GM has watched its place in the passenger-car market dwindle in recent years, and the all-new Malibu midsize sedan is the company's first step in an attempt to reclaim its former status as a high-profile player in the space. While the Malibu may not have the nearly silent ride of a Toyota Camry, nor the high-quality interior of a Honda Accord, it does offer an enjoyable driving experience — with either a four- or six-cylinder engine — and a lot of value in a striking package. It's not the best player in this segment, but the Malibu is no longer the wallflower of the party.
Car shoppers often decide on a car before sitting in or driving it. The Malibu's in-your-face front end should make lots of folks put the Malibu on their list. A smushed, two-panel grille is divided by a solid bar that features the trademark Chevy bowtie, and the grille is bordered by large, angled headlights. It's a bold look that will likely garner lots of love-it or hate-it reactions (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model).
Polarizing style like the Malibu's front end is all the rage these days, as is a European sedan profile, which is also on display here. The rear is perhaps the only humdrum angle, with taillights that seem a bit gawky as they stab inward. A chrome frame surrounds the license plate, which adds a bit of flash to an otherwise dull surface. It's an unusual touch that isn't as gaudy as it may sound.
The last-generation Malibu's biggest drawback when compared to the Camry and Accord was its interior. No matter how great a sedan drives, if people are repulsed by a cheap interior they're far less likely to buy or even test-drive it. The new Malibu has far better interior materials than that past generation, and it's a step above the Saturn Aura sedan, with which it shares a platform. However, it doesn't hit the heights that the new Saturn Vue SUV's cabin does. The Malibu's interior is more stylish than the Camry's, and of similar quality, but I'd still call the Accord the segment leader when it comes to the quality of the material.
There's style aplenty in the dash, which isn't the norm in a family sedan. Dual arches outline the top of the dash and curve outward to the doors. The front passenger gets the full effect because that portion of the dash isn't broken up by a gauge cluster. Drivers don't have it so bad, though, as the gauges are well-done; they feature sporty white numerals outlined with a glowing blue ring. It's almost identical to the color and light scheme of the Honda Civic's tachometer. Little things — like a leather booted shifter and sturdy air vents — raise the interior quality a few notches as well.
There are a number of different trim options, including two wood designs and two colors of faux-metal. These trims flow over the dash and doors, but metal trims cover the center controls for the stereo and air conditioning no matter which trim you choose, wood or faux metal. The darker of the two metal finishes is subtle on its own or with the darker wood trim, but the silver-hued one looks tacky and is especially off-putting when mixed with the lighter wood.
The cloth fabric that comes standard in the LS, LT and Hybrid models is high-quality, and the seats are supportive. More-comfortable leather seats are available in the LT and LTZ trims. Both cloth and leather interiors can be had in two tones with a variety of color combinations. The two-tone leather seats are striking in tan and dark brown, but are a bit jarring in red and black. Personally, I preferred the monotone black or tan leather seats with matching suede inserts in the uplevel LT2 package. They were by far the sportiest of the available packages I tested.
Ride & Handling
Chevy is no doubt going to win over daily commuters with this car. The ride is quiet and comfortable, with just the slightest bit of road and wind noise seeping in, and wind buffeting is rare. Chevy has tuned the Malibu to ride smoothly over rough surfaces and glide over smooth ones. What's more, the car still manages to give enough feedback to the driver to feel like a sports sedan. That's a tough combination to find in this segment.
I took the four-cylinder, six-cylinder and hybrid models through hundreds of miles of twisty roads and straight highways, and all three handled flawlessly, exhibiting little body roll. All offer a substantial, planted feel. Four-cylinder and hybrid Malibus have electric-assisted power steering, while the V-6 has hydraulic steering.
There was some torque steer present in the V-6 when accelerating hard. It was quite unpleasant, and in one instance was harder to wrangle than I had anticipated. The four-cylinder has less of that steering-wheel wrenching attribute, but it obviously doesn't have as much passing power.
