Greenest variation of Chevrolet's best-selling model, the Malibu Hybrid enters its sophomore season boasting several detail changes that help boost its mileage ratings and drivability. We recently spent time behind the wheel of a 2009 to see just how well the latest version of this mild-hybrid package delivers on its promise when faced with the trials and tribulations of real-world driving.

What's new for 2009? For openers, the EPA fuel economy numbers are up from 24 to 26 mpg in the city and 32 to 34 mpg on the highway cycle. Principal credit for that added frugality goes to revamped computer programming that delivers more precise and effective a control of the charge/discharge operations of its battery pack. Beyond that, the 2009 also gets a wheel/tire upgrade that swaps the original 215/60 tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels for 17-inch alloys wrapped in a new strain of 215/55 Firestone FR710 low-rolling resistance tires.

Although the Hybrid shares many basic features with the well-appointed four-cylinder Malibu 1LT model, there are a couple of key differentiators. This mid-size sedan gets a slightly modified version of the basic 2.4-liter Ecotec engine fitted with GM's Belt Alternator System (BAS). It's paired with a supplemental electric motor/generator fed by a Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery that can add a bit more temporary thrust (about 5-7 more horsepower) under hard acceleration. Rated at 164 horsepower and matched with a HydraMatic four-speed automatic transmission, the package takes the Hybrid from 0-60 mph in about 8.5 seconds. In addition to its unique charge/discharge meter with ECO light advisor, the Hybrid swaps the standard 3.91:1 final-drive ratio for a more miserly 3.05:1 cog and also is the only Malibu fitted with an energy-efficient electric dual-zone climate control system.

We carried out our 300-plus mile evaluation using simple, straightforward guidelines: No flat-footing starts but no mindless hypermiling moves either; just motoring with the mindset of a typical hybrid sedan owner who'd ponied up a significant premium to play in this game. Functionally, the Malibu Hybrid drove, handled and stopped pretty much like a conventional Malibu, which is to say it proved solid, competent and comfortable in a family sedan sort of way. Operation of the start/stop system was fairly transparent, and while the regenerative setup on the anti-lock brakes sapped a bit of the natural pedal feel, it was far from being a deal-breaker. As for fuel economy, we averaged 29.0-mpg on what turned out to be a slightly-freeway-biased regimen---a figure that equals its EPA combined number.

The 2009 Malibu Hybrid opens at $26,225, nearly $1,800 less than the new and far-more fuel-efficient (41/36-mpg) dual-mode 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid but $3,000 beyond a standard Malibu 1LT that clocks in with 22/30 city/highway mpg. However,, this environmentally enlightened Chevy also qualifies for a $1,550 federal tax credit. So does a Malibu Hybrid make bottom-line sense for you? Beyond any emotional desire to just "go green," the proper payback answer lies in an honest assessment of your personal driving habits, the value you place on its slick climate control system and where you really believe gasoline prices are headed over the next several years.

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