Here's the short answer on the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu: It's good.
After almost a year's worth of buildup and anticipation, we have now driven the new Malibu. So the time has finally come to pass judgment.
You'll forgive us if we were a bit skeptical about the vehicle that GM's car khan Bob Lutz calls "one of the most important in 100 years for Chevy." We've been through this more than a couple times with domestic carmakers, a sequence of over-promise and under-delivery followed by over-promise on the next generation, and so forth and so on.
And so it is with considerable relief that we report that Chevy has broadly hit its mark with the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu.
Talking the Talk
This might sound remarkable, but the most notable thing about Chevy's presentation of the '08 Malibu is its stark assessment of the company's past performance with this model. Consider this sampling of honesty from GM executives:
"We'll take on the quality challenge which we've avoided in the past."
"It's going to take an extensive amount of time to get it [changing consumer perceptions] done."
"We came to work every day humble, with our heads down."
You might think that it would be difficult to not acknowledge the failings of its recent past, given how Honda, Nissan, Toyota and other players including Hyundai have absolutely eaten Chevy's lunch for the past couple of decades. But trust us, we've seen them attempt to swerve, duck and leap around that 800-pound gorilla before.
Chevy is taking a fairly sensible approach with the Malibu. The company has defined a couple of areas where it believes the Malibu can be best-in-class and has devoted human and financial resources to achieve it. According to Chevy, these areas include styling and the control of noise, vibration and harshness.
Repeated viewings of the car over the last year have drained some of the drama out of the Malibu's new look. But the car is smoothly handsome and free of styling gimmicks, which bodes well for its long-term appeal. And it has none of the self-conscious oddness of recent Honda and Toyota designs. At the very least, few potential customers will be put off by the new Malibu's look.
But styling is a largely subjective matter. Noise, vibration and harshness are far less so. Chevy spent the money to use quiet laminated glass for the windshield and the front-seat windows to reduce wind noise in the Malibu's cabin. The company specified spray-on acoustic insulation and composite liners within the wheel wells to reduce road noise. And more sound deadening at the dash and tighter orifices in the firewall reduce the amount of engine noise that can leak into the cabin.
Special attention went into controlling the honking ruckus that intake air makes while entering the standard 169-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-4, which Chevy anticipates will power 70 percent of all the Malibu models sold. Incoming air encounters nine tuners and resonators before reaching the engine. The effect is, well, the absence of vice. The engine seems smoother and the average driver is probably more likely to keep his foot on the gas because the engine doesn't sound like it's eating itself. Meanwhile the optional 252-hp V6 is so smooth and sonorous that it feels plenty powerful mated to the standard six-speed automatic, even though it's not the most powerful V6 in its class.
Careful tuning of the Malibu's engine mounts also quells much of the vibration that would otherwise come zinging through the steering column and unibody. Whether you're in a Malibu four or V6, the car feels serene. This lends the Malibu a perceived quality that is worth whatever GM paid to get it done. (Naturally, the company won't say how much that might be.)
Welcome to Pleasantville
The new Malibu shares the same basic chassis as the well-received Saturn Aura, and this means the expected MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink independent rear. It differs from the Aura only in tuning, really. Chevrolet says it used a new tuning philosophy for the Malibu, and as far as we can tell, this means the car now slots between the mushy Camry and the sporty Accord.
For now, we've only driven the Malibu on smooth roads in Tennessee and Mississippi. Still, we feel comfortable saying Chevy has achieved its target here. The Malibu's big body (it rides on a 112.3-inch wheelbase that's the longest in its class) feels well-controlled over low-frequency undulations. It does not float. It does not bounce. The Malibu will not goad its operator into pushing the car to the outer limits of its performance envelope, but its high-speed cornering and general deportment is poised and confidence-inspiring.
The Malibu makes for an excellent highway cruiser. Sharper suspension inputs from things such as tar strips are not absorbed entirely but are largely heard as a light "thwack" rather than felt. Front and rear seat passengers will have little to complain about in terms of ride quality.
Our only major quibble with the Malibu's dynamic package is its steering. Models with the four-cylinder engine feature electrically assisted steering, which has a short and ugly history at GM. (We're still trying to cleanse our memory of any recollection of the first-generation Saturn Vue.) Models with the V6 use conventional hydraulic assist. Neither is very good.
