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.
We drive the Malibu Hybrid down to the Justin Winery, a little more than 200 miles from San Francisco.
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.
As we rolled back into San Francisco, our fuel economy was up to only 25.9 mpg.
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.
The stereo interface isn't pretty, but it actually works very well.
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.
The only other real tech piece in the car is the stereo, a system that comes with an MP3-capable CD player, XM satellite radio, and an auxiliary input jack. We've seen this stereo on other GM cars, such as the Saturn Aura. The radio display interface isn't pretty, but it works well. For satellite radio, it displays channel categories as tabs. You can press the Info button and see more information, such as song title, artist, or channel name. The system shows ID3 track information for MP3 CDs, although you have to push the scan button first. The system takes a little while to scan a CD, and you will have to rescan it every time you put the CD back in. An auxiliary input is mounted to the faceplate, although there aren't many convenient places around the dashboard for an MP3 player.
Scanning an MP3 CD takes a while, but the stereo shows complete track information once it is done.
The stereo's sound quality is mediocre, at best. You can adjust the audio with equalizer presets, or choose your own settings for bass and treble. But the audio system doesn't have a lot of power, and its bass response is unimpressive. We found that, even with the audio settings tweaked, the audio was flat, delivering high and lows in a muddle with the midrange.
Under the hood
The exterior styling of the Malibu Hybrid is nice, presenting a modern and unique look for a sedan. The roofline has a nice contour, and the C pillars seem influenced by those on the Cadillac CTS. Prominent hybrid badges let the world know you are concerned about the environment. As for driving, the throttle doesn't deliver much get-up-and-go, but we were happy with the steering response.
With the Malibu Hybrid, you get an extra gauge on the right showing when the hybrid system is charging and when it adds boost.
Our first indication of the Malibu Hybrid's anemic acceleration came when we were entering a freeway. This particular on-ramp has a stop before you merge onto a long, flat section of road, perfect for impromptu acceleration testing. We stomped the gas, and the car eased forward, the four-speed automatic moving sedately up through its gears. We watched the speedometer needle gradually climb, finally making its way over the 60 mph mark in what seemed like a good 15 seconds.
The engine in the Malibu Hybrid is a 2.4-liter four cylinder, which is supposed to get some extra boost from its BAS system. On the Hybrid, you get a gauge on the instrument cluster showing when the BAS system is charging or when it is adding boost, but we didn't feel much extra power when the needle showed boost. The BAS system includes an auto-stop feature, which turns off the engine during traffic stops. We liked that the car went quiet when we stopped at traffic lights, and found that it restarted readily and smoothly. Unfortunately, the Malibu Hybrid only auto-stops when you are in Drive and use the brakes--it keeps the engine idling when you are in Park or Neutral.
Prominent hybrid badges on the car show your concern for the environment.
While we weren't impressed with the car's pick-up, we like its handling. It wasn't fantastic, but after finding loads of understeer in the Mercury Sable and the Honda Accord, we were happy that the Malibu Hybrid went approximately where we pointed its front end. GM's Stabilitrack traction and stability control is standard on the Malibu Hybrid, along with antilock brakes.
We mentioned the unimpressive gas mileage for the Malibu Hybrid above. By comparison, the standard four-cylinder Malibu gets EPA numbers of 22 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, 2mpg worse than the Malibu Hybrid. There is also a six-cylinder Malibu that is rated by the EPA with 18 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. For emissions, the Malibu Hybrid gets only a LEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board, the minimum rating and the same as the other Malibu models.
Our review car was a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid with no options. The car comes in with an inexpensive base price of $22,140. Add on the $650 destination charge, and our total was $22,790, making it one of the cheapest hybrids you can get. But you get what you pay for, and, as we've pointed out, we aren't terribly impressed with this hybrid system. For a comparably sized hybrid, you would get a much better, and more expensive, tech car with either the Toyota Camry Hybrid or the Nissan Altima Hybrid. Both alternatives use a much more capable hybrid system and have excellent tech options. GM has started rolling out its more capable two-mode hybrid system in its SUVs, and we hope to see this system appear in sedans like the Malibu.
For our tech rating, we give the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid a moderate score for its cabin gadgets, taking into account the OnStar contributions. For its powertrain, it scores about average, gaining some points for its handling and auto-stop feature.