ANALYSIS: Start-Stop Technology on Malibu a Bold Move for Chevy

(Detroit Free Press/MCT) -

Imagine shutting off your engine at every red light or stop sign, then turning on the ignition when the light turns green. Chevrolet is betting on a fuel-saving technology that does that automatically.

Stop-start technology, which will be standard on the 2014 Chevy Malibu, is expected to improve the midsize sedan’s fuel economy by at least 5 percent in city driving. The system is called start-stop, stop-start or auto start-stop by various automakers who have tested it. Vehicles with start-stop have won over hybrid owners, but proven unpopular with the drivers of some other vehicles.

“The whole auto industry is moving to start-stop to improve fuel economy,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of J.D. Power’s automotive research group, which measures customer satisfaction. “General Motors is to be commended. There’s some risk, so they must have great confidence in the system.”

The 2014 Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan will be the first high-volume, gasoline-engine vehicle sold in the U.S. to make the system standard equipment on its base model, and the first non-hybrid without an off switch for owners who don’t like it. Start-stop shuts the engine off when the car is idling in traffic or at a stop sign or light.

“Stop-start provides a big opportunity to improve a vehicle’s fuel economy in city driving,” said Dave Sowers, marketing manager for Chrysler’s Ram pickups.

The engine restarts quickly – ideally, imperceptibly – when the driver lifts off the brake and is ready to move again. Customer-satisfaction problems arise when the systems feel rough or don’t restart quickly enough.

“We’re hearing quite a few complaints” from customers of luxury automakers that already offer the feature, said Jack Nerad, KBB.com executive market analyst. “They want to turn it off.”

GM spent a lot of time developing the Malibu’s system. Expect it to spend a lot more explaining what it’s doing and how it saves money when the 2014 Malibu goes on sale this fall.

The Malibu’s stop-start consists mainly of a beefed-up starter and a small auxiliary battery in the trunk. The extra battery is there so drivers won’t notice a momentary dimming of lights or slowing of the air-conditioning fan when the engine stops and starts.

The Malibu uses the same electronic controls as several hybrids GM already builds. Those vehicles are widely considered industry leaders for smooth, unobtrusive operation. Among other things, the system is programmed so it doesn’t keep cycling on and off in stop-and-go driving in heavy traffic. It also measures the inside and outside temperatures to keep the passenger compartment comfortable.

“There’s no sacrifice in drivability,” promised Todd Pawlik, chief engineer of the Chevrolet Malibu and Impala. “The key is doing what the customer wants.”

About 45 percent of vehicles built in Europe already have start-stop, but customers there are more forgiving of rough starts because fuel is much more expensive and more people drive cars with manual transmissions, which aren’t as smooth as the automatic transmissions that dominate American car sales. BMW did fine with the system in Europe, but has received fierce criticism since it started offering the system in the U.S. a couple of years ago.

“This feature is very different from what Americans are used to,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Automotive. “Once they understand it, drivers will probably accept it.”

Ford and Chrysler have tested the waters with optional start-stop systems on the Fusion sedan and Ram 1500 pickup, respectively. Both of those vehicles provide an off switch for customers who don’t like it, as do luxury start-stop models from BMW, Porsche and others.

“We have a strong focus on the technology,” said Raj Nair, Ford chief of global product development. “We’ve had good feedback from customers.”

IHS Automotive predicts more than 20 percent of vehicles built in North America will have the system by 2017, more than four times today’s level.

GM hopes it’ll be recognized as a technology and fuel-economy innovator for leading that bandwagon. If customers don’t like GM’s version of start-stop, it’ll be a black eye for the Malibu and a misstep that could set the technology back throughout the whole industry.