What's New for 2008
Fully redesigned for 2008, the Chevrolet Malibu is now roomier, more powerful and of notably higher quality. It shares a platform with the Saturn Aura but is definitely not a simple rebadge, as it features unique exterior and interior styling along with different suspension tuning for a softer ride.
Life for the Chevy Malibu the last couple of decades hasn't been easy. With its midsize family sedan rivals outgunning it in terms of overall performance, refinement and features, this gets-no-respect, not-too-handsome Chevy was often like the last kid picked for a neighborhood pick-up basketball game. For 2008, however, there's a new Chevy Malibu, and this one has hit the gym, relentlessly practiced its game, gotten over acne and ditched the glasses for contacts.
Based on the same European-derived platform used for the Saturn Aura, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is larger than before and rides a 112-inch wheelbase, one of the longest in the segment. Along with a robust chassis comes a quiet cabin and suspension tuning that's not as sporty as the Aura's, but still strikes an agreeable balance between ride and handling. The engine lineup is composed of an inline-4 with a respectable 169 horsepower and a new 252-hp V6.
Those competent underpinnings are wrapped in a body that looks more premium sedan than rental car. Apart from the somewhat controversial but distinctive nose, the Malibu sports clean, classy lines, with tight panel gaps and just enough chrome trim to impart a high-end feel. Other key improvements involve the cabin. We've often criticized past Malibus for their cheap materials and lackadaisical build quality. Now, instead of a sea of hard plastic, there are higher-grade materials, a fresh dash design and much-improved build quality -- although there are still a few cheap bits, lending a literal "hit or miss" feel. Another downside is that although OnStar offers a "Turn-by-Turn" navigation feature, there is no traditional nav system available.
Overall, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu has certainly earned a "Most Improved" award. True, it still faces some tough rivals in the midsize family sedan game such as the redesigned Honda Accord, the enjoyable Ford Fusion, the sporty Nissan Altima and the hugely popular Toyota Camry. But unlike past years, where the Malibu would've been resigned to riding the pine, it's now in the game, scrapping for rebounds, hitting threes and winning over fans in the process.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is a midsize sedan that comes in four trim levels: LS, 1LT, 2LT and LTZ. The LS comes with 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, full power accessories, air-conditioning and OnStar. A six-speaker CD audio system with satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack is also standard. On top of this, the Malibu 1LT adds 17-inch alloy wheels and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. The 2LT upgrades further with polished wheels, remote engine start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a power driver seat, power-adjustable pedals and heated front seats. The luxury-laden Malibu LTZ adds silver grille inserts (versus black), foglamps, LED taillights, 18-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded audio system with a CD changer and eight speakers, leather seating and a power passenger seat. A few key features, such as a traditional navigation system and dual-zone climate control, are not available on any Malibu.
Options are grouped into a handful of packages that allow many of the higher trims' features to be added to the lower trims. There's also a rear power package that includes a 110-volt AC outlet (behind the center console) and a manual rear sunshade.
Powertrains and Performance
All Malibu trims except the LTZ come standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 169 hp and 160 pound-feet of torque. It's paired to a four-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the front wheels. Standard on the LTZ and optional on the 2LT is a 3.6-liter V6 with 252 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque, matched to a six-speed automatic with manual shift control. Later in the model year, the LTZ will be available with the four-cylinder engine matched to a six-speed automatic, giving it a performance edge over the lower trims that make do with the four-speed gearbox.
Although the Malibu is no lightweight at about 3,500 pounds, even the four-cylinder version provides decent performance, with the 0-60-mph sprint taking less than 10 seconds. The V6 furnishes very impressive acceleration, running to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. EPA fuel economy estimates stand at 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway for the four-cylinder, while the V6 earns a 17/26 mpg rating (a tad worse than Accord, Camry and Altima).
Antilock disc brakes, traction control, front-seat side airbags and side curtain airbags are standard on all trims. The LT and LTZ versions add stability control. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal offset crash test, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu scored a "Good" rating, the highest possible.
Interior Design and Special Features
A dual-cowl dash design, somewhat reminiscent of a 1960s Corvette, highlights the cabin, while much improved materials and build quality put this Malibu light-years ahead of prior models. Contrasting piping on the seats, once the hallmark of ultra-luxury cars, is seen on LTZ models with the two-tone upholstery scheme, and all trims feature an impressively quiet ride, thanks to features such as acoustic laminated front windows.
Firmly supportive front seats make for comfortable 500-mile days behind the wheel, and the controls for the audio and climate control systems are simple to use. With its long wheelbase, the Malibu offers generous amounts of legroom for rear passengers, though the seat lacks a center armrest and the sloping roof line may impinge on headroom for tall folks.
Striking an excellent balance between handling and ride, the 2008 Chevy Malibu's chassis provides confident cornering along with a smooth ride on broken pavement. Steering is precise, if a bit numb on-center, and body roll is well-controlled, even in quick maneuvers. Braking distances are good, though under heavy braking the body moves around noticeably. Although you can hear the power steering whine at low speeds, the cabin is impressively hushed at highway speeds and seat comfort and support is superb, making the Malibu ideal for long trips. With a wide range of adjustment, the driver seat provides a good driving position, but awkwardly placed pedals and a large-diameter steering wheel can be an annoyance for some drivers.
The four-cylinder engine should prove sufficient for most buyers, though obviously the V6 provides considerably more gusto. There's plenty of power available, though getting the six-speed automatic to downshift (as for a quick freeway passing maneuver) requires a deliberate foot to the throttle. Sadly, in such situations, the LTZ's paddle shifters can only be used after the gearlever has been put into "M" -- other such systems allow for an automatic override when a paddle is pressed.