In the AutoblogGreen Garage: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ and Hybrid

Click the Malibu for a high res gallery

There was a time not so many years ago when the best-selling cars in the U.S. market were mid-sized models from General Motors. Cars like the Oldsmobile Cutlass and Chevrolet Malibu outsold everything else by very healthy margin. In the middle of the 1980s, that changed as the successive generations of Honda's Accord grew larger, Toyota introduced the Camry and Ford brought out the then-radical Taurus and Sable. Sales of mid-sized GM passengers went into a steady decline with the once top-selling Oldsmobile brand being euthanized completely and Malibu being dropped as a model name.

While 2008 has been an absolutely dismal year for automakers in the U.S. market, there have been a few bright spots. For those like me who have never been fans of SUVs and could never quite grasp why so many people had gravitated towards them, the resurgence of sales for smaller and mid-sized cars has been a pleasure to watch. The Chevy Malibu is back for a third iteration since its revival at the beginning of this decade. The first was so bland as to be invisible, while the second was not easy on the eyes. The latest version debuted in 2007 to almost universal acclaim for its bold styling. We recently tried out two different Malibus that are set up specifically for improved fuel economy. Check out our thoughts after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

At its launch in the fall of 2007, GM offered two powertrain combinations in the Chevrolet Malibu, a 3.6L V6 with a 6-speed automatic transmission and 2.4L four cylinder with an aging 4-speed automatic. Over the next few months other variants were added including a cheaper 3.5L V6 with the 4-speed. The most interesting to us, however, was the hybrid and the four-cylinder engine with a 6-speed automatic. The Malibu Hybrid uses the same belt-alternator-starter (BAS) mild hybrid system used in the existing Saturn Vue and Astra. Essentially this adds a beefier alternator/motor and a nickel metal hydride battery pack in the trunk to recapture some kinetic energy during braking and release it to provide a power boost under acceleration.

The mild hybrid can't actually drive the car on electric power alone but it does allow the fuel to be shutoff during deceleration as well as automatically starting and stopping the engine when the car comes to a halt. Like the 2008 Vue hybrid we reviewed earlier, GM engineers have improved the control software of the mild hybrid system since the first implementation last year in the Aura and the old Vue. The hybrid has a standard brake system with ABS, traction control and stability control.

It can't however, blend the friction and regenerative braking capability. Instead, the regen is overlaid on top of friction braking, simply adding more decel due to the regen. As the vehicle comes to a stop, the regen braking is phased out leaving just friction braking. On earlier examples the end of regen was rather abrupt leaving the driver with the feeling of a loss of deceleration at around 5-6 mph. Current BAS hybrids have a much smoother transition that is almost imperceptible unless you really look for it.

All four-cylinder Malibus including the hybrid use the same 2.4L EcoTec four cylinder engine used in so many GM cars and it's a very pleasant engine. Compared to the bygone days of the 1980s when GM persisted in offering the old 2.5L Iron Duke (or Iron Puke as many people called it) the EcoTec is a modern, smooth running and reasonably efficient engine. Unfortunately, at launch it was only offered with a 4-speed automatic transmission. The LS and LT trim levels still offer only this combination. The more luxurious LTZ trim package is now available with the choice of in-line-4 or V6 power each with a 6-speed automatic. The 6-speed used with the four is a new smaller unit than the one paired with the V6.

For now, only the more expensive LTZ gets the 6-speed but GM is planning to expand availability to other models as they ramp up production of the new transmission. That means the 6-speed car comes pretty much loaded with all the goodies you can get in a Malibu. Both cars have the same sweeping design and layout inside including a two-tone color scheme. The LTZ also gets some bits of faux wood trim and leather covered seats and steering wheel. Our non-hybrid Malibu featured a Cocoa/Cashmere interior combination that looked and felt quite upscale. Almost everything is standard equipment at the LTZ level although no Malibus are available with an in-dash navigation system. Like other GM cars, they do come with one year of complimentary OnStar that lets you call from the car and get turn by turn directions downloaded that show up in the driver information center.

