Way back in February of 2006, I was among the first journalists to drive General Motors' inaugural production hybrid. It seems like such a long time since that early introduction of the 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line, but that vehicle proved to be an accurate harbinger of things to come ... or at least part of what was has come.

Today, hybrids are available from every major manufacturer, they work well, and they're getting less expensive. In other words, hybrids are entering the mainstream of the automotive world.

Before we take you behind the wheel of the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid -- the newest member of the award-winning Malibu family that was an all-new car in 2008 -- let us define the term "hybrid." The word has become an umbrella adjective used to describe vehicles powered by very different power trains that use the following components:

  • A traditional gasoline engine
  • An electric motor or motors
  • A battery pack

Currently, there are three general configurations of hybrid power trains (as defined above) offered in production vehicles you can buy in the U.S.: mild hybrids, single-mode hybrids, and two-mode hybrids. The current Saturn Vue Green Line and Aura sedan hybrid are mild hybrids, the least complex and least costly of the hybrid breed. Compared to other hybrid designs, mild hybrids deliver the smallest gain in fuel economy, but these gains range between 10 to 20-percent.

The hybrids produced by Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Ford are single-mode hybrids which tend to show their greatest fuel savings in lower-speed driving. Improvements in city mileage can be as high as 40 percent, with smaller gains in highway mileage.

The new SUVs and trucks produced by Chevrolet, GMC, Chrysler, and Dodge are more sophisticated two-mode hybrids that offer significant fuel economy gains at low and high speeds, thus widening the power train's appeal. Plus, this current crop of two-mode hybrids has the built-in strength to complete impressive feats of towing, with some SUVs rated to trailer three tons.

(If you're not confused yet, even more types of hybrid power trains are coming as automakers prove the efficiency of new technologies and test their durability. Stay tuned.)

Under the Hood

Like the original 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line, the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid is of the mild variety. This well-developed power train utilizes a (relatively) normal gasoline-fired engine and (mostly) conventional four-speed automatic transmission. The power train earns the hybrid badge because of its motor/generator. Pop open the hood and you'll see what looks like a standard General Motors' 2.4-liter 4-cylinder Ecotec engine. It features a really big alternator hooked to the engine with a belt so wide it looks like it could drive a supercharger.

This motor/generator performs the function of an alternator (providing electric power for the Malibu's ignition, lights, radio, battery charging, etc.). Additionally, it also works like an electric motor, delivering torque to boost the gasoline engine when the power is needed most (such as when passing or accelerating briskly from a stop). This latter function earns the power train its "hybrid" moniker because the electric motor "helps" the gasoline engine so that it uses less fuel in high-energy situations.

Aside from the hybrid badge on the engine control module, there's not much else that looks unconventional under the Malibu's hood. This brings up an important fact: Compared to other hybrid power trains, the Chevy Malibu Hybrid is a simpler solution to going farther on a gallon of gas. Single mode hybrids utilize purpose-built engines that are integrated with transmissions that are actually a combination of computer-coordinated gearsets and electric motors. The package is extremely complex, and not something that Larry down at the corner gas station would want to attempt to service.

As far as how well the Malibu's hybrid system works, compared to the non-hybrid 2.4-liter four-cylinder standard on the Malibu LS (EPA city/highway mileage of 22/30 (with a combined rating of 25), the Malibu Hybrid improves mileage to 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway (29 combined). The cost of this added efficiency is $3,050 when you compare the Malibu Hybrid to the closest conventionally-powered Malibu, the LT.

Sometimes manufacturers compromise performance to gain economy, but not in the Malibu Hybrid. The gasoline engine produces 164 horsepower and 159 pound-feet of torque, with another 110 lb-ft of torque on call from the electric motor when the driver calls for maximum acceleration. The base Malibu produces nearly identical 169 horsepower, but this figure does not factor in the additional power provided by the Hybrid's motor/generator.

While the Malibu Hybrid's power train may appear conventional, it's more than meets the eye. The engine and transmission both include numerous internal design changes that facilitate the improved mileage. For example, the transmission and engine are both engineered to be "back driven." Simply put, when this Chevy is coasting, the front wheels aren't just free-wheeling or spinning as they do on a regular car or truck.

In the Malibu Hybrid, when the driver lifts off of the accelerator pedal to coast, the front wheels are immediately turned into a momentum-driven regenerative power source; through the front driveshafts, the wheels drive the transmission that turns the engine that then turns the motor/generator. In this scenario, the motor/generator produces electricity to charge the Malibu's on-board battery pack. The Malibu's power train is able to instantly switch between sending power to the wheels to accelerate or maintain speed, and then recovering the kinetic energy of the car in motion to amp up the batteries for use farther down the road. Charged up batteries help reduce the amount of gasoline the power train needs, therefore increasing mileage.

The Malibu Hybrid's batteries are a compact array of nickel metal hydride (NiMH) cells located in the front of the trunk. While the battery pack is small so it doesn't take up too much trunk space, it does encroach on the trunk/rear-seat pass through, making it rather shallow.

Even though the Malibu Hybrid's power train is not as complex as other types of hybrids, Chevrolet allays fears about the long-term durability of their system by covering key components for eight years or 100,000 miles. This is a strong consideration point as it helps keep up the Malibu's residual value because used cars that still have warranty coverage are easier to sell.

Inside the Malibu Hybrid

While there are significant changes under the Malibu Hybrid's hood, you'll be hard pressed to find much different from the driver's seat. We think this is a good thing because it helps make hybrids seem "like a regular car" as opposed to something different and/or unacceptable to the masses.

