A Lot More Than Most Improved
Ever experience the Law of Automotive Similarity? You know, whatever you drive, you'll see it in great numbers? Well, we've been driving a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ sedan around for a couple of weeks now, and we've not seen very many other examples of any Chevy Malibu from recent model years.
The irony is deafening, as our offices are close enough to the real Malibu, California, for us to dash there for lunch. And it's no illusion. Based on figures we've heard recently, the 2007 Chevy Malibu is struggling to reach a total of just 1,000 sales for the year in the entire state of California. (That's 37.7 million people, more than 12 percent of the nation.) Yikes.
The Chevy brass knows it has to do something significant to put the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu on the shopping list of Americans from coast to coast (much less in California), and take advantage of the way in which stratospheric gas prices are pushing consumers back into sedans.
Just One Look
On looks alone, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ represents a giant step in the right direction.
Sleek and handsome in the Dark Gray that Chevrolet has chosen as the car's signature color to help reinforce its upmarket aspirations, this car looks like the fitter, hipper younger brother when parked beside a dowdy '07 Malibu (still to be sold to commercial fleets as the 2008 Malibu Classic). And its straightforward design makes some of the Japanese competition seem downright quirky.
Much the same can be said for the interior, where a sweeping bi-level design theme replaces the featureless wasteland of the current Malibu. GM designers have succeeded in creating visual interest without crossing into distraction.
Opinions split over our test car's two-tone Ebony-and-Brick interior treatment, partly because the Brick dash panels seem a tad too orange and don't look as authentic as the matching leather seat inserts. Still in all, the Malibu shows us that improving interior design has become a broad priority at GM.
Front seat occupants will find that head- and legroom are good, and the flowing design hasn't imposed obvious restrictions on the control layout; everything pretty much works and makes sense. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and the pedals slide fore and aft. If you can't fit here, you're probably making too much money as an NBA forward to care.
We can't say the same of the backseat. In a word, it's tight. Despite a 6-inch wheelbase stretch to 112.3 inches (the longest in its class), the 2008 Malibu still offers almost an inch less rear legroom than before. The Chevy matches up well on paper against its competition because of a deep clearance channel in the front seatbacks, but this cutout is narrow enough to box our 6-foot-2 person's knees together.
Our big guys also disliked the looming proximity of the rear doors. Rear shoulder room trails the main competition by at least 2.5 inches — a result of a relatively narrow width (70.3 inches overall), a high rear beltline and other styling considerations. A fold-down center armrest to lean on might have helped, but there isn't one.
These and other basic dimensions come straight from GM's Epsilon chassis that the 2008 Malibu shares with the Saturn Aura. So it's no surprise that our top-level Malibu LTZ carries the same 252-horsepower 3.6-liter double-overhead-cam V6 with variable valve timing that we've seen in the Aura. Unencumbered by the low-revving pushrods and restrictive two-valve heads of last year's 3.5-liter GM V6, the LTZ sprints to 60 mph in an energetic 6.6 seconds, finishing the quarter-mile in 15.1 seconds at 92.9 mph.
A silky-smooth six-speed automatic is the only transmission paired with the 3.6 V6. But fuel economy considerations make it determined to get into high gear and stay there, so it dithers between cogs when climbing hills and lacks grade logic to keep speed in check on descents. At least the Malibu's brakes are solid, as stops from 60 mph use up only 124 feet of real estate, which puts the LTZ among the best sedans in its category.
Nifty dual-action shift paddles that move with the spokes of the steering wheel are welcome at this price point, but pressing them only does something when we commit the console lever to Manual mode range. Other carmakers have recognized that certain driving situations are helped by letting the driver command a temporary downshift while the lever remains in Drive.
Despite the best efforts of the transmission, the EPA-certified fuel economy of 17 mpg city and 26 highway remains a couple of points shy of the class-leading 2008 Honda Accord V6. We averaged 22.5 mpg over nearly 2,600 miles of combined driving, including a long-haul trip from Memphis to Los Angeles. Our Malibu weighed in at 3,643 pounds — within two or three bowling balls of an Accord V6.
