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 system 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 stop-start, start-stop or auto start-stop by the various automakers that have tested it. Vehicles with it have won over hybrid owners, but it has proved unpopular with the drivers of some other vehicles.
"The whole auto industry is moving to start-stop to improve fuel economy," says 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 new Malibu 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 nonhybrid without an off switch for owners who don't like it.
"Stop-start provides a big opportunity to improve a vehicle's fuel economy in city driving," says Dave Sowers, marketing manager for Chrysler's Ram pickups.
Stop-start shuts off the engine when the car is idling in traffic, at a stop sign or at a light. 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 offer the feature, says 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 time explaining what stop-start is doing and how it saves money when the 2014 Malibu goes on sale this fall.
The Malibu's stop-start technology 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," says 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 stop-start, 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.
"This feature is very different from what Americans are used to," says 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 stop-start 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 stop-start models from BMW, Porsche and others.
"We have a strong focus on the technology," says Raj Nair, Ford chief of global product development. "We've had good feedback from customers."
IHS Automotive predicts that more than 20 percent of the vehicles built in North America will have the system by 2017, more than four times today's level.
GM hopes it will be recognized as a technology and fuel-economy innovator for leading that bandwagon.