January 28, 2013
DETROIT -- Most prospective 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.
The Malibu Eco gets 25 mpg in city driving and 37 on the highway, compared with a 22/34 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.
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.
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