by Gabe Beita Kiser
If Dominic Toretto had a job as an automotive journalist, he would probably drop a line mentioning how he lives his life one press car at a time. Week in and week out, us lucky ones undergo the ritual of exchanging last week's ride for whatever new car Honda, Lexus, Jaguar, or insert-random-automaker-here decided to give us. That's why, it can be easy to overlook a Chevy Malibu Hybrid, a car that in previous iterations did its duty on as a rental fleet beater, the equivalent of being the last kid picked for basketball.
1.8L Inline-4 Hybrid
However, this is a new chapter in General Motor's life, and it's trying as hard as it can to erase its old image as the bottom-shelf quality automaker that didn't know how to make a proper ignition.
A running joke at the CarBuzz offices center around Chevy's "Real People Not Actors" ad campaign in which "regular" people who are obviously actors gush about how they thought a debadged Chevy was actually a Mercedes all while a smug spokesperson urges on the conversation. Annoyingly enough, when I picked up a non-gearhead friend in my Incandescent Pearl Tricoat-colored example, they got inside and asked if the Malibu was a Lexus. Oddly enough, it's easy for those who don't know the difference to be confused because Chevy stepped its game up.
While the hybrid option starts at $27,700, my example came packed to the brim with more standard features than many Lexus', making its $33,620 price seem justified. If the ads didn't do it for you, then the aesthetically pleasing Loft Brown interior leather was there to help. Those who spend their lives driving under the $35,000 mark would be excused for thinking this was a legitimate luxury car because despite the cheap plastics, the interior was a huge upgrade over GM products of the past decade. $5,720 of options made it so that heated seats, wireless phone charging, dual-zone climate control with rear facing vents, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, front collision assist with automatic braking, pedestrian detection, and more.
Even onboard Wi-Fi and a nine-speaker Bose sound system infiltrated the cabin and jazzed up the feeling of luxury. The exterior wasn't bad either, although the updated large front grille looks tacky and dated to yours truly. Comfortingly, when I slid behind the wheel, I was greeted by a push-start ignition. Despite the Malibu body and guts, the Hybrid shares a powertrain with the Chevy Volt. Unlike the Volt, the two electric motors that spew out a combined 182 horsepower are used to take off from stops and supplement the engine after the 55 mph electric-only cutoff. With a 1.8-liter four-banger chipping in 122 horses for acceleration efforts, the Malibu has an enthusiastic takeoff, proving that turbocharging isn't the only way to downsize.
The system works seamlessly with the droning sound of a CVT-saddled engine being the only clue that gasoline power has come into the equation. The regenerative braking system also puts on a show that should make most hybrids and EVs jealous because there is an unnoticeable transition from the electric stoppers to the disc brake's bite. It isn't all daises though because the hybrid system comes with its own drawbacks. Unlike a Prius, the Malibu hybrid is hurting for cargo space. Engineers decided to place the battery behind the rear seats, reducing storage volume to 11.6 cubic feet and rendering it impossible to put longer items in the trunk once the rear seats have been folded.
Mileage wasn't bad, but the 38 mpg I averaged fell far below the EPA estimated 46 mpg combined (47 city, 46 highway). Interestingly, given that much of the 370-pound weight penalty added by the hybrid drivetrain resides at the rear, the Malibu Hybrid has a fairly balanced ride, although nimble and engaging aren't adjectives I would use to describe the driving sensation. Make a break for a left turn during a stale yellow and you're sure to encounter gobs of understeer as soon as you crank the wheel with the only indication being a nose that refuses to change angles and the squeal of tortured rubber. However, just as it's wrong to accuse Toretto for hating tank tops, something is off about crying foul over a Chevy Malibu without racing suspension.
This car is intended to compete with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and any other mid-sized sedan that's left available for the crossover holdouts. In a highly competitive segment, Chevy's new approach to quality is a crusade we can appreciate. It may not be perfect, but that won't happen at the mid $30 grand level anyways. What the Malibu does manage to pull off is to be a solid brand ambassador to the public who isn't used to luxury cars. One of the underlying assumptions of the capitalistic philosophy is that of infinite growth. As standard of living goes up, more toys get added to base models, much to the pleasant surprise of those who've never been in a BMW or Audi.
That's the crux of Chevrolet's advertising campaign GM wants to catch the old Chevrolet buyers who were used to death traps and failing Consumer Reports grades and sweep them off their feet with upgraded interiors and watered down technology. The Malibu is in no way a luxury car in the same way as the Lexus ES350, but that's not who Chevrolet tries to go after. It wants to capture those who aren't used to luxury and introduce them to the new standard of living. It's proof that the inevitable hand of change and progress makes its way down, even to a Chevy. The Malibu hybrid won't outdo a Prius for gas mileage, but it gives eco-conscious buyers an alternative that has all of the family sedan advantages without the stigma.