with wineries, and our mileage began to dip again. We weren't overly concerned, as there was good wine to taste, with one winery even offering chocolate tasting. And our designated driver didn't drink, but only tasted the wine.
After we selected a few better-tasting wines to bring home, we got back on the road to continue our challenge. This stretch of 101 alternates between hills and flatland. We watched the average fuel economy slowly climb throughout this entire run. When we got to San Jose, it was clear of any heavy traffic, so we continued at a good pace, crossing the 25 mpg mark. We were well into the EPA range. And all along the rest of the journey, into San Francisco, the mileage rose, maxing out at 25.9 mpg. But in the city, it began to dip rapidly back down. We never got close to the 32 mpg highway number promised by the EPA, and figured a more realistic range for the Malibu Hybrid might be 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.
In the cabin
Just as with the exterior, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid's interior design makes it clear that GM is trying to up its quality level to compete with imports such as the Honda Accord. The interior fit and finish of the Malibu Hybrid are good, although we weren't crazy about the materials or the look. The Malibu Hybrid uses sweeping curves around the driver and front passenger areas that reminded us of the interior in the Subaru Tribeca. It almost seems like the car is trying too hard.
Navigation and hands-free calling are available with OnStar. We've used OnStar navigation before, and it works reasonably well, although you have to be in a cell-phone-capable area. We prefer self-contained GPS systems built into a car's dashboard. For hands-free calling, you can get a phone number assigned to the car through OnStar, but then you need separate numbers for your cell phone and car. Again, we prefer a self-contained Bluetooth system.