2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

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2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Oshawa, Ontario – It’s hard to imagine any automotive innovation, short of the self-propelled automobile itself, that has captured the public’s attention quite like the gasoline-electric hybrid. But while there are an unprecedented number of them on the market and more waiting in the wings, it’s important to know that they’re not all alike.

None of the current models from the major automakers are “plug-in” hybrids (which charge their batteries using household current), but buyers can choose between “full” hybrids which are able to run on electrical power alone and “mild” hybrids like my Chevrolet Malibu Tester, which cannot. The Malibu’s more simple system used to be better offset by its lower price-tag, but more competitive pricing by the competition now means that, more than ever, you’ll need to assess your needs and your driving habits before you plunk down your cash.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The Malibu uses a 2.4-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine, mated to an electric motor, a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, and a four-speed automatic transmission. It never runs solely on the battery; instead, the motor assists the gasoline engine during full acceleration, such as when passing on the highway. The system also shuts the gasoline engine off, for a maximum of two minutes, when the car is completely stopped, such as at a red light or when sitting in traffic (lights, stereo and heater will continue to run). The electric motor starts it up again as soon as the driver releases the brake pedal, so there’s no conventional starter to wear out. During deceleration, the car also shuts down the fuel supply for improved economy, and a special “hybrid a/c” button cools the interior without chilling it; this puts less strain on the engine and also allows the “auto stop” feature to function more frequently. If it’s still too warm inside the cabin, you can also use the standard system for regular air conditioning.

Along with its mechanically-identical Saturn Aura Hybrid sibling, the Malibu is one of two hybrid sedans currently in GM’s stable. My tester, a 2008 model, had an MSRP of $26,995; its only optional equipment is an engine block heater. For 2009, the price rises to $27,995, but the system has been tweaked to return better fuel economy: from my tester’s official 8.5 L/100 km in the city and 6.2 on the highway (I got 7.9 in combined driving, mostly on the highway in cool autumn weather), the 2009 version’s published figures are 7.9 city and 5.8 highway.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Overall, it’s not a huge shift from the conventional Malibu, which uses the same 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine and has a published rate of 9.4 city and 5.9 on the highway. But there’s a huge difference when it’s compared to full hybrids, including the Nissan Altima Hybrid (5.7 and 5.9 for city and highway, respectively), Toyota Camry Hybrid (5.7 and 5.7), Honda Civic Hybrid (4.7 and 4.3) and the Toyota Prius (4.0 and 4.2). If you go by EnerGuide’s estimate of annual fuel costs, you’ll spend $1,350 to gas up the Malibu Hybrid for a year, versus $738 for the Prius.

Along with that, Toyota has also brought the price of the base 2009 Prius down to $27,400, which is not only $595 less than the 2009 Malibu Hybrid, but which also includes heated mirrors, fog lamps, cargo net, illuminated vanity mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and garage door opener, which are unavailable on the Malibu. Pretty much the only thing missing on the Toyota is electronic stability control, which is standard on the Malibu Hybrid, but which can only be added to the Prius as part of a $3,260 Premium Package, which also adds a premium stereo, Bluetooth, proximity key and a backup camera.

Among the other competitors, the Civic Hybrid costs less, with an MSRP of $26,350 for the 2009 model – but keep in mind it’s a smaller car. The similarly-sized but more luxuriously-equipped Camry Hybrid is more, at $30,660, as is the Altima Hybrid, at $32,298.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

As far as its features go, the Malibu Hybrid is equipped closely to the conventional Malibu in 1LT trim, including six airbags, keyless entry, power mirrors, speed-sensitive variable intermittent wipers, cruise control, driver information centre, tire pressure monitoring system, wheel-mounted audio controls, driver’s express-down window, cloth seats, power driver’s height adjustment, CD/MP3 stereo, and OnStar with a year’s worth of the Directions & Connections plan, which downloads voice navigation commands directly into the car. Unlike the 1LT, the Malibu Hybrid has 16-inch alloy wheels instead of 17-inch, and adds XM satellite radio and automatic climate control. It also has a unique cluster that includes a battery gauge, which indicates whether the system is charging or assisting the engine, and an “eco light”, which glows green whenever the car’s being driven gently enough that fuel economy is maximized.

I think the redesigned Malibu is one of the best midsize cars on the market, and with only the electric assist to differentiate it, the Hybrid is no different. Its heavier curb weight makes it slightly more sluggish than the conventional version, but overall, the driving experience is pleasant, with linear throttle response and smooth, seamless integration when the electric assist kicks in; the car exhibits very little of the bumps or shudders that some hybrid systems can create when they switch between modes.

It really doesn’t feel much different than a regular gasoline engine, save for the fact that it stops running at lights (come to think of it, I’ve owned a few conventional cars that did that, too). But that “ordinary” feeling also works against it: much of the gratification of piloting a hybrid is the moment when the battery takes over, and you drive along silently and completely fuel-free on electricity alone. The mild hybrid system was more than enough when the original Honda Insight was all we knew, but today, whether it’s cars, computers or communication, it’s not easy to go backwards on technology.

Inside, the Malibu sports one of the best interiors in a GM sedan; the seats are supportive and left no lasting impression after a two-hour drive; and legroom is considerable in both the front and rear chairs. Heated seats would be a nice addition, but aren’t available. The trunk has a length of 107 cm, and the rear seats fold to extend it to 190 cm in length, but it’ll depend on what you need to carry. The plastic-backed seat doesn’t fall completely flat, and the battery pack is located right behind it, so that the actual opening for cargo is only 15 cm high.

The bottom line for me on the Malibu Hybrid is that while it’s a very good car, unless you spend huge amounts of time stuck in traffic where the auto stop will work in your favour, I’m not seeing enough advantages for the price premium over the regular Malibu, or, for that matter, the less-expensive and more system-sophisticated Prius. As with any hybrid, know how it works, assess your driving habits, and then do your homework before you sign on the dotted line.

Pricing: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Base price: $26,995
Options: None
A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,250
Price as tested: $28,345
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu

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    Day-by-Day Reviews
  • 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ, by James Bergeron

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  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid

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