DETROIT – General Motors hopes the ’16 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid will shift its alternative-propulsion portfolio into high gear by pumping up historically lackluster sales, increasing economies of scale and bringing down development costs.
The Malibu strong hybrid, which is arriving at U.S. dealers from GM’s Fairfax, KS, assembly plant, gets a hefty dose of advanced engineering to deliver smoother, sportier driving dynamics than its competitors. For example, it uses two electric motors instead of a single unit as most strong hybrids, and employs a dizzying array of shift controls, to mimic the silky, electrified performance of the Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle.
“We’re building from a solid base with the Volt,” says Greg Hubbard, chief engineer, global electrification at Chevrolet.
Hubbard says GM chose to emulate the Volt’s driving dynamics, as well as borrow most of its 2-time Wards 10 Best Engines propulsion hardware, because owners of the 5-year-old plug-in rave about its enjoyable driving characteristics as much as its fuel savings.
“Customers appreciate the fun-to-drive aspect of the Volt,” Hubbard says during a technical backgrounder on the Malibu hybrid here.
Although a technical tour de force, GM’s crowning achievement in alternative propulsion has not resonated with buyers like the car it was supposed to rival, the Toyota Prius. Since its launch in late-2010, the Volt has sold 88,750 copies compared with more than 1 million for the Prius line over the same period, according to WardsAuto data.
The success of the Prius, with close to 2 million sold since 2000, crowned Toyota as the world’s greenest automaker. It’s an environmentally friendly reputation GM has been trying to copy for more than a decade with uneven results.
Alternative powertrains such as its 2-Mode Hybrid technology for large trucks and SUVs were bonafide fuel-savers, and the more recent e-Assist package arguably set an industry standard for stop-start systems populating the U.S. market. But the applications either did not fit market tastes of the time, poured on too much extra cost or returned unspectacular fuel-economy gains.
As a result Toyota has sold more than 10 times as many the hybrid vehicles as GM over the last 15 years, and Prius costs steadily declined during the period to reach profitable levels with the third-generation model some seven years ago.
It is unclear if the second-generation Volt has reached profitability, as former GM CEO Dan Akerson promised in 2013, after reportedly losing thousands of dollars on each unit of earlier models.
Hubbard considers the Malibu hybrid GM’s best shot in years at driving down GM’s alternative-propulsion costs. In addition to the Volt technology it borrows, much of the Malibu hybrid’s propulsion system is shared with the redesigned eAssist unit bowing this fall on GM’s large pickups to be sold in the California.
Bank on additional applications, too, because the architecture is flexible enough to power a host of front-wheel-drive GM models, such as the recently announced Buick LaCrosse Hybrid for China. It also informs technology used on the upcoming Cadillac CT6 PHEV, a rear-wheel-drive application, which launches in China later this year and comes to the U.S. shortly after.
“The technology has proven to scale effectively,” Hubbard says.
The Malibu’s hybrid technology has its limits, Hubbard admits. The car’s peak 47 mpg (5.0L/100 km), as rated by the EPA, is short of the best-in-class 49 mpg (4.8L/100 km) from the ’17 Honda Accord Hybrid. The Accord just tickles the vaunted 50-mpg (4.7L/100 km) mark.
“We definitely would need more cost” to reach 50 mpg, he says.