The electric assist feels less artificial than it used to, and GM should get some credit for that. But neither system feels natural or linear in the way, say, a Honda Accord's steering does. The Malibu's steering wheel feels dead on-center and then seems to abruptly come to life as you begin your turn. This might not be a deal-breaker for consumers, but it might be for people like us who like to drive.
The Story Inside
Passengers won't have a whole lot to complain about in terms of interior accoutrements. This Chevrolet sedan actually has a pretty nice interior. The dual-cowl architecture is a great improvement over the passionless previous interior. It also appears to be assembled with care.
Overall the new interior is attractive and cosseting, and it's even available in two-tone combinations with sassy names such as Brick, Cashmere and Cocoa. And they actually look pretty good. In the class, only the Accord's interior really stands clearly above the Malibu's effort, while the Camry shows evidence of Toyota's cost-consciousness and is certainly no better in terms of either design consistency or materials quality.
The Malibu's instrumentation and controls are clear and sensibly laid out, and there's plenty of room in the cabin both front and rear. We wish GM could figure out a way to make passenger grab handles compatible with the car's standard side curtain airbags. And we think it's a mistake on GM's part not to offer a navigation system. The company believes that OnStar (standard for every Malibu) and its turn-by-turn navigation is a good substitute. It's not. We tried it on our drive and found that at first it wouldn't work at all. Then it did work after awhile, but we kept a map at the ready because we had no faith in it.
The Heart of the, Um, Beast
The Malibu's powertrain offerings are par for the class. The 2.4-liter inline-4 is standard for all three trim lines, and its 169 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque put it squarely in the middle of the output range of the competition's offerings. Chevy's optional 24-valve 3.6-liter V6 makes a credible 252 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque. That's less than the big three Japanese-brand sedans but more than the Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata can muster.
Despite a standard six-speed automatic, the V6-equipped Malibu returns fuel economy figures of 17 mpg city and 26 highway — a couple of mpg worse than its competitors. Possibly this is due in part to the Malibu's heft. At 3,649 pounds, the Malibu V6 is the fat kid of the group.
Even so, the Malibu four returns fuel economy of 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway, which is competitive in its class. This fuel economy number is an estimate based on the four-cylinder mated with the four-speed automatic. Next spring, the four-cylinder will be offered with a six-speed automatic, which should improve the fuel economy numbers as well as the driving experience.
As it is, the four gear ratios in the current transmission feel too widely spaced and not capable of keeping the inline-4 in its power band. For now, we recommend the V6.
The Malibu will also be offered with the same mild-hybrid powertrain as the Saturn Aura Green Line and should return 24 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. The electric motor adds only 6-7 horsepower to the gas engine under heavy load, so it's basically a four-cylinder car with an idle shut-off feature. It doesn't seem like a lot of efficiency improvement considering the $1,800 price premium over the standard car. Of course, the substantial federal tax break reduces the added cost of the hybrid to about $500 more.
If you're the kind of driver who runs into things, you'll be happy to know that the Malibu will cover virtually the entire interior with inflatable bags.
Front and rear head curtain side-impact bags and front-seat-mounted thorax bags are standard, along with dual-stage front bags. Standard ABS and traction control along with electronic stability control (standard on the Malibu LT and Malibu LTZ models) are there to prevent impromptu testing of any of those airbags.
There isn't a competitor that offers a better allotment of standard safety features.
Furnishings and Financials
The base-level $19,995 LS comes with 16-inch wheels, the above-mentioned safety gear and XM Satellite Radio. The LT version adds 17-inch wheels, dual chrome exhaust tips and drive shift control. The full-zoot LTZ adds 18-inch wheels, LED taillamps and foglamps. It starts at $26,995. The Malibu Hybrid carries a $22,790 base price. Even though the new car starts a couple thousand dollars higher than the outgoing model, the 2008 Malibu is competitively priced.
So the Malibu is good. Let's hope it's the beginning of a long sustained effort to regain and retain a competitive position in the midsize market for Chevy, and in passenger cars generally.
For now, Chevy is talking the right talk and has made its first step in a long walk.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.