When we flew out to California for the Super Chevy show in Fontana, we had hoped to score a new LS3-powered Corvette. After all, what could be more super than cruising the West Coast in a 430hp Corvette on the company dime? We'd make a few passes at Auto Club Speedway, wring it out on the Pacific Coast Highway and some twisty canyon roads, and do the crawl past some of those famous beaches.
A call to the Chevrolet press fleet, alas, provided mixed results. The Corvettes were all either spoken for when I was in town, or in the shop for maintenance. "How about a Malibu Hybrid," came the cheerful voice on the other end of the line.
OK, this wasn't my first choice, but I was intrigued. Chevy has a lot of dough wrapped up in this car and it's hoping it can stem the flood of buyers fleeing to Japanese brands. What do I think?
It's a solid effort. The styling reminds me of a scaled-down Buick Lucerne. It's a bit plain, but people shopping in this segment are usually looking to be fairly anonymous. The interior was a big improvement from the previous generation. There's plenty of legroom in both front and rear, the materials are finally high-quality, and the instrument panel is laid out logically with just the right amount of bright work to keep it from looking inexpensive. Our tester came with the standard cloth seats, which were comfortable enough, but nothing extraordinary.
On the road, we give it a B. The handling was above average and the suspension took a nice set when you threw it into a turn. Ride is also very good, firm yet compliant. The structure feels a lot more rigid than you'd expect in a $22,790 economy car (price as tested).
The 2.4L 4-cylinder DOHC gasoline engine was mated to a 4-speed automatic, and this is one area that could really be improved upon. While the Ecotec makes decent power, it's coarse and still lacks the refinement you'll fine in a similarly-priced Japanese or German small car.
About the hybrid system: According to GM, the Ecotec is mated to an electric motor/generator. The hybrid powertrain is rated at 164 hp at 6,400 rpm and 159 lb-ft of peak torque at 5,000 rpm. It's designed to reduce fuel consumption by shutting off the engine when the vehicle is stopped in order to minimize idling, then restarting the engine promptly when the brake pedal is released, and enabling early fuel shut-off during vehicle deceleration.
It's a bit disconcerting at first when you're stopped a traffic light and you see the tach drop to zero. The instant you lift off the brake, the engine is running again and you're off. This all works pretty well, though we thought the transitions would be a little more seamless. The system is designed to provide additional power, when required, during launch from the electric motor/generator. At wide-open throttle, such as when passing a car, the system enhances acceleration by using the motor/generator to bolster the gasoline engine and achieve maximum power.
It's not a hybrid like others on the market that can run solely on electric power, but its cost is significantly less. The tradeoff, though, is fuel economy that--while improved--won't win you any bragging contests with Prius owners. We averaged 26 mpg overall--not bad considering how much time we spent in that fabled Los Angeles traffic and how often we had our right foot planted to the floor. Unlike the Prius, the Malibu is a usable family car, with a large trunk and room for five adults. For under $23,000, we think it's an excellent value.