by Jim Corbran
What’s up in hybrid-land? Well, the biggest news which doesn’t really seem to be making headlines is that General Motors (you remember them—the company that you and I are now part owners of) has suspended production of its Chevy Malibu and Saturn Aura Hybrid sedans. Once you hear the reason why—sales stink—it’s no surprise.
While Toyota and Honda, and even Ford, are selling hybrid sedans which get significantly better gas mileage than their non-hybrid versions, GM’s hybrids just aren’t that much better than the more conventional Malibu or Aura. For example, Ford’s Fusion sedan, equipped with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission, is EPA-rated at 22 city/31 highway miles per gallon. The Fusion Hybrid, with a 2.5-liter hybrid powertrain and an electronic continuously variable transmission (or, CVT, which is essentially an automatic), is EPA-rated at 41/36 miles per gallon. Fusion sedans start at $19,270 while the Fusion Hybrid starts at $27,270.
Chevy’s Malibu, with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder mated to a four-speed automatic (no manual is offered), starts at $22,325 and is EPA-rated at 22/30, while the hybrid is at 26/34 with a starting price of $26,275. Not many are willing to spend the extra four grand or so for a small increase in fuel efficiency. Ford has a greater price differential, but also has a better payback gas-mileage-wise. The Saturn Aura has a base list price of $22,375 and is EPA-rated at 22/33, while the Aura Hybrid (did you even know one existed?) lists for $27,045 and gets the same mileage as the Malibu Hybrid. Sales of the Aura Hybrid are reportedly in the high three figures—no wonder I’ve never seen one!
The good news for GM stockholders and employees is that there is a new hybrid powertrain in the works, which we should see in a year or so. Don’t expect the Aura to take advantage, as by then it will no longer be a part of General Motors, if it exists at all. The problem with the current Malibu “mild hybrid” setup is that it’s just not as efficient as those used by Ford, Toyota, and Honda. They have what’s called a two-mode system, which can use an electric motor to propel the car, either on its own or in conjunction with the gasoline engine depending on driving conditions. The GM mild hybrid system is limited to: shutting off the engine at stops; using the electric motor to help during acceleration and passing maneuvers; and shutting off fuel consumption during deceleration.
This all makes me wonder just what the people who run GM were thinking when they okayed the initial hybrid project. They already knew they were up against very successful Honda and Toyota vehicles which were rated upwards of 50 miles per gallon. They already knew they were getting their clocks cleaned yearly by Honda and Toyota in the overall market. And they knew that general perception of GM products was that they compared poorly overall to products from Honda and Toyota.
So what did they do? Rushed to market with an inferior system and charged more for it. The Honda Civic Hybrid, which is admittedly a bit smaller than a Malibu, lists for $23,650 and is rated 45 miles per ghallon. The new, larger Insight is rated 43 miles per gallon at just $19,800, while the similarly sized Toyota Prius goes for $20,000 and is rated at 51/48 miles per gallon. The larger, more Malibu-like Toyota Camry Hybrid sells for $26,150 and is rated 33/34.
So for now, GM is limiting new Malibu Hybrid sales to fleets. Gas prices are still on the rise, and if this summer is anything like last summer, GM will once again find itself on the outside looking in when consumers look for gas-saving vehicles. As a part-owner of GM, I’m not too thrilled.
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