The only thing better than a nice, roomy 2016 Chevy Malibu that gets 31 mpg combined is one that adds hybrid efficiency for 47 mpg combined. But the big question is should pay the extra bucks for the hybrid with gas prices as low as they are?

2016 Chevy Malibu LT interiorThe Malibu's styling doesn't change much from the L, LS and LT, though it gets more luxurious inside. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

This kind of question was a no-brainer when our whole paychecks — or at least the money not going to Whole Foods — went to putting gas in the tank. Remember $4 a gallon? It wasn't that long ago.

The regular Malibu starts at $21,625, and the base engine in the L, LS and LT models is the 1.5-liter four-cylinder turbo that's in my test car. Yep, 1.5 liters in a mainstream "mid-sized" automobile (it's barely smaller than an Impala, but Americans like things big). Heresy! I remember when these cars were regarded as transportation for old folks if they sheltered a six.

Chevy Malibu 1.5-liter turboThe 1.5-liter turbo offers plenty of passing power, despite displacement they laughed at in the '60s. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

I love this engine! The whole formula of tiny engine with big turbocharger is a recipe for fun and fuel economy. The 1.5 makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound feet of torque, and delivers 27 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway (31 combined). There's no discernible turbo lag, and the motor's got plenty of power for the Malibu, which lost a whopping 300 pounds from its (smaller) predecessor. At 3,126 pounds, this is both one of the biggest and lightest cars in the segment.

On the highway, I accessed plenty of scoot, even while already powering down the highway at 60. The passing power is there when you need it — it's not a sports car, but you wouldn't expect it to be. The Malibu is also one of the quietest cars I've driven, comparable to some high-end Audi and Lexus products. Double-pane windows help keep out road noise. Also unobtrusive was the stop-start system, which you’ll barely notice in operation.

My $27,985 tester is an LT with $2,000 worth of options, but you might be perfectly happy in an L. The MyLink audio system, which is Apple CarPlay capable, was nice. I was able to play music off a small hard drive, and it was more capable than most at organizing the songs, but it didn't have shuffle function. Really?

I love it that I'm able to recommend American cars again. But the hybrid thing. To access that 47 mpg combined (48 city/45 highway), you trade in the turbo for a Chevy Volt-derived powertrain twin-electric motor drive unit, connected to a 1.8-liter gas engine that's larger than the Volt's 1.5-liter. A 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack offers enough reserve to get the car to 55 mph on electric power. The system makes 182 horsepower, so it should have more grunt than the base car.

2016 Chevy Malibu LT interiorThe Malibu's interior won't win any styling awards, but it's plenty functional. Rear seat legroom is good, too. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Also borrowed from the Volt is the regen braking system, and the car features a classy Exhaust Gas Heat Recovery system that uses normally wasted warmth to make the cabin toasty and improve engine warm-up times. Active grille shutters make the car more aerodynamic at speed.

Ordinarily, 22 extra horsepower and 16 extra mpg would make the hybrid a no-brainer choice. This is a serious hybrid. The last version of the Malibu disappointed me with GM's "mild" hybrid system, making a non-competitive 25 city and 37 highway. As Car and Driver noted, "Not exactly a Prius fighter."

But the Malibu hybrid starts at $27,770. There's a lot to think about here. If you drive a lot, say, more than 10,000 a year, you'll earn back the difference much faster. The annual fuel cost of the Malibu tester is $1,450, though the EPA bases that on a rather outdated $3 a gallon. Edmunds says $938 (based on $1.97/gallon), which is more like it. For the hybrid, the annual fuel cost hasn't been calculated yet — the car goes on sale in the spring — but I estimate that you're only going to be saving a few hundred dollars per year. Based strictly on fuel costs, the payback is going to be long.

But also worth considering in the equation is that the hybrid will come with plenty of added features, including safety stuff: Lane Keep Assist, Front Pedestrian Braking and Low-Speed Automatic Braking. You also get push-button start with passive entry, a very worthwhile addition.

Given all this, I think I'd still go for the hybrid. For one thing, I like the extra cruising range hybrids offer (always fun to pass a gas station). And better fuel economy results in reduced emissions, a major issue with me. I want my green car to be really green. But the choice is getting tougher since the 1.5 turbo Malibu is a lot of car for the price.

Teen DriverTeen Driver spies on your kids, but maybe they need it, since the fatal crash rate for 16- to 19-year-olds is three times the adult rate. (Photo: General Motors)
Teen Driver is available on all Malibus, and it's on my tester. How about this? If your high schoolers don't buckle their seat belts, the infotainment system is muted. And they can't drive without music blasting. The system also gives parents a kind of Big Brother ability to monitor their kids' driving, including how fast they go and whether they received collision alerts or not. Mom and dad can set up a maximum speed, and if Junior goes over it, not only is there an in-car warning, but the parental units can see it, too.

Nothing like this existed when I was driving, and because of that, it's a miracle I'm still alive. Did you know that 16- to 19-year-olds crash fatally at three times the adult rate? Yep, that’s according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Check out the video:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

31-mpg Chevy Malibu or (the pricier) 47-mpg Malibu Hybrid: I know which one I want
The only thing better than a nice, roomy 2016 Chevy Malibu that gets 31 mpg combined is one that adds hybrid efficiency for 47 mpg combined.