Don’t roll your eyes — this Malibu Hybrid is actually a hybrid

Chevrolet has a lackluster track record when it comes to hybrid versions of the Malibu sedan.

Previous models used a small helper electric motor to only slightly improved fuel economy. Although the technology didn’t add much to the car’s cost, it fell short of delivering the kind of mileage expected from modern hybrids. Consequently, demand was low and the hybrid models were canceled.

That’s about to change, and if the 2016 Malibu Hybrid doesn’t succeed this time, it won’t be for lack of trying.

In general terms, the completely new 2016 Malibu resets the bar for Chevy’s midsize four-door and makes up for the brief three-year run of the previous (and underappreciated) iteration. The turbocharged and nonturbo four-cylinder gas engines offer plenty of pep and impressive fuel efficiency.

The now-available Malibu Hybrid is an important addition to the line since it competes directly with similar gasoline-electric sedans from Ford, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai/Kia.

Unlike previous generations of “mild hybrid” Malibus where the electric motor could only operate in tandem with the gasoline four-cylinder, the new Hybrid’s primary components can operate separately. The cornerstone 1.8-liter four-cylinder is good for 122 horsepower, while the electric motor generates 102 horsepower. Together, they produce 182 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque.

The electrical part of the equation is fed from a GM-made lithium-ion battery pack installed behind the rear seat. The energy-dense module, which has been influenced by the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, is compact enough to allow for a split-folding rear seat, but as with most other hybrids there’s a significant — on the order of 25 percent — reduction in trunk volume.

Torque is transferred to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission.

Chevrolet claims you can accelerate to 50 mph from rest using only electric power, but it takes a light touch on the pedal and a flat surface to make that happen. Just be sure there are no impatient drivers behind you when attempting this hypermiling technique.

From rest, the Hybrid comes on strongly and smoothly. That’s not too surprising since there’s more torque at your disposal than with either of the Malibu’s two gasoline-only models. Ultimately, though, the extra 370 pounds of powertrain weight (compared with the nonturbo four-cylinder) does act like a bit of an anchor.

The Hybrid’s CVT comes close to mimicking a conventional automatic in around-town driving, but when accelerating uphill you’ll notice some whooshing noise, but not in any extreme way.

Another pleasant surprise comes when you apply the brakes. The regenerative systems on most other hybrids tend to be grabby. Not so in the Malibu, where you’ll be hard-pressed to “feel” any significant difference compared with nonhybrid binders.

There are no firm-riding, low-rolling-resistance tires here. They might help reduce fuel consumption slightly, but they also tend to hurt ride comfort.

The main reason to check out any hybrid is fuel economy, and the Malibu shines with a rating of 48 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway. Those numbers place the Malibu at the top of its class among 2016 models, however Honda claims its upcoming 2017 Accord Hybrid will do better overall.

Driving the Malibu Hybrid off the lot will require $28,650, a fee that includes destination charges. For that price you’ll up-level content, such as dual-zone climate control, 7-inch touch-screen display, power-adjustable driver’s seat, keyless start, rearview camera and 10 air bags.

From there you can wreak havoc on your bank balance or credit limit with leather-covered upholstery, power sunroof, premium audio with navigation system and a set of fancy 19-inch wheels (17-inchers are standard).

Other than some subtle badging and a slightly lowered ride height, there isn’t much to differentiate the Malibu Hybrid from regular Malibu sedans. But the car’s surprising agility, interior comfort and pump-passing skills should be enough for it to be taken seriously this time.

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