TULSA, Okla. -- Twin two-lane strips of asphalt called Riverside Drive follow the eastern bank of the Arkansas River toward Tulsa's downtown skyline as we mix with commuter cars in a special edition of Malibu, Chevrolet's affordable mid-size sedan.
What's so special about our iteration of Malibu?
Well, a peek into the engine compartment reveals a precision electric motor and generator unit takes the place of a conventional alternator in this Malibu to forge a fuel-efficient HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) edition.
Chevrolet describes the 2009 Malibu Hybrid as the most affordable hybrid version of a mid-size sedan on the market.
Its MSRP comes to $25,555.
And the EPA estimated fuel economy figures for burning regular unleaded (87 octane) gasoline tally to 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
There's nothing unusual to denote the special nature of this car, as the HEV version of Malibu looks virtually identical to other trim editions, save for subtle green-and-chrome Hybrid badges on fenders and trunk.
Built on GM's global mid-size platform which forges a strong structure and sets up refined driving dynamics, the Malibu Hybrid model stocks the Ecotec dual-cam 2.4-liter VVT (variable valve timing) four-cylinder engine with GM's Hydra-Matic 4T45 four-speed automatic transmission.
The electric motor/generator for electric assistance is also aboard, plus a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) hybrid battery pack. The hybrid powertrain produces 164 hp (122 kW) at 6400 rpm with 159 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm.
And the electric motor generates 110 lb-ft of auto-start torque. Malibu's hybrid system is considered a conservative (meaning economical) treatment, as the on-board electric motor is not used actually to propel the vehicle but to boost the gasoline engine in full-throttle mode and enable early fuel shut-off during vehicle deceleration or when the vehicle is stopped.
The hybrid electronic control unit automatically shuts off the gas-drinking engine when the vehicle stops or converts vehicle kinetic energy to electrical energy through regenerative braking to charge the hybrid battery pack.
And the gasoline engine restarts seamlessly when the driver releases the brake pedal. However, you never notice the stop-and-start ploys of the gasoline engine because all of the fuel-saving actions are performed automatically and quietly.
The point of using all of this hybrid equipment is to trim the powertrain's fuel consumption and reduce tailpipe emissions. As a point for comparison, a conventional Malibu stocking the 2.4-liter Ecotec engine with the Hydra-Match 4T45 four-speed automatic generates 169 hp at 4500 rpm with 160 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
Its fuel economy figures work out to 22 mpg for in-town driving and 30 mpg on the highway. Our own test while steering a Malibu Hybrid non-stop for 100 miles on interstate highways across Oklahoma resulted in a fuel burn score of 38 miles per gallon.
So there's obvious savings to be earned from Malibu Hybrid's elevated fuel economy figures.
Installing the hybrid equipment on Malibu adds $3,950 to the bottom line, as the MSRP for a 2009 Malibu LS edition with the Ecotec four-cylinder engine and Hydra-Matic 4T45 automatic transmission runs to $21,605.
Malibu Hybrid has a modified instrument cluster with additional gauges and indicator lamps to inform the driver about operations of the hybrid powertrain.
* AutoStop -- this notch on the low end of the tachometer gauge tells a driver when the engine switches to AutoStop mode.
* ECO -- the green ECO (economy) indicator flashes when the vehicle exceeds EPA fuel economy estimates.
* Charge-Assist -- a gauge employs vivid graphics to show when the hybrid equipment is contributing power or receiving a charge through regenerative braking.
Suspension, steering and brake equipment on Malibu Hybrid compare to a conventional Malibu LS edition.
The fully independent suspension features MacPherson struts with aluminum L-shaped control arms up front. In back, there's a four-link arrangement with twin-tube gas shocks, dual-rate coil springs plus a direct-acting stabilizer bar.
Steering is a rack and pinion design with variable assistance and the steering ratio set to 16.4:1. The electric power steering (EPS) system consists of an electrically driven 12-volt variable-assist power steering rack.
Brakes include a large disc at every wheel and each connects to an electronic anti-lock brake system (ABS). A traction control system (TCS) is also aboard with GM's StabiliTrak electronic stability control system.
Malibu Hybrid stocks a carload of safety equipment including passive safety systems like frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in front and back rows.
The exterior treatment mirrors the dressy styling of several mega-bucks German touring sedans, while the fit and finish of body parts -- the precise consistency of seams as body panels merge -- also compares keenly to German cars.
The interior looks handsome and deploys deluxe materials to cover dash, doors and seats.
A spacious five-seat cabin has a pair of bucket seats in front with a fold-flat seatback for the front passenger bucket and a rear split bench for flexibility when arranging passengers and cargo.
Cabin equipment ranges from air conditioning and power controls for windows and door locks to the driver seat's with power adjustments, a DIC (driver information center) in the instrument panel, two auxiliary power outlets, an audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3, XM satellite radio service and OnStar telecommunications with turn-by-turn navigation assistance.