General Motors (GM 2.50%) said that the soon-to-be-launched 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid will have an official combined fuel-economy rating of 46 miles per gallon.
That's tops among midsize hybrid sedans, and it's only a few points shy of Toyota's (TM 0.02%) new-for-2016 (and much-improved) Prius.
How did GM manage that?
Bringing the new Chevy Volt's technology to a mass-market model
Simply put, here's how: By tapping a lot of the new technology it developed for the second-generation 2016 Chevrolet Volt.
GM built on the technology it developed for the latest Volt to make its most serious attempt yet at a "mainstream" midsize hybrid sedan. The new Malibu Hybrid incorporates some of the redesigned-for-2016 Volt's electrical components, its regenerative braking system, and -- importantly -- much of its software.
The new hybrid Malibu is powered by a 1.8 liter four-cylinder gasoline engine paired with two electric motors that combine for a total output of 182 horsepower. That won't set any land speed records, but it's enough to move the roomy sedan from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a reasonable 7.8 seconds. A 1.5 kWh lithium-ion battery stores the electrons. There isn't (yet, at least) a plug-in hybrid version available.
Aside from the powertrain, and some lost space in the truck that has been taken up by that battery, the new Malibu Hybrid has the same virtues as its gasoline-only 2016 Malibu counterpart: A smooth quiet ride matched with a surprisingly roomy and well-finished interior. It's a huge step forward from the last-generation Malibu that compares well with the segment's biggest sellers, Toyota's Camry and Honda's (HMC -0.43%) Accord.
When it comes to EPA fuel economy, the Malibu Hybrid beats almost all of its main rivals. Its official EPA ratings are 47 miles per gallon in the city, 46 miles per gallon on the highway, and 46 miles per gallon "combined".
Here's a chart showing how the Malibu Hybrid stacks up against most rivals. (Can you spot the one that's missing?)
GM must have forgotten to mention Honda's Accord Hybrid, which sports EPA ratings of 50 city, 45 highway, and 47 combined -- a tiny tick ahead of the new Malibu's. But in real-world driving, that's essentially a tie.
As I mentioned above, the new Malibu Hybrid's numbers are even good enough to stand comparison to those of the hybrid king, Toyota's brand-new 2016 Prius. The Prius does better, of course -- 54 city, 50 highway, and 52 combined in most versions -- but the midsize Malibu is a considerably bigger (and roomier) sedan than the compact Prius.
Another big step forward for GM's product line
GM's last attempt at a hybrid Malibu was the ill-fated 2013 Malibu Eco, a "mild hybrid" that had middling fuel economy and didn't impress buyers. It was discontinued after just one year.
But this time around, as with the non-hybrid version of the new Malibu, GM took a different approach: A serious effort to make the new Malibu "best in class" in a fiercely fought market segment.
Whether the new Malibu is the "best" midsize sedan right now is somewhat subjective. It's not the tautest-handling competitor, but some buyers will surely favor its gentler ride. But for those buyers concerned about fuel economy, the 2016 Malibu Hybrid is an instantly serious contender.
For those of us who are GM investors, it's one more example of why we own the stock: The General isn't content to be second-best anymore.