Going & Stopping
Chevy expects the four-cylinder Malibu (including the hybrid) to be the big seller of the lineup, making up 70 percent of sales. After testing the 169-horsepower engine back-to-back with the 252-hp V-6, I can see why. High-speed passing power isn't readily available in the four-cylinder, but it teams with a four-speed automatic transmission that offers extremely smooth shifting. It was one of the rare times I've tested a four-speed automatic and thought that if they hadn't told me otherwise I would have guessed it had at least five speeds.
The four-cylinder offers decent mileage — 22/30 mpg city/highway — that's just one mpg lower than the Accord and Camry. The fact that its starting price is also slightly lower than foreign competitors' when similarly equipped will definitely help draw in curious customers.
The V-6 is a sturdy engine that produces plenty of power, but it doesn't feel quite as powerful as its numbers suggest. While it certainly will impress Camry owners, the Accord and Nissan Altima V-6s are more athletic performers. The Malibu does offer a manual-shift feature, unlike the Accord, that will make the leadfoot in the family smile. In that setup, drivers use steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles to change gears. The paddles were adequate and downshifted well, but upshifting with the pedal floored in dead-stop launches wasn't quite as thrilling as I'd hoped. Left in Drive, the six-speed automatic runs through the gears smoothly and precisely.
The left pedal isn't nearly as compelling as the right, and not just because its job is to slow you down. While braking is linear, you'll need to use more pressure than you'll expect to slow things down. I was surprised that after the first 30 minutes or so behind the wheel, my foot was a little fatigued from braking. However, over the course of the day I got used to the brakes' firm feel, and in extreme braking the car responded properly without any worrisome shudders.
The hybrid's brakes, being regenerative ones that charge the hybrid battery pack, didn't react the same way; the feedback was a bit softer but not as precise.
Even though the 2008 Malibu is launching with a hybrid trim level, it shouldn't really be considered a unique model. This mild hybrid features the same gasoline engine as the four-cylinder Malibu and has a small electric motor to assist it. With the regenerative brakes and other technologies, GM has eked out just two more miles per gallon (on both the highway and in the city) than the conventional four-cylinder Malibu gets, bringing the estimate to 24/32 mpg.
This slight increase in efficiency just doesn't warrant the extra $1,800 cost, in my book. The system's large battery pack is located in the trunk, which takes up valuable cargo room and makes the fold-down rear seats a bit less useful.
There is an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the hybrid powertrain, as well as a $1,300 tax credit, at the time of publication.
Chevrolet has added the types of comfort features most midsize-sedan buyers want. A trip computer is standard in all models, as is a CD stereo. OnStar and Turn by Turn directions are also standard, including service for one year, but a screen-based navigation system isn't offered. XM Satellite Radio is standard, but it comes with just three months of free service.
The rear seats fold down easily, which expands the cargo area. The backs of the rear seats are finished in hard plastic to make it easier to slide large, bulky objects into the trunk.
There are plenty of cupholders, with two in the center console and one in each door. Household electrical outlets can be found in the rear seating area.
The trunk isn't especially tall, but its flat floor is nice compared to the Accord's, which has intrusive bumps from the wheel wells. At 15.1 cubic feet, it's also bigger than both the Accord's and Camry's trunks, which come in at 14.0 and 14.5 cubic feet, respectively.
The Malibu comes with six standard airbags, including front-seat side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags for both rows. Traction control and antilock brakes are standard throughout the lineup, and a stability system is standard on all models but the base LS.
As of this publication, no crash tests have been performed on the Malibu.
Malibu in the Market
In the simplest terms, Chevy now has a legitimate competitor to pit against the Camry and Accord. I can see the four-cylinder LT wooing shoppers with its value statement. One of the LTs I tested though, sported a $21,105 price tag, including destination, making it a tough call against an Accord LX-P sedan that was on hand for comparison at a near identical price. I'd still give the edge to the Accord in terms of interior quality, but the Malibu's ride and handling, plus the plethora of color combinations, could easily tip the scales in Chevy's favor.
The fact that the Camry didn't seem impressive next to either one speaks volumes about how quickly a redesigned model can outdistance a competitor that's only a few years old. For once, Chevy seems to have built a new model that competes with the best in the marketplace, rather than just another average entry.
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