Designed concurrently and borrowing powertrain hardware heavily from the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, the new Malibu Hybrid foreshadows more electrified GM vehicles to come and meanwhile no excuses need be made for this all-new hybrid.
Arriving next spring with a Malibu line redesign, the replacement for the not-so-competitive Malibu eAssist mild hybrid is projected to deliver EPA ratings of 45 mpg city, 48 highway, and 47 combined.
This would place it with the large-class Honda Accord Hybrid’s 47 combined efficiency, and ahead of 41 or 42 mpg for other midsize family hybrid sedans
If “47 mpg” from an aspiring American automaker evokes misgivings and memory of the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid which was launched boasting of “47 mpg” but then with its C-Max sibling demoted last year, fret not, says GM.
In interviews with two top General Motors engineers – while EPA certification is yet needed to verify – the company says its unique two-motor and two mode full hybrid system is intended to do anything but overpromise and under deliver.
Updated Rather Early
Chevrolet’s Malibu line was last revised in 2012, but GM’s market share has slipped against both hybrid and higher-volume non-hybrid competitors in this important family sedan segment.
The Malibu Hybrid is one of three drive train choices – the others being a new turbocharged Ecotec 1.5-liter and 2.0-liter – and these front-wheel-drive cars also benefit from mildly improved efficiency.
While longer by 2.3 inches overall, and with 3.6-inches more wheelbase, extensive “lightweighting” throughout sees 300 pounds shed.
Design carried over from the Impala has followed a trend of upping the “upscale” ante, and the sleek coupe-silhouette sedan looks the part as a fresh offering.
Inside the vehicles get a standard seven-inch color touchscreen with Chevy MyLink and the top level receives an eight-inch screen with optional niceties like perforated leather.
Contemporary aesthetics, refinement and functionality abound, and the sum package makes a sleek presentation.
If this refresh caught some slightly by surprise, Daryl Wilson, lead development engineer for the Malibu Hybrid said plans were in the works at least as far back as the generation two Volt’s development.
“We are now at the sharp end of the spear,” said Wilson of the Hybrid, implicitly acknowledging the present Malibu with eAssist did not stack up to hybrids sedans from Toyota, Honda, Ford, Kia and Hyundai.
Two Mode Operation
The sharp end of the spear comes courtesy of the plug-in Volt’s technology including its power unit, drive electronics, two electric motors modified for the Malibu, and a new 1.5-kilowatt-hour Hitachi battery pack touted as the most power dense available.
Unique to the Malibu Hybrid, said Wilson, is the Volt’s drive unit offering two-mode electronically variable transmission (EVT).
“What we do provide is two modes – two EVT modes,” he said of two different operating ranges.
In simplest terms, GM uses the single motor in city / lower speed driving and combines the two motors in with the engine in higher speed / higher load operation.
The system acts like a continuously variable automatic transmission, and while sharing some features with hybrids from Toyota, Honda, and Ford, it does them one better, Wilson said, being optimized both for city and highway driving.
In contrast, the others with one transmission mode must make that work over a broad span of operating ranges.
“Our competitors with their single mode have to have a single optimization to try and span that whole area,” Wilson said of low speed city driving, and more challenging-for-a-hybrid highway driving. “So if you’re traveling at highway speeds, 70 mph, strong [full] hybrids historically have in general suffered efficiency at those speeds because the electric motors have to spin so fast that they’re outside their extremely efficient operating range.”
The Malibu Hybrid using Volt technology does better and its expected mpg is better than the 2016 Volt’s while in gas-only operation, despite having a larger 1.8-liter engine and 182 system horsepower compared to the Volt’s 149.
Aside from the fact that the Malibu Hybrid appears like it could be fully competitive when dealers begin selling it spring 2016, the implications for the new car are significant.
According to GM’s Executive Chief Engineer for Electric Vehicles Pam Fletcher, the Malibu Hybrid could morph to Malibu Hybrid PHEV status quite easily by replacing its 1.5-kilowatt-hour Hitachi li-ion “power” battery with a larger pack for more energy storage.