We like the Malibu Hybrid's interior as much as the standard Malibu. This new Chevy is easily the equal if not superior to its archrival, the Toyota Camry. There is ample room for five, plenty of convenient storage options, material quality is high, and fit-and-finish is good. Style wise, the sweep of the dash is attractive, the three-gauge instrument cluster presents its information with high-contrast markings, and there are little details that we appreciate such as the soft LED lighting of key areas like the door handles and console.

As far as interior changes that are specific to the Hybrid model, you'll need to look closely at the instrumentation. On the right side of the gauge cluster you'll spy a charge indicator that shows when power is being added to or sucked from the onboard battery pack. When you're driving, you'll often see a telltale light that illuminates "ECO" (for economy) when you're driving in a frugal manner -- beating the EPA's fuel-economy figures. For those who pay attention to the tachometer, it has a position below zero rpm. Interesting, eh? The needle points there when the gasoline engine stops to save fuel, such as when you're waiting at a traffic light.

Unlike the detailed power-flow graphic instrumentation found in a Toyota Prius, a Camry Hybrid, or the hybrids from Ford (the Escape and Mercury Mariner), the Malibu Hybrid's lack of geek-directed info was a bit disappointing. We'd like to see more about what the power train is doing because we have observed that graphics informing a driver about energy consumption can modify driving behavior for the better.

On the Road

The 2009 Malibu Hybrid performs much like any other Malibu, only you'll go farther on a tank of gas. Like the interior, having a "normal" driving experience is a key element of hybrids going mainstream. The driving public won't accept a car that drives "funny."

Early hybrids did, including the first generation Saturn Vue Green Line. For example, the 2007 Vue decelerated notably when the driver lifted off the accelerator. The sensation was almost as if the brakes were dragging. Not so in the Malibu Hybrid. Virtually everything about the driving experience is just like a well-balanced, modern sedan. The Malibu starts conventionally, with no unfamiliar noises or physical sensations. Under acceleration, the 4-speed automatic shifts smoothly.

Like other hybrids, the gasoline engine shuts down when the Malibu is at rest. It is a funny sensation to have the engine just stop, and it took a few drives before the panic of "the car just stalled" quit causing momentary panics. Of course, there is no need to re-key the ignition.

As soon as the driver begins to lift his or her foot off of the brake pedal, it is at this exact moment that the motor/generator sparks into action. To smoothly rouse the gasoline engine back to life without the abruptness of a traditional starting sequence, the motor-generator spins the engine's crankshaft up to idle speed, allowing the Malibu to drive away smoothly.

To be perfectly clear, when the Malibu's engine stops to conserve fuel, the vehicle remains fully functional; the air conditioning and radio keep working, and all accessories are fully operational. The car is "running" even though its gasoline-fueled engine is not. Power for the accessories comes from the aforementioned battery pack.

The generator/motor also provides additional torque when maximum acceleration is needed. Unlike current single- and two-mode hybrids, however, the Malibu Hybrid does not run any distance on pure electric power; the motor-generator is a hybrid "helper."

Even though the Malibu Hybrid is a green machine, it's not a gutless eco weenie. The car is easily capable of cruising 20 over on the interstate if you're inclined to drive that quickly. And while its acceleration won't challenge a Corvette or Porsche, for a mid-size sedan the Malibu accelerates just fine (our estimate is 0-60 in about 10 seconds).

Ride and handling are on par with other Malibu models, which is to say very good. Chevrolet managed to tune the Malibu's suspension and 17-inch wheels and tires to be Goldilocks perfect; not too soft and not too hard. This is a tough thing to achieve, and if you're used to a Toyota Camry, you'll find the Malibu more responsive and closer to what you'd expect from a Honda Accord. Wind noise is commendably low, making conversation easy between the front and rear seats.

Shorts in the System

The entire system works well, but there are two minor areas to note. The Ecotec engine doesn't re-start after the Auto Stop with buttery smoothness. Every time the engine stops at a traffic light and then comes back to life, it transmits a slight vibration through the passenger compartment. This complaint is not nearly serious enough to write off the 2009 Malibu Hybrid, but it will give GM power train engineers something to refine.

A second issue is the feel from the electrically-boosted power steering. While the steering has a nice heft to it, there is no genuine steering feel ... as in feedback from the road. Engineers have had decades to perfect traditional hydraulic steering gears, so they'll need some time to get these new energy saving electric systems dialed in. We recommend that GM engineers study the box used in Mini Coopers. They feel great.

Will Your Next Car Be a Hybrid?

Remember the hybrid's aforementioned $3,050 premium over the four-cylinder Malibu LT? At $4/gallon, that equates to 762.5 gallons of fuel that a driver would need to save to recoup the additional cost of purchasing the Malibu Hybrid compared to a non-hybrid Malibu LT. If you drive 10,000 miles per year, it will take at 15 years for the ledger to balance out.

However, we think some buyers will think that this premium is a reasonable amount to pay to live a greener life and won't think too much about the premium required. And in this era of $2,000 navigation and entertainment system options, the extra cost for the Malibu Hybrid may not strike people as egregious.

Looking beyond the Malibu Hybrid, there are the competitive single-mode hybrid sedans to consider: the Toyota Camry, the Nissan Altima, and the still-a-little funky Toyota Prius. These vehicles will provide significantly higher city mileage, but the trade off is often an even higher purchase price because of the more complex single-mode hybrid power train. This story on the financial aspects of driving a hybrid might of interest to you if you're serious about driving any of these vehicles.

In conclusion, it's clear that the Chevrolet' Malibu Hybrid is ready for prime time. Recent gas prices may make consumers ready for it.

Read More Hybrid Related Stories at AOL Autos:

- Hybrid SUV Roundup

- Is that Hybrid Worth It?

- Plug-In Hybrids: What does the future hold?

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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