You may have missed it with all of the talk about bailouts and bridge loans, but Chevrolet has launched a hedge fund. Not in the traditional sense that the company accepts your money, invests it, and the bigwigs gets a percentage whether or not it pays off for you.
No, nothing like that at all.
Instead, the Bow Tie brand has taken its bread and butter Malibu midsize sedan and created two versions to satisfy the market's newfound thirst for cars that aren't very thirsty.
The first is the now de rigueur hybrid model. It's the mild kind, where the electric motor isn't strong enough to propel the car on its own, but lets the 2.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder gasoline engine shut off when the car comes to a rest and instantly restart when you take your foot off of the brake. With the pedal to the metal, it can also give the piston popper a little extra pep under acceleration, but pays the greatest dividends when the car is standing still.
The result is an EPA fuel economy rating of 26 city/34 highway. That's good enough to raise one eyebrow, if not two the way a more robust gas/electric like the Nissan Altima Hybrid with a 35 mpg city rating can.
For those who would rather limit their EMF exposure, Chevrolet's engineers also figured out how to hook up the Ecotec to a 6-speed automatic transmission with gear ratios and a shifting pattern designed to deliver the best possible mileage without stuffing any batteries on board. The result is 22 city/33 highway, 10 percent less than the Malibu Hybrid overall, which will end up costing you about $175 a year more on fuel.
So, other than that, what’s the difference?
Very little, in fact, and that's a good thing. The Malibu is the reigning North American Car of the Year, and it won the award for two reasons. First, it is simply a great car. Not an exciting one or particularly interesting one, just competent all around to a fault. Second, the Malibu is a near twin of the Saturn Aura which was the 2007 North American Car of the Year, so it's kind of a ringer.
In any case, the midsize Chevy is long and narrow, with a clean exterior design that is kindly described as handsome. It’s more of a looker up front, with increasing blandness as you make your way towards the trunk. I found that the more time I spent with it, the duller it became, but it’s less bloated and busy than, say, a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord.
Inside things are more remarkable, if only because the last two generations of the Malibu were so quintessentially rental cars that they extended the production of the first version specifically to service that market.
The latest edition takes on a contemporary two-tone, dual cockpit motif that flows up and down the dash and doors like layers of sedimentary rock eroded by water and wind. Some of the plastic down low is as hard as stone, but the stuff that you're more likely to touch is nice and mushy. I actually discovered at least three different levels of stiffness to the materials, but Chevy managed to match the colors up so perfectly that without tapping them with a finger, you'd never know.
Unfortunately, despite using names like "cashmere" and "cocoa," the shades in my test car were just run of the mill brown and beige. With a grain to the material that's a lot like stucco, you get the impression that one too many coats of paint were applied to the surfaces, like the walls of an old grammar school. It's not quite as bad as that sounds, though, and at night bathed in the soft blue glow of the instruments, and two superfluous mood lights on the ceiling, the environment can be downright soothing.
So can the seats, which are only available with fabric upholstery in the Hybrid, but can be had in leather in other models. If you go gas only, you can also get a 6-CD, 8-speaker audio system with Bluetooth phone option, while the Hybrid makes do with a single-CD, 6-speaker job. Both are excellent, and better than some of the supposedly ultra hi-fi systems I’ve experienced in other vehicles recently, helped by how quiet the cars are.
On all but the worst surfaces, road noise is absent, thanks in part to the low-rolling resistance, high mileage tires fitted on the fuel sippers. The low-slung stance of the cars also cuts down on wind roar, and you can whisper to rear seat passengers at highway speeds. Two of them are quite comfortable back there, with generous legroom and wide doors to enter through. Installing my son’s child seat was no sweat, but as he held court on the hump, outboard passengers were a little cramped.
No such problems for the one doing the driving. There’s plenty of room to stretch legs, and even a plus 6-footer like me doesn’t have to eat the dashboard for someone to fit behind. A compact instrument cluster combines with the wraparound dashboard to create a sporty, driver-oriented cocoon, something the rest of the cars fails to do.
The 4-cylinder Malibus are about A to B, no nonsense driving and, hybrid or not, both engines make less than 170 horsepower. A 252 horsepower V-6 is available too, but we’re being frugal here, so unhand the mouse and don’t even think about checking that option box.
At first glance, the 6-speed seems to be choice for someone hoping for at least a little expeditiousness while being economical. Sadly, the transmission is so dedicated to keeping up the fuel economy that it hunts and pecks and holds gears often in opposition to what your right foot is asking it to do. There are paddles behind the steering wheel that you can use to shift it more to your liking, but they’re not very responsive, so you probably won’t.
The Hybrid only has a 4-speed transmission, but the little boost that the electric motor provides seems to smooth out the power delivery, offering consistency throughout the rev range. It’s still not quick, but it feels more direct and immediate than the busy bee setup of the 6-speed.
The suspension helps out with a comfortable ride that soaks up bumps, and doesn’t bounce much. Just one heave and the car flattens out, ready for the next disturbance in the road. The composure carries into the turns where both Malibus can handle a healthy dose of speed without getting all eco-wishy washy. The standard traction control may play a small role here, but on this end of the power spectrum, it’s really just there for times when the wipers are on.
So, which one to chose?
The Hybrid is a relative bargain at $26,225, compared to a similarly equipped LT with the 6-speed option at $25,375, and the LTZ I drove at $27,550 with the leather seats and upgraded stereo. A $1,300 federal tax credit for the Hybrid makes it even more appealing.
Given the choice, I’d go for the one with the battery in the trunk. It moves a little easier and I suppose is the wave of the future, but the kicker for me is the way passengers still think it’s freaky when the engine turns off at red lights. Might as well get the most out of that parlor trick before every car on the block is doing it.
2009 CHEVY MALIBU HYBRID AND LTZ
As Tested: $26,225/$27,550
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5 passenger, 4-door sedan
Powertrain: 2.4L inline-4 w/electric motor generator/2.4L inline-4
Power: 164/169 hp, 159/160 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/6-speed automatic
MPG: 26 city/34 highway / 22 city/33 highway
What do you think of the Malibu?
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