We’ve all heard GM’s party line too many times: “Sure, we’re not doing so well with our current products. But we’ve redesigned the [insert model name]. It’s going to bring new car buyers flooding back to [insert brand name].” Each time, the new product has fallen short. Each time, GM has surrendered market share, especially in the midsize sedan segment it once dominated. Does the latest object of GM’s hype, the redesigned 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, continue this downwards trend?
Let’s face it: only die-hard loyalists listen to/believe anything GM says these days. So the only way a new GM product is going to get noticed outside the fold is if it looks 1) like nothing else and 2) damn good. Despite sharing sub-skin bits with the Pontiac G6 and Saturn Aura and cribbing from the Acura TL, the new Malibu actually delivers on both counts. People who haven’t considered a Chevrolet in eons may become interested after seeing the car.
As a Chevrolet, the Malibu is theoretically at the bottom of GM’s totem pole. For once, GM isn’t aesthetically hobbling a Chevrolet to make room for other divisions’ models. The Malibu’s artfully curved bodysides, formal C-pillar and Lexus-like brightwork provide a more upscale appearance than the equivalent Pontiac or Saturn. The prow might prove controversial, but it makes a strong, distinctive statement without the use of a gaping grille or sci-fi aesthetics. Trim alignment could be better, though.
Inside, we’ve got two tones, retro curves and cut lines galore— the sort of multivarious approach GM’s interior designers have long favored. In the past, after the bean counters and manufacturing engineers had their wicked way, the result has been a tacky mess. This time GM stayed true to the concept.
The Malibu cabin’s lines flow the way the original designers intended, the workmanship is first-rate and the materials vie for best in segment. Sure, the door pulls and some close-at-hand panels are hard plastic, but so are the same bits in the competition. There’s more of the soft-touch stuff than you’ll find in an Accord or Camry.
The Malibu’s driving position falls close to class average– not too low or too high. Legroom is plentiful in both the front and rear seats. The moderately firm seats provide proper support. And au courant ambient lighting is a welcome and unexpected standard feature in this class.
If there’s one place the interior falls down, it’s shoulder room. Time was American cars were much beamier than their competitors. But the Epsilon platform that underpins the new Malibu was developed with European markets in mind, so you’ll actually find a couple inches more shoulder room in a Toyota Camry or in the newly supersized Honda Accord. A relatively tight cabin lends the Malibu a sportier feel, but isn’t good if you want to scrunch three adults into the back seat.
So the new Malibu’s exterior and interior styling could bring people back into a Chevrolet showroom for the first time in decades. The test drive could still disappoint.
Chevy offers two engines: a 169-horse four and a 252-horse V6. The four, like those in competing sedans, provides merely adequate acceleration. The V6 is literally overwhelming. Mash the go-pedal at low speeds and the steering wheel jiggles this way and that as the Eagle LSs fight for traction. Either transmission shifts smoothly, but the V6’s paddle shifters are about as useful as mammaries on a mule. The six-speed slushbox doesn’t react promptly to manual inputs, preferring a prod from your right foot.
Toss the new Malibu through some turns and you’ll find excellent composure and well-checked body lean– but not the sharpness of a hardcore sport sedan. The base 16-inch tires look dinky and provide little grip; the V6’s 18-inch treads hang on considerably better, and mutter quietly as their limits are approached.
Weighting feels more natural with the V6’s hydraulic steering than with the electric rack in the four, but neither system provides much feedback. The feel through the wheel is solid and steady rather than quick and sharp. Enthusiasts should opt for the LT2, where faux suede center panels usefully augment the seat’s side bolsters.
The Malibu’s chassis excels in one key area: providing a smooth, quiet ride. Even over nasty stretches of pavement you’d better keep an eye on the speedometer to avoid flashing lights in the rearview. For the typical midsize car buyer, the ride-handling balance is outstanding. The Bu serves-up less wallow than the vanilla Camry, and it’s smoother than the Accord or Camry SE.
The bottom line: the new Chevrolet Malibu backs up its upscale looks with an upscale feel. Potential customers [theoretically] drawn to Chevrolet showrooms by the Malibu’s sheetmetal won’t be disappointed by the rest of the car. GM has finally built it. But will they come?
[Michael Karesh invites Malibu buyers to join TrueDelta's reliability panel.]