The typical hybrid vehicle offers significantly better fuel economy than its conventionally powered brethren, but it also demands a significantly higher price. The 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid is an exception on both counts. Thanks to a "mild" hybrid system that does little more than shut the engine off when the car is stopped, the hybrid's combined EPA fuel economy rating of 29 miles per gallon is just 4 mpg better than the regular four-cylinder Malibu LT1's, which means it drinks a measly 14 percent less gas. But thanks to a $1,550 federal tax credit, the 2009 Malibu Hybrid only costs about $1,500 more than a comparably equipped LT1.
That means there's an economic argument to be made for buying this hybrid-powered Chevy. If you drive 15,000 miles a year, and gas costs a steady $3 per gallon, then the hybrid will save you $250 a year over the LT1, according to the EPA's estimates. Drive the hybrid for six years, and you've made up the difference. If gas spikes to, say, $6 per gallon, you'll break even in half the time. Of course, there's also the intangible psychological benefit of knowing that you're burning less of a finite resource, and therefore spewing fewer harmful gases into the atmosphere — if you're into that sort of thing.
Beyond the engine bay, the 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid is much like any other Malibu, which is to say, it's a pleasantly forgettable midsize sedan. On the bright side, rear legroom is plentiful, and the hybrid's quiet, cushy ride makes it an agreeable companion both around town and on the highway. On the downside, the outdated four-speed automatic is a poor performer, and the hybrid's acceleration is even slower than the none-too-swift LT1's. You can add a modern six-speed automatic to the LT1, but not to the hybrid. The costs are a toss-up over the long run, so it really comes down to what you want out of your 'Bu.
The Malibu Hybrid's main rivals are the formidable Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid, which trounce the Chevy with combined fuel economy ratings of 36 mpg and more than 34 mpg, respectively. The Toyota also provides acceleration that's downright spirited by comparison. It no longer comes with a tax break, though, so it'll run you about $2,200 more than the Malibu Hybrid. As for the Fusion, its tax credit status is in flux, but it also costs appreciably more than the Chevy. In our opinion, the all-around superior Camry is well worth the extra cash, and the Fusion's eye-popping fuel economy makes it worth the stretch as well. Nonetheless, as long as the Malibu Hybrid retains its tax credit, it will stand out as one of the rare hybrid-powered cars that make both environmental and financial sense.
The front-wheel-drive 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that receives minimal assistance from a 36-volt electric motor, which is powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Total output is 164 horsepower, 5 less than the Malibu LT1. A four-speed automatic is the only available transmission, and that's a shame — this economy-minded tranny lacks an in-between ratio for moderate acceleration at speed, so you're either cruising at low rpm or screaming toward redline. At the test track, our Malibu Hybrid cantered from zero to 60 mph in a leisurely 10.1 seconds (10.3 seconds when starting with the engine off, as it would be under normal circumstances), a few tenths behind the slightly lighter and peppier LT1.
The electric motor supposedly contributes to acceleration — there's even an electric-assist gauge with a needle that bounces to and fro depending on throttle position — but if so, it's not contributing much. For all intents and purposes, its job is to turn the gas engine off when you come to a stop (provided the air-conditioning is off or in Economy mode), and turn it back on again when you take your foot off the brake. In this limited capacity, the electric motor works quite well: The transition from off to on can be a bit abrupt, but it's admirably quick. Just don't expect to feel the motor tangibly aiding acceleration, à la the Camry Hybrid.
On the road, the Malibu Hybrid frankly feels underpowered, especially below about 5,000 rpm. This is a car for folks who care more about their carbon footprints than merging confidently on the highway. Similarly, those who care about vehicle dynamics should consider the Fusion Hybrid or Nissan Altima Hybrid, as the Malibu Hybrid is plagued by completely numb steering and a lifeless brake pedal. It does handle slightly better than the Camry Hybrid, but that's about as backhanded as compliments get.
In panic braking from 60 mph, the 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid required 134 feet — unimpressive by midsize-sedan standards, but identical to the performance of the last Camry Hybrid we tested. Low-rolling-resistance tires and added weight from the battery pack are the likely culprits. Against EPA fuel economy ratings of 26 mpg city/34 highway and 29 combined, we averaged a disappointing 23 mpg, but lighter feet should produce considerably better results.
The Malibu Hybrid's cabin remains hushed on the highway, with little road or wind noise to speak of. The ride is Buick-like in its pillowy softness, though broken pavement can transmit sharp impacts through the car's structure. Front seat comfort is good — the six-way power driver seat is a worthwhile $200 upgrade — but the rear seat is a mixed bag, combining enormous legroom with tight headroom for taller passengers. There's also no flip-down armrest for rear riders, and the center position is compromised by an intrusive hump on the floor.
The Malibu's interior is adequately functional, but some features are behind the times. The driver's power window is auto-down only, for example, and the others are of the press-and-hold variety. Opening the sunroof requires two taps on the switch (first tilt, then slide), and closing it is another press-and-hold operation. The turquoise dot-matrix display font for the trip computer and center stack is legible enough, but couldn't Chevy have come up with something a little more high-tech for the 21st century?
Unlike the Fusion and Camry hybrids, the Malibu's air-conditioning is not compatible with the auto-engine-off feature, so you have to choose between saving gas and staying cool. At least the center stack is ergonomically sound — two large knobs and clearly marked buttons make the climate controls idiot-proof. The stereo is a cinch to operate, too, though its sound quality is distinctly mediocre. Door-mounted cupholders complement the center-mounted pair behind the shifter, providing ample space for beverages, cell phones, wallets and so on.
The Malibu Hybrid's compact trunk-mounted battery pack barely makes a dent in its cargo capacity. In our real-world usability tests, our standard golf bag and suitcase fit as easily as in any midsize sedan. The rear seatback is of the split-folding variety, a rarity in hybrid sedans. The Malibu Hybrid also aced our child-seat test, thanks to remarkably wide rear door openings and the aforementioned ample rear legroom.
Design/Fit and Finish
For the most part, the 2009 Chevy Malibu Hybrid looks like any other Malibu, though it's hard to miss all the "Hybrid" banners and badges. We shared a smirk at the "HYBRID" banner across the back window, which reminded us of those old "IROC-Z" banners from the '80s. Inside, the dashboard design is attractive, but materials quality is hit-or-miss — we appreciated the soft-touch material on the dash, but resented the Cobalt SS-like center stack and its el cheapo silver-painted plastic trim. Build quality seemed solid overall, but a couple interior panels weren't correctly aligned, and the metallic dash top strip was loose on the driver side.
Who should consider this vehicle
Malibu fans who want a hybrid, and Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry hybrid fans who can't rationalize the price premium.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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