By Design

2008 Chevrolet Malibu

By Design

1. The new Chevy-look grille has nice, easy-to-read identity, but that’s all. GM designers can, and should, do better.

2. The side fence on the hood derives from the A-pillar, flows down to push the grille forward of the lamps, and separates three cooling slots on the lower bumper. The crisp edge to the hood is particularly nice.

3. The quite subtle, soft crease of the headlamps runs the length of the wedge-shaped body and controls the light beautifully.

4. A rising window sill line is common, but rarely do we see chrome definition of the line, particularly as nicely done as this trim piece.

5. The arched roof is similar to some Nissan and Volkswagen sedans; it is unrelated to traditional GM shapes but is nonetheless agreeable.

6. The mismatched rear lamps seem to be inspired by BMW. The whole rear is flat, banal, and uninteresting, apart from the black fake diffuser at the bottom.

7. Surface detailing here is nicely done, with a strong line above the doorsills sweeping up to make a sharp edge across the rear deck.

8. The side-window profile is clean, nicely detailed, and happily does not try to emulate BMW’s much-copied kink.

9. The fine chrome strip below the doors is quite elegant – and a little surprising.

10. Aluminum wheels are visually extremely strong for a family sedan; they suggest performance capabilities probably not present. Nor required, for that matter.

11. Simple, straighforward steering wheel with an unencumbered view through the top. But it does look cheap and excessively plasticky. A little more detail would be welcome here.

12. A nicely cowled main instrument cluster is reminiscent of early Corvettes and gives a cockpit look without spoiling the familial feel of the interior.

13. Neat and unobtrusive central stack eliminates the possibility of a Toyota Avalon-style bench seat, often useful in family cars.

14. The double-cowl theme, with a lowered surface on the passenger side, is agreeable and gives an impression of spaciousness to the entire interior.

The new Chevrolet Malibu is a good-looking car. I don’t see any significant visual design errors, inside or out. Clichs, sure, but nothing egregious. In fact, its overall design quality reminds me very much of the Lexus LS460, in that every surface and detail has been thoughtfully and skillfully treated, but after you have looked at it a couple of times, said “nice,” and walked away, that’s it. It’s not fair to say “bland and boring” about either car, but that assessment is not far from reality. Visually, this Malibu simply does not push any of my hot buttons.

I haven’t driven it yet, but based on recent J. D. Power studies of General Motors cars, I assume that the quality and reliability of the Malibu will be up at the top of the scale, and I can see the precise panel fits for myself without the help of the hyperenthusiastic Bob Lutz presentation I’ve watched at two shows this year. From conversations I had in Detroit and Toronto, I learned that the Malibu doesn’t touch many other journalists, either. That’s too bad.

I’ve always had a penchant for Chevrolets. The second car I built as a kid was financed by trading my Lincoln-Zephyr close-ratio gearbox, Belond headers, Thickstun-Tattersfield manifold, and other Ford-group hot-rod gewgaws for the right to carry an entire Chevrolet component set from a California junkyard–in pieces carefully chosen from a twenty-model-year range. It was a great deal. I planned to drive the sports car I would make from those parts to Detroit as soon as GM hired me to design real Chevrolets. To my parents’ utter astonishment, GM Styling did send a letter saying I could start any time, so the folks bought an airline ticket and packed me out of town before I could finish my roadster–or GM could change its mind.

That was just before the arrival of the ’55 Chevrolet, which instantly pushed hot buttons for me and hundreds of thousands of other people, and still does more than half a century later. It was not remotely as good a car as this Malibu, but it had something going for it quite apart from the dazzling new V-8 engine, still with us in highly evolved form. Shoebox or not, it was exciting, and excitement is what’s sadly missing in this new family sedan. GM has come a long way back from the awful Pontiac Aztek, but “nice” is not nearly enough if there is to be any hope of General Motors defending its number one position–or ever getting it back from Toyota once GM loses its top ranking.

I admire this Malibu, but I don’t want one. The front end is pretty nice, with some Chevy character, but the rear is bland and boring, with nothing but the bow tie to tell us what it is. What GM has to accomplish, now that the basics are more than properly taken care of, is to figure out how to compel my acquisitive lusts, and those hundreds of thousands of others’, making a car with enough spice and excitement that we don’t just want one, we have to have one. That means more, and better, style.

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