Our Malibu LTZ's ride slots comfortably between the extremes of too hard and too soft. There's enough control tuned into the MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension to keep things interesting and composed on back roads, but not so much that the ride becomes harsh and tiresome. The occasional bump will come through along with a hollow impact sound, but our drivers always got the impression of a crummy road, not a sloppy chassis.
The cruise from Memphis provided ample opportunity to verify that Chevy's claim of top-notch noise abatement is largely true, particularly in the area of wind noise. Full-perimeter door seals and double-layer window glass for the front seats do indeed keep the ruckus down.
In fact, the wind noise is low enough that some of us felt the Malibu makes what would otherwise be an unremarkable amount of road noise more noticeable than you'd expect.
But the picture isn't all rosy, as the NVH fairy forgot to bless the hydraulic power steering. Pump flow noise and vibration are apparent at idle and get louder with subtle steering inputs. It's the same complaint we've had with our long-term Saturn Aura. We've seen it done a lot better than this without resorting to electric power steering.
Smoking Up the Track
During freeway cruising, the steering seemed wooly and lifeless, with little on-center steering feel, although the actual steering response is linear and the effort builds up well in corners. A veneer of friction stops us from saying the steering has good feel, but the overall performance of the Malibu's rack-and-pinion steering is solidly midpack for the class.
So it's no surprise that our LTZ slithered through our slalom course in a composed and unruffled manner at a respectable 64.5 mph. It also hurtled around our skid pad at 0.80g — better than most similarly priced sedans. And that's no smokescreen.
But a cloud of smoke billowed from our Malibu's tailpipe during its clockwise run around the skid pad. Further investigation revealed that some oil had been slung past the valve cover breather and into the intake tract. We've tested our long-term Aura XR V6 the same way and have never seen this behavior. And we were unable to replicate the smoke by flinging the Malibu at a few freeway cloverleafs we know.
Dollars and Sense
The price of the Malibu has gone up, but the overall design and quality impression has gone up more. Including destination charges, our test LTZ stickers at $27,245: $26,995 for the base LTZ plus $250 for a rear 110-volt power outlet.
As before, this puts the bottom line of the Malibu a couple of thousand under the competition, yet the surprise is that the Malibu no longer feels a couple of thousand less good than its rivals. As it stands, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu deserves a place alongside the class leaders on the shopping list for mainstream sedans. And real greatness is within reach if Chevy puts just a few dollars more into refining one or two specific areas, like the steering.
We'll know the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is a hit when it starts to be a common sight in, er, Malibu.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Automotive Editor John DiPietro Says:
I got to know the Malibu pretty good — we shared a 1,800-mile road trip from Memphis, Tennessee, to Los Angeles and we're buddies now! Time was of the essence, so I took Interstate 40 the whole way. Power with the V6 was plentiful, so I ran about 80 mph most of the way. Despite the speed, I averaged 25.9 mpg, essentially matching the EPA's highway estimate of 26 mpg. You have to give the engine a stiff boot to get the lazy transmission to give you a downshift for passing and merging, a side effect of a calibration that's all about fuel economy.
The Malibu's balance of responsive handling and a comfortable ride is just about perfect. It's planted and confident when taken through the curves and smooth over broken pavement. The seat comfort and support were simply fantastic; driving nearly 500 miles a day for four days, there were no complaints from my finicky lower back! Furthermore, the cabin is notably quiet, plus the dual-cowl dash design gives it some personality. I'm disappointed, however, that a real navigation system isn't available, given the clean-sheet redesign.
Most surprisingly, the new Malibu impressed me with its handsome styling and vastly improved build quality. It looks like a luxury car and everything fits and feels like a luxury car. After having had its butt kicked by Honda and Toyota for a couple of decades, Chevrolet has finally realized that people notice details, and it has sweated to get them right. The doors shut with a solid thump, the various controls have a fluid action and even the trunk lid is fully carpeted. Combined with its solid overall performance on the road, this all bodes well for the new Malibu's success. Chevy is now in the game with this one.