What's New for 2006
The Chevrolet Malibu gets a few updates for 2006. Most interesting is a new performance-oriented SS trim level that features a 240-horsepower V6 engine. Chevy has also juggled the existing trim levels: the base model is now called the LS, the former LS is now the LT, and last year's LT is now the LTZ. Other minor changes include freshened front-end styling, new wheel designs, flashier trim pieces for the instrument panel, a new four-spoke steering wheel and standard child security rear door locks on every trim level.
Since its introduction in 1964, the Chevy Malibu has gone from affordable family car to high-horsepower muscle car to little-noticed rental car. Despite its historic value, the Malibu nameplate was discontinued after the 1983 model year, returning in 1997 as Chevrolet sought to give customers a value-packed midsize sedan that still cost thousands less than the imported competition.
The designers and engineers at Chevrolet listened to consumers from across the country in an attempt to design and build a sedan with broad based appeal. The result was a roomy, tasteful-looking midsize sedan that offered just about everything you might want in a family car. Unfortunately for Chevrolet, this Malibu never received enough attention to get it noticed by mainstream buyers. The company tried again last year with a fully redesigned Malibu riding on an all-new platform and powered by a larger 3.5-liter V6 engine.
Chevrolet is hoping this Malibu will woo some import sedan buyers, and indeed it's based on GM's Epsilon platform shared with the nimble Saab 9-3. Ride quality is smooth and comfortable on the highway. Handling is predictable in the corners, though an oddly calibrated electric steering setup makes Chevrolet's family sedan feel less adept than many of its competitors. The brakes perform adequately in everyday traffic, but we've measured longer-than-normal distances in simulated panic stops. In general, those who make few demands on their cars should be satisfied with the Chevy Malibu's dynamics, while those accustomed to the sharper reflexes of other cars in this class may want to look elsewhere.
Inside, the Chevrolet Malibu is quite roomy, with as much headroom, shoulder room and legroom as anything else in the class. The spacious trunk offers 15.4 cubic feet of capacity, and you can fold down the 60/40-split rear seats and the front passenger seat to open up more room for bulky items. Passengers are protected by an optional set of front-seat side-impact airbags along with front and rear head curtain airbags, and Chevrolet is offering an interesting remote start feature that allows owners to get a head start on heating or cooling down the cabin. The interior is bland compared to the competition, but it is at least functional with a straightforward control layout. Build and materials quality is still several steps behind the Accord and Camry, though.
In order to accommodate a variety of drivers, all Malibu models come with a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and standard seat-height adjustment for the driver; power-adjustable pedals are available on all models. The Chevy Malibu is purposefully conservative with regard to exterior styling. Fresh without being funky, Chevrolet refers to the Malibu's exterior style as "enduring." While the company still has some work to do before it can dream of stealing Honda and Toyota customers, the roomy and well-equipped Malibu is certainly a step in the right direction.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The four-door Chevrolet Malibu is available in four different trim levels -- LS, LT, LTZ and SS. The LS model comes well equipped with air conditioning; a CD player; a height-adjustable driver seat; a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel; power windows, mirrors and door locks; and a 60/40-split folding rear seat. The LT adds remote vehicle start, premium cloth seats, front map lights, a cargo net in the trunk, adjustable lumbar for the driver and an upgraded stereo. The LTZ adds a rear spoiler, antilock brakes, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals and side curtain airbags. The SS adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, bolstered sport seats and unique trim. Various options include an in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, a sunroof and OnStar.
Powertrains and Performance
LS and LT models come with a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 144 horsepower. Standard on LTZ models and optional on LT models is a 200-hp, 3.5-liter V6. The SS comes with a 3.9-liter V6 with 240 hp. All engines are mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, and the SS features a manual-shift mode.
Front-seat side-impact airbags and full-length head-protecting side curtain airbags are standard on the LTZ and SS; and optional on the LS and LT. Traction control and antilock brakes are standard on all cars with a V6 and optional on those with the four-cylinder. In NHTSA crash testing, the Malibu earned a perfect five stars for front-occupant protection in head-on collisions. In the side-impact test, a Chevy Malibu with side airbags garnered five stars for front-occupant protection and four stars for rear-passenger protection. In IIHS testing, the Malibu earned the top score of "Good" for frontal offset crashes and side impacts when equipped with side airbags (without the bags, it rated "Poor" for the side-impact test).
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, the Chevrolet Malibu offers broad, flat seats with plenty of head-, shoulder and legroom in both the front and back. Optional adjustable pedals and a standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel allow drivers of all sizes to get comfortable behind the wheel. The cabin design is functional but bland with a straightforward control layout. Trunk space is generous at 15.4 cubic feet, and a 60/40-split rear seat and fold-flat front-passenger seat make it easy to expand cargo space when needed.
Power is adequate with the base four-cylinder, but most buyers will want to step up to one of the V6s, both of which offer plenty of torque for merging and passing. A softly tuned but composed suspension gives the 2006 Chevy Malibu a smooth ride and predictable handling in the corners. Unfortunately, the car's electric steering ruins the fun by providing too much power assist much of the time. The SS fares much better with its traditional hydraulic power steering and sport-tuned suspension. The brakes perform adequately in traffic, but stopping distances are long for this class.