Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Check out the list of top-selling family sedans in America and the dominance of the imported brands is almost frightening. Over the last decade, Toyota and Honda have come to dominate the category, while Ford has quietly slipped out of first place and Chevrolet lingers even further down the list. Although the bowtie brand introduced an all-new midsize Malibu sedan in 1997, it lacked the size, power and refinement necessary to win back consumers who made the import switch and liked what they found.
For 2004, Chevrolet is going after the imports once again, and this time it's leading the charge with not one but two new Malibus a traditional four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback dubbed the Malibu Maxx. These new additions to the Chevrolet lineup promise more room, more power and innovative new features that the imports don't have. But will it be enough to convince the buying public that the age of the American sedan is back?
After sampling both models recently, we don't expect the sales crown to switch to Chevrolet just yet, but there are promising signs that GM is finally seeing the light when it comes to building competitive new models. And with a price that remains several thousands lower than the Accord and Camry, those looking for a slightly more affordable family car might find the Malibu an enticing prospect.
Like its competition, the Malibu sedan offers both four- and six-cylinder engines and three levels of trim. The base Malibu is equipped with a 2.2-liter, 145-horsepower inline four-cylinder mated to a four-speed transmission (no manual is available). Standard features on this model include air conditioning; a CD player; power windows, locks and mirrors; a height-adjustable driver seat; a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel; and a 60/40-split folding rear seat. Stepping up to the LS model upgrades the Malibu with a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 200 hp. In addition to the larger engine, the LS adds alloy wheels, power-adjustable pedals, cruise control, keyless entry, premium cloth seats and an upgraded stereo with a driver information center. Top-of-the-line LT models are further enhanced with heated leather seats, automatic climate control, 16-inch wheels and a segment-first remote starting system. The Malibu Maxx hatchback is identically equipped, but no base model is available.
The Malibu's V6 engine has a considerably lower horsepower rating than some of its chief competitors, but it proves to be more than adequate during typical driving. There's plenty of punch off the line and the power doesn't let up much from there on out. The power delivery is consistently smooth, but its rough sound keeps it a step below the Accord and Camry in the refinement department. The four-speed transmission performs flawlessly delivering sharp, quick shifts right when you expect them and a thumb-actuated rocker switch makes manual shifts a breeze.
Ride quality and handling were never the previous Malibu's strengths, but the latest version rides on an all-new vehicle platform that delivers significant improvements in both areas. The Malibu now feels tighter through corners, more composed over bumps and quieter on the highway. There's a much better sense of the road beneath you than on the previous model and none of the creaks and rattles. A new electric steering system provides decent road feel on the highway, but inputs at lower speeds and around sharp corners return a more artificial feel that's less impressive. It's not a car you would characterize as light on its feet but, as family sedans go, the Malibu is comfortable and capable.
A similar improvement in quality is noticeable inside the Malibu. There are fewer awkward gaps between the various trim panels, the dashboard is solidly anchored in place and the climate control knobs feel substantial. There are still a few pieces that show signs of flimsy construction, but for the most part the overall build quality of the interior displays marked improvement.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the materials quality or design as the Malibu still lags behind its competitors in both areas. There's not much in the way of soft-touch materials and the plastic trim pieces lack the kind of texturing that would give them a more upscale look. It wouldn't be so noticeable if the overall design was more dynamic, but there's nothing much going on in that area, either. The gauge cluster doesn't look much different from the previous model's design and the center stack isn't much better. There's nothing wrong with it all from a functionality standpoint, but at the same time there's nothing about the interior that makes you feel like you're getting more than you paid for.
No such complaints could be rendered about the comfort level inside the Malibu as there's plenty of room up front and in back. Between the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and power-adjustable pedals, finding a comfortable driving position is never a problem. The seats themselves are a good compromise between initial softness and long-range support with plenty of adjustability in all directions. Even with a tall driver behind the wheel, the rear seats offer ample leg-, toe and headroom for average-size adults.
As spacious as the standard sedan is, the Malibu Maxx deserves additional recognition for its innovative and functional setup that provides even more rear-seat room along with added cargo capacity. All Maxx hatchbacks feature individually adjustable rear seats that slide fore, aft and recline to give rear passengers first-class accommodations that no midsize sedan can match. There's also an available DVD-entertainment system that flips out of the center console, as well as skylights to give the space an even more spacious feel. Behind the seats, there's 22.8 cubic feet of cargo room and a multiposition cargo tray similar to that found in the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The extra bulk of the hatchback configuration adds some weight compared to the sedan, but only a stopwatch could tell the difference between the two when it comes to performance.
Adding the Maxx to the Malibu lineup was a smart move for Chevrolet, as it offers something truly unique in the segment. Although the two Malibus show significant improvements in both handling and build quality, getting import buyers to give up their trusty Accords and Camrys isn't going to be easy. The improved performance, capable handling and comfortable interior should go a long way toward convincing buyers that the Malibu deserves a look, but whether its average materials and so-so design will be enough to keep them behind the wheel is another story. Honda and Toyota aren't likely to lose their chart-topping sales positions just yet, but this new Malibu could make some positive inroads toward getting an American manufacturer back near the top.
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