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Chevy Malibu Eco hybrid is a tough sell

Mon, 28 Jan 2013

Most prospective Chevrolet Malibu buyers at Castle Chevrolet in suburban Chicago quickly decide that they don't want to pay nearly $3,000 more for the Eco mild-hybrid version.

"For most people, it's hard to justify the extra money based on the extra fuel economy" of a combined 3 mpg more than the base model, says Jeff Tuckman, the dealership's inventory manager. "You've got the base LS model sitting next to it that's just as nice and luxurious."

It's a problem flagged by many Chevy dealers. They say that the Malibu Eco doesn't offer a big enough fuel economy boost to sway buyers to choose it over one of the other two engine types: a 2.5-liter engine or a 2.0-liter turbocharged version.

That represents a broader challenge for General Motors, which is making a big bet on its mild-hybrid technology, called eAssist. GM is likely to deploy the system across much of its lineup in the next few years. The company has targeted annual global sales of 500,000 electrified vehicles by 2017; the vast majority of those would be mild hybrids.

GM engineers are working on a next-generation eAssist system that would offer a more compelling jump in fuel economy and likely would be offered on some large vehicles, including crossovers. They won't say when it will arrive or how much additional mpg lift it might deliver.

"We continue to work on improvements to get the efficiency up and the costs down," says Pamela Fletcher, GM's executive chief engineer for electric vehicles.

So far the Malibu is GM's highest-volume car to come equipped with eAssist. It's also offered on the Buick LaCrosse and comes as the base powertrain on the Buick Regal. It will be offered on the redesigned Chevy Impala, due out by late spring.

To save fuel, eAssist combines a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine with a menu of technologies, including stop-start, regenerative braking, a lithium ion battery and a small electric motor to assist the gasoline engine under certain conditions, such as when merging into highway traffic.

The Malibu Eco gets 25 mpg in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway, compared with a 22/34 mpg rating for the 2.5-liter model.

GM says the take rate for the Eco model is 8 percent of total Malibu sales, below GM's initial forecast of 10 percent.

Says a New Jersey Chevy dealer who didn't want his name used: "The fuel economy difference from the other models isn't so great that buyers are saying, 'I'll choose a smaller trunk and pay more money.'" The system's battery is packaged in the trunk and takes up about 3 cubic feet.

To save fuel, GM's eAssist combines a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine with technologies such as stop-start, regenerative braking, a lithium ion battery and a small electric motor to assist the gasoline engine under certain conditions.

Dealers don't mind when customers choose a different Malibu model. More problematic for GM, analysts say, is that the Malibu Eco's fuel economy compares poorly to other options in the mid-sized sedan segment, even nonhybrids.

The Nissan Altima, for example, uses a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine to get better fuel economy than the Malibu Eco, 27/38 mpg, and costs nearly $4,000 less. The Toyota Camry hybrid gets 43/39 mpg and stickers for about $850 more than the Malibu Eco.

"Getting the consumer to embrace the incremental gains in fuel efficiency from the mild-hybrid system can be problematic given all the improvements that have been made" on regular gasoline engines, says Alan Baum, a Detroit-area automotive analyst who tracks electrified vehicle sales. "I think GM knows they've got to improve" eAssist's mpg numbers.

One reason GM is pressing ahead with development of its eAssist mild-hybrid system, despite consumer resistance to it on the Chevrolet Malibu Eco, is that shoppers prefer eAssist on larger vehicles more than on smaller ones.

Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, acknowledged that larger vehicles such as the Chevrolet Impala are "where you can really see" the benefits of eAssist, rather than on the mid-sized Chevy Malibu.

Or consider the mpg equation on the Buick LaCrosse.

Buyers pay the same price for a 2.4-liter eAssist LaCrosse that delivers 25 city and 36 highway mpg as for a 3.6-liter V6 that gets 17/27 mpg. Last year, 25 percent of buyers chose the eAssist version, triple the take rate for the eAssist-equipped Malibu Eco.

On future iterations of eAssist, Reuss says that engineers are wrestling with how to boost the system's electric assist without adding too much weight.

"You add bigger battery packs, and then you just add mass to the car," Reuss says. "So you've got to figure out the equation."

By Mike Colias- Automotive News