The new Chevrolet Malibu is-at last-a decent mid-size car from General Motors. It isn't the best car in its class for enthusiast drivers, but we'd certainly rather be hustling down a twisty road in a Malibu than in a Toyota Camry. (Which is a sad reflection on how soft and middle-aged the Camry sedan has become.)
The Malibu's underwhelming duds hide the Epsilon architecture that is shared with the Opel Vectra and the Saab 9-3. The structure is solid, its rigidity enhanced by the extensive use of high-strength steel and a magnesium cross-dash beam. The MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension have refinements such as aluminum lower control arms. The rack-and-pinion steering has electric power assistance, mainly to improve fuel economy.
Chief engineer Greg Bellopatrick said that the aim was to achieve "refined ride and handling with a European flavor." GM product czar Bob Lutz adds that "instructions went out not to dumb this car down for Americans." Base Malibus are equipped with a 145-horsepower, sixteen-valve, DOHC, Ecotec in-line four. Uplevel Malibus use a reworked OHV V-6 that is increased from 3.4 to 3.5 liters. Output goes up to 200 horsepower and torque to a healthy 220 pound-feet. A four-speed automatic transmission-is standard.
There are three Malibu trim levels: base, LS, and LT. Base cars have cloth seats; a standard power height-adjustable driver's seat; a driver information center; power windows, locks, and mirrors; and a tilt/telescope steering wheel. The LS gets standard aluminum wheels, the V-6, power-adjustable pedals, keyless entry, higher-quality cloth seating, anti-lock brakes, and traction control. The LT adds leather/ suede seats, six-way power seat adjustment, sixteen-inch aluminum wheels, and heated front seats.
The interior is a vast improvement over the outgoing Malibu's, with more space and much higher-grade materials. Lutz was at pains to emphasize the better materials and tighter panel gaps on this car than on other comparable GM products. Still, most of the buttons and switches won't give Volkswagen or Honda designers sleepless nights.
The driving experience is vastly better than the previous Malibu's, too. On the highway, the cars ride nicely, with muted wind and road noise. The four-cylinder's 155 pound-feet of torque hardly makes it a snappy passer, but the V-6 is quite fast, with a claimed 0-to-60-mph time of 7.9 seconds and 50 to 70 mph in 3.9 seconds. Although the six doesn't want to rev hard, it is smooth and torquey, if lacking the performance and refinement of a Japanese V-6. However, the V-6 LS will be priced to compete with four-cylinder Hondas and Toyotas, which don't have as much power.
Away from the straight and wide, the Malibus remain pleasant to drive. The four-cylinder base car-which has softer front springs, different damper valving, and lighter steering, on account of its lower front-end weight-is actually more chuckable than the six. Unfortunately, the four-speed automatic is ill matched to this engine and is always hunting between gears on back roads. Both cars grip well and ride dips and crests nicely but are uninvolving, much like the Vectra and the 9-3. A four-cylinder Honda Accord, on hand for comparison, was a great deal more entertaining.
Prices start at $18,995 for a base car and range up to $23,495 for an LT. Chevy expects to sell between 110,000 and 130,000 Malibu sedans a year, of which 40 percent will be four-cylinder models. More fun to drive than a Camry and more refined than a four-cylinder Accord on the highway, the Malibu is a solid value and a player in this class. What it won't do, however, is set hearts a-racing.