The hybrid makes do with fabric covering the seats rather than leather and the steering wheel is covered in a squishy rubbery material. It actually feels just fine the wheel and seats are the same as the LTZ aside from the cover materials. That means a reasonably thick rim that's easy to grip and supportive, comfortable seats that keep a grip on you. The rear seat are also comfortable and roomy for two although three would be a squeeze width wise. The hybrid gets a 16" wheel package while the LTZ gets a shiny 18" ten spoke setup that is very attractive.

The only exterior difference between the cars aside from the wheels is a bit more chrome trim on the LTZ and the surprisingly subdued hybrid badging. Given the enormous graphics that GM is putting on its hybrid trucks, the small hybrid badges below the side mirrors and on the trunk-lid come as a pleasant surprise. The rest of the exterior is the same handsome look with great proportions and nice detailing. The bold Chevrolet dual port grille works well on a car this size, much more so than on the updated Aveo. Touches like the chamfer at the trailing edge of the car around the tail-lights and the strong C-pillar highlight the thought that went into the Malibu.

Since the two cars share the same engine they don't feel radically different in performance. The biggest difference is the new 6-speed transmission. Compared to the 4-speed of the larger unit used in combination with the 3.6L V6, this one is worlds better. Shift quality is vastly improved compared to the others and gear changes are now virtually transparent. Hopefully GM will add the 6-speed to the hybrid soon. While the mild hybrid system doesn't operate in electric-only mode, the trunk-mounted battery does provide some extra assist to the engine. The advantage is that when some acceleration is needed, the engine doesn't have to work as hard. The other big difference is the stop-start capability. Unless the air-conditioning is on max cooling, the engine shuts off whenever the car comes to a halt and automatically re-starts when the brake pedal is released. Like the Vue hybrid we tried a few months ago, the re-starts were smooth and unobtrusive, quite unlike some earlier strong hybrid system we tried that tended to shudder during re-starts.

Functionally there is one other downside to the Malibu hybrid. While the compact nickel metal hydride battery pack doesn't consume as much space as some hybrid batteries, it sits right behind the fold-down rear seats. That means it consumes half of the opening so if you want to carry long items in the Malibu they need to be fairly slim. Your typical IKEA boxes should be fine as long as you don't have too many that need to be stacked up.

Last December I reviewed a non-hybrid Malibu LT with the 2.4L 4-speed combination for Autoblog. At that time the driving was almost all around town and the weather was cold which resulted in about 21 mpg. This time around we got a mix of highway and city driving on both cars and the results were much improved. The non-hybrid LTZ managed a decent 26 mpg average during our week with the car. On the EPA cycles the 6-speed gets the same 22 mpg as the 4 we tested earlier but picks up 2 mpg on the highway cycle bringing it to 32. The 2008 Malibu hybrid we drove has the same 32 mpg highway rating as the 6-speed but picks up an additional 2 mpg in the city for a total of 24 mpg.

The Malibu hybrid really set itself apart from the previous GM mild hybrids we've tried. The Aura hybrid we drove in spring 2007 got 26 mpg, while the Vue hybrid we tested earlier this year managed 24.5 mpg. This Malibu - which had the same drivetrain hardware, although it surely had some control software upgrades - got 29 miles out of each gallon of gas overall and managed almost 34 mpg on a highway trip from northern Michigan back to Ann Arbor. That's pretty decent for an attractive roomy sedan with plenty of space and a price of $24,290

For 2009, the Malibu hybrid gets new lower rolling resistance tires and 17" wheels along with further upgrades to the battery management system. The result is another 2 mpg on both the city and highway numbers bringing it up to 26 city/34 mpg highway. Based on our results with an '08 model, the Malibu hybrid for '09 could be approaching the mileage of competitors like the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry hybrids which still cost at least $2,000-3,000 more, comparably equipped. Unfortunately, it also gets a $1,000 price increase. The 2008 LTZ we drove comes to $27,090 for the high-zoot package. For 2009 the 6-speed will be available on the mid-level 1LT and 2LT trims as well, making it more affordable.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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