This is all part of an electrification strategy GM is working presumably for all its brands, but saying little about except around the edges. It also means no matter how the second-generation Volt sells – whether well or only OK – it is now further validated as seed stock to proliferate hybrids and plug-in hybrids at will.
Since before generation-one Volt’s launch, enthusiasts have clamored for “Voltec” spinoffs but these have not come despite an MPV5 Volt-based crossover being teased in China in 2010. Spinoffs have still not arrived, but instead, GM has found a use for the Volt’s system by adopting it to other applications, such as the Malibu Hybrid, and whatever else is next – and which may already be waiting in the wings.
Wilson said this was not possible with the first-generation Volt’s system architecture but generation two was designed from the outset as DNA for a potential model range of electrified vehicles. While reluctant to specify what may be next, he said it is possible to use the Volt’s technology to create more vehicles, be they sedans, crossovers, SUVs, light trucks, hatchbacks, you name it.
Incidentally, the Malibu Hybrid itself has a 1,000-pound tow rating capacity like all Malibus, and beefing up the system is something GM could do, as it has before with a related earlier system employed in its its two-mode hybrid trucks. These were the Chevy Silverado Hybrid, Tahoe Hybrid, GMC Sierra Hybrid, and Cadillac Escalade Hybrid – which except for the Caddy were discontinued last year.
Fletcher also said we may hear more on a Cadillac CT6 plug-in hybrid soon and this car aimed against German elites is supposed to be a no-excuses hybrid. It may also have longer than nominal electric range being built for a Chinese market which mandates 31 miles on its cycle.
Cadillac brand president Johan de Nysschen also said last week GM’s top label is preparing hybrids and plug-in hybrids across its lineup for global (especially Chinese) markets.
Beyond that, GM has its entire Buick line and Chevrolet line with product opportunities and market pressure driving innovation.
For her part, Fletcher agreed she does have a gleam in her eye over GM’s electrification prospects, but for now the only definitive word is “stay tuned.”
Feeling Its Oats
Fletcher and Wilson in separate interviews were optimistic and expressed pride over how GM is positioned with its pending electrified lineup – a perfect “trifecta,” Fletcher said.
This includes a new benchmark for battery electric vehicles, the Bolt EV, expected to net 200 miles EPA rated range and cost $30,000 after federal tax credit. And, the 2016 Volt is pending sales this summer with 50 miles EV range, the highest by far and in a unique category among plug-in gas-electric vehicles.
Unknown for the Malibu Hybrid is the pricing strategy. GM has had a history of going big on its alternative energy vehicles’ and suffering in market acceptance as a result.
For example, its compact 2014 Cadillac ELR was priced from $76,000 and has needed deep discounts to move excess inventory at low volumes and it’s now expected to be phased out after a refresh of its first generation. Not dissimilarly, GM’s 2014 Chevy Cruze diesel was content-rich, and priced roughly $2,000 above the best-selling and proven Volkswagen Jetta TDI, and middling sales have plagued the otherwise competently engineered car.
And, the 2011 Volt was launched at $40,000, then knocked down by $5,000 but not before a stigma as an overpriced Chevy hit it and sales projections for 2012 were dropped to “match supply with demand.” And let’s not forget the two-mode light-duty V8 hybrid trucks – these did offer substantially improved mpg but being fat with standard accoutrements, were priced to a point that many shoppers bypassed them and they sold in onesies and twosies before GM decided to cancel these also elegantly engineered vehicles.
Now we have the Malibu Hybrid. The car is fresh and on paper arguably beats all in class. To be sure, more has to be seen, the EPA numbers need to become official – and established competitors exist.
No matter how great the Malibu Hybrid may look, consumers will need to be convinced to shop elsewhere from the likes of Honda, Ford, or hybrid-market-dominating Toyota.
For its part, GM says it will price the Malibu Hybrid as a good value, so while actual reception is pending, could it – and whatever hybrid or plug-in hybrid comes next – mean tables are poised to turn in GM’s favor?