When Chevy unveiled its new Malibu last fall, its standard four-cylinder Ecotec engine was mated only with an outdated four-speed automatic transmission. GM promised that a proper, modern automatic would soon be available with the four-banger, and it has delivered on that promise today by unveiling a six-speed automatic called the 6T40. (A different six-speed automatic, the 6T70, was offered from the start for the Malibu, but only with the optional V-6 engine.) Production on the four-cylinder/six-speed powertrain starts shortly, so Malibu LTZ models thus equipped should be in dealerships well before Memorial Day.
At a media event today at GM's headquarters at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit, I had an opportunity to briefly drive a Malibu LTZ equipped with the new powertrain. Launch acceleration is crisp and strong, but with only 169 hp on tap, acceleration from 30 to 60 mph is a bit slow, so I put the gearshift lever into M, for Manual mode, and used the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to downshift (push them forward) or upshift (pull them back). With that maneuver, there was plenty of power, and the gearbox easily held revs past 6000 rpm.
Unlike most of GM's four-cylinder engines from the past twenty years, this one actually feels and sounds refined and quiet. I was able to drive the car for only about 10 minutes on a freeway loop, but it appears to be a well-engineered piece and an effective challenger for the highly regarded four-cylinder powertrains in the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Hyundai Sonata, none of which is offered with a six-speed automatic. The six-speed has gains in efficiency, too, increasing the four-cylinder Malibu's highway fuel economy from 30 mpg to 32 mpg, which beats Camry and Accord, which both are rated at 31 mpg. The six-speed automatic Malibu gets 22 mpg in the city, the same as it gets with the four-speed automatic.
The six-speed automatic initially is exclusively offered in the top-spec LTZ model, which will cost $26,545, including destination, as a 2008 model. Chevy has this powertrain exclusively this summer, but it spreads this fall to the Pontiac G6 and the Saturn Aura.