Chevrolet resurrected the Malibu nameplate in 1997 for its Corsica replacement, but the car was destined for rental fleets from the moment it rolled off the assembly line. Would Toyota Camry and Honda Accord buyers have cross-shopped the Malibu? That was about as likely as GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz cross-dressing for a press conference.
The all-new Malibu is competitive enough that Lutz should consider fancy dress to celebrate his achievement. After all, in the six years that Lutz has been at General Motors, one of his main missions has been to unleash the company's design and engineering ranks so that they could produce decent cars, not just competitive trucks and SUVs. In the case of the Malibu, Lutz's goals have mostly been met.
If there's one thing GM has really baked into its new-car development this decade, it's how to stiffen its cars. We've seen this characteristic from Cadillac to Chevy. The Malibu, which--like its corporate twin the Saturn Aura--is based on the global Epsilon platform, has a solid, flex-free unibody. The ride is firm and controlled, and the hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering on V-6 models is communicative and free of slop. Over a stretch of chatter bumps (small, high-frequency ridges in the tarmac) at GM's proving ground, the Malibu's steering rack remained rigid and planted, whereas a Camry on hand for comparison suffered from serious kickback through the steering column. Unfortunately, the electric power assist fitted to four-cylinder Malibus is not as satisfying as the hydraulic setup, as it is too light, has little on-center feel, and lightens even more when you apply power. There is nothing wrong with electric power steering, as Volkswagen has proved with the new GTI, but GM can't seem to perfect it.
Aside from that, the Malibu's properly tuned front-strut, rear-multilink suspension and long, 112-inch wheelbase help it ride better than the softer, floatier Camry. The Chevy soaks up dips in the road fluidly, with little secondary jiggle, and the brake pedal feels firm, with progressive movement. The LTZ model gets eighteen-inch tires, the LT has seventeens, and the base LS has sixteens.
GM's 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder is on duty, with a 252-hp, 3.6-liter DOHC V-6 optional on the LT and LTZ models. For most of the model year, the four will be mated to a four-speed automatic, but a six-speed auto will gradually come on-stream. The V-6 gets the six-speed automatic at launch and, naturally, is all the better for it, although that engine's tonal quality is still not quite as refined as the Camry's silky V-6. The same hybrid powertrain that's available in the Aura is also offered.
The Malibu is three inches longer than the car it replaces, but it seems even bigger, thanks to a wheelbase that was stretched six inches. It's not sexy, but the Malibu is handsome and well-proportioned, looks substantial, and has real road presence. The cabin is roomy and cleanly designed, and the optional two-tone leather trim for the LTZ edition is downright rich. We're still not fans of the tactile quality of the plastics, though, and the interior ambience in the midlevel LT model seen here hovers at rental-car levels.
Still, the Malibu is fully competitive, something you could never say in the past, and it's certainly worthy of consideration. But true enthusiasts will have to wait for Chevy's version of the upcoming, rear-wheel-drive Pontiac G8 before there will be a bow-tie-badged sedan worth crowing about. We have high hopes for that car, which promises to be so good, Lutz might want to don a formal gown for its debutante ball.