Safety First for a Solid Family Entry

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid sedan

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid sedan
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid sedan (Courtesy of Chevrolet)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008; Page G01

My associate, Ria Manglapus, and I have been hunting for the perfect family car. It is a pursuit that requires definition.

"Perfection" here means the car must be affordable. That means a base price of no more than $30,000. Actually, we'd like to keep the total transaction price under $30,000. To our way of thinking, any car company that can't make a good family car for $30,000 should not be in business.

Of course, the car must have comfortable seating for five people, and enough cargo space to carry groceries to feed them. We both have sizable nuclear and extended families. We're always driving somebody somewhere.

Safety is a must. So is fuel economy. Just the other night, while we were driving this week's subject car, the front-wheel-drive 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, we came upon a horrific crash scene. The driver of a large sedan had slammed into the back of a commercial delivery truck. The front end of the sedan was demolished. Its engine had fallen to the street -- a much better outcome than being shoved into the passenger cabin where it could've done lots of human damage. The truck was unscathed.

The sedan's driver was shaken up, but he appeared unhurt. The scene made us appreciate a standard feature on the 2008 Malibu cars -- the OnStar emergency communications system with Advanced Automatic Crash Notification. The system immediately signals an OnStar adviser that a crash has occurred, even if no air bags have deployed. The adviser will attempt to contact the driver of the OnStar-equipped vehicle to determine if there are injuries. The information is relayed to police and other emergency personnel traveling to the scene of the accident.

That saves time, and saving time in getting the best information to emergency personnel could save lives.

OnStar provides other services such as unlocking car doors via satellite when the key is left inside the car, turn-by-turn navigation, vehicle diagnostics and maintenance reminders, and hands-free telephone calling -- all part of a paid subscription service, $12.95 a month after a free trial. But we like the Advanced Automatic Crash Notification system best.

We don't particularly like the tested hybrid version of the Chevrolet Malibu. It gives us barely two miles per gallon more in the city -- 24 miles per gallon, compared with about 22 mpg for the regular four-cylinder Malibu, which we much prefer for its fuel economy. On the highway, where most current-generation hybrids go to sleep, mileage performance between the regular four-cylinder Malibu and the Malibu Hybrid is a wash, about 32 mpg.

So, yeah, we'd go with the regular four-cylinder job, a decision made easier by General Motors' new attitude toward the design and development of economical family cars. Four cylinders no longer mean cheap, flimsy interiors at GM. Four cylinders no longer constitute an excuse for lousy fit and finish. Interior materials in the Malibu Hybrid are very good. Fit and finish are excellent. There are no gaping seams anywhere. The car is solid. And thanks to GM's generous use of sound-deadening materials in all of the right places, the Malibu Hybrid's cabin is very, very quiet.

Is it the perfect family car?

At this point, our thinking is this: The regular 2.4-liter, 169-horsepower, in-line, four-cylinder Malibu, preferably in LT trim, comes very close. That's saying something, because neither of us ever thought we'd be saying something like that about a Chevrolet Malibu. The car looks good without trying to be something that it isn't. And it feels good and secure on the open road.

We see no need for the current edition of the Malibu Hybrid, which essentially mates the four-cylinder engine with a low-kilowatt electrical system to start the car, moving it at about three mph, before the gasoline engine kicks in. We'd suggest holding off on that and most other current-generation hybrids until their electrical systems can carry much more of the driving load in the city and on the highway.

As for the 3.6-liter, 252-horsepower, V-6 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ, the top model in the 2008 Malibu line: It is very, very nice, and we'll have more to say about it later. For the moment, we'll simply point out that it is just as easy to get a speeding ticket in the regular four-cylinder Malibu, or in the Malibu Hybrid, as it is to get one in the less economical Malibu LTZ.

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