While we were out back, watering the petunias, the Chevrolet Malibu took a quantum leap.
Although it wasn't exactly a frog before, its 2008 redesign has certainly turned it into a handsome prince. And perhaps more significantly, its refinement and civility have grown to a point where it can play in the same league with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The Malibu I tested was a nifty machine visually, really good-looking. It had adopted some sporty cues from the Corvette, but did so in the restrained, dignified way most people look for in a midsize family sedan.
The tan and gray interior was more nice design work. The two-tone approach worked well, although the use of a material other than molded plastic would have afforded some aesthetic relief on the door panels.
The workmanship was right there, both outside and within. The paint work was perfect, and the body margins were uniform, even the particularly difficult ones around the "island" hood.
The engineers also worked hard to rig this car for silent running, and their efforts have paid off, particularly in the engine room.
Starting in the high teens, the Malibu is available in three flavors: a standard sedan with a 2.4-liter, 164-horsepower four and a four-speed automatic; the sporty LTZ, whose honkin' 252-horse, 3.6-liter V-6 is buttoned to a six-speed automatic; and a hybrid model, which is what I tested this time.
The Malibu Hybrid is what is known as a "mild hybrid," meaning it doesn't run on its electric motor alone. Rather, it uses a five-horsepower motor to assist the 2.4-liter gas engine during acceleration, and to charge the batteries that spin the accessory drive that runs things like the air conditioner when the engine is off at a stop.
Since it can't run on its battery alone, the mild Malibu hybrid doesn't get nearly as good mileage as a pure hybrid like the Toyota Prius. While the Prius is getting EPA city and highway mileage ratings in the 40s, the Malibu is registering EPAs of 24 and 32, only a couple of miles per gallon better than the regular four-cylinder Malibu.
The flip side is that the Malibu Hybrid is relatively inexpensive (the very well-equipped test vehicle was $22,790, including shipping), and performs so much better than a pure hybrid. The Malibu gets from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a lively 8.8 seconds. The Prius does that chore in a turtlesque 11.3.
While it ain't a Prius, I found the hybrid tester a rather controlled drinker. In largely stop-and-go Philadelphia driving, I got 26.1 miles per gallon.
So what you have here, then, is a hybrid with unremarkable mileage, and an exceptional ability to merge safely onto I-95.
Driving the Malibu Hybrid proved pleasant business. The car rides well and prefers to be seen instead of heard. Handling and steering are competent. They aren't quite on a par with a 30-plus sports sedan, but they are fine for a popularly priced family car. The braking system, ABS-governed four-wheel discs, is certainly adequate.
Safety features are a strong suit on the Malibu. The brake system is joined by passenger-sensing frontal air bags, front side-impact bags, front and rear head curtain side bags, stability control, traction control, and one year of OnStar.
This equipment contributes to a top, five-star frontal crash rating for both the driver and passenger. Side crash worthiness is not yet rated.
The standard-feature generosity extends to comfort considerations like tilt and telescopic steering, 16-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors, climate control, and satellite radio.
Base price: $22,140.
As tested: $22,790.
Standard gear: An extensive menu of safety and comfort features, ranging from stability and traction control to climate control, alloy wheels, power doors, mirrors and windows, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, OnStar, and satellite radio service.
Fuel economy: 24 m.p.g. city, 32 highway.
Engine performance: Adequate.
Contact Al Haas at BusinessNews@phillynews.com.