As the new Honda Accord Hybrid and it's 50-mpg highway fuel economy rating demonstrate, automakers have put some muscle into making high-efficiency versions of midsize sedans. In addition to the 117,000 Toyota Priuses bought so far this year, Americans have driven home roughly 90,000 midsize hybrid sedans this year, from the Ford Fusion to the Kia Optima.
But this week, Chevy quietly revealed it was killing the hybrid edition of the Chevy Malibu, a model just two years old. The reason? The numbers — in sales, prices and fuel efficiency — simply didn't add up.
The Malibu Eco model has never been a strong seller; equipped with what General Motors calls its eAssist hybrid system, the hybrid's sticker ran at least $2,300 more than other Malibus. Last year, that money bought some improved fuel economy, with the Eco getting 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway when paired with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine.
For 2014, Chevy reworked the engines on the entire Malibu range, part of an effort to boost sales that have lagged the midsize sedan leaders. In place of the eAssist system — a "mild" setup which included a small lithium-ion battery and electric motor that could reuse energy from braking to boost the engine — GM switched to a simpler stop/start system, eliminating the battery and motor, leaving an alternator-generator which only shuts off the engine at traffic lights.
Chevy says the new setup will now come standard on a 2.5-liter base engine in the Malibu, with the same 25/36 mpg fuel efficiency as the old hybrid and a 14 percent increase over last year's base model. But the cancellation stands in stark contrast to the fanfare GM made when announcing the Malibu hybrid on Earth Day in 2011. Meanwhile, more robust "full" hybrid midsize sedans from Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Honda and Volkswagen will all offer fuel economy of at least 38 mpg combined.
Chevy spokesman Chad Lyons said GM "will continue to offer eAssist technology on other Chevrolet and GM products, and is "committed to this technology;" GM also uses the system in the Buick Regal and Lacrosse, and will offer it in the Chevy Impala. But GM's decade-long history of shunning full hybrid systems as too costly has left it lagging; this year alone the Ford C-Max will outsell all eight of GM's hybrid models together. The market's shown which technology it prefers; the question remains who's listening best.