The all-new 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is General Motors' latest attempt to take on the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord in the race for mid-size sales. Sharply styled, strong on safety (six airbags and antilock brakes are standard on all Malibus, electronic stability control on all but the base model), and with a particular emphasis on a quiet, refined ride, the 2008 Chevy Malibu has the tools -- but does it have the talent? Read on. Price range $19,995 - $28,415, EPA fuel economy estimates 17-24 city, 26-32 highway.
First Glance: Malibu's uphill battle
According to Chevy's research, the average mid-size car buyer would rather remove his or her own intestines with a salad fork than buy an American car. They're old enough to remember the 70s and 80s, when American cars' quality and efficiency (or lack thereof) was put into sharp contrast by the economical, well-built cars from Toyota, Honda and Datsun (now Nissan). So it's no surprise that the Camry, Accord and Altima rule the mid-size roost.
The American automakers have been trying to catch up ever since. And though this has been said countless times before, I think that this time, with the all-new 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, they may well have done it.
The Malibu is truly competitive with its Japanese rivals. In some ways, it's actually better. And I don't mean barely-measurable factors that only engineers and ad-writers care about, like having three microns more left-rear-seat ankle-room or accelerating one-ninth of a nanosecond faster from 26 to 32 MPH. No, I'm talking about things like interior décor and engine noise -- real things that real buyers really care about.
I'm not saying the Malibu is flawless. What I am saying is that the Malibu's flaws are no bigger in magnitude than the flaws of its Japanese competitors.
What about value, the traditional American trump card? Yep, Malibu's got it. The Malibu LS delivers air conditioning, CD player, automatic transmission and OnStar for under $20k. Even with all the goodies, the 'Bu stays well below $29k -- though, that said, the goody list doesn't include a sunroof or video navigation system.
In the Driver's Seat: Design takes priority, but function's not far behind
One of the biggest problems with domestic cars has been that they traditionally reserve their nicest interior appointments for high-end versions. They then sell scores of low-end models with chintzy interiors to rental fleets. So when the owner of a Japanese car goes on a trip and rents one, he says "Look at this crappy interior! American cars are crap. Boy, I can't wait to get home to my crap-free Toyonissonda."
The Malibu hasn't fallen into that trap. All Malibu models -- LS, LT, LTZ and Hybrid -- offer a handsome two-tone interior with the two shades separated by a strip of silver or faux wood. My favorites are the grey-and-tan (link goes to photo) in the mid-level Malibu LT and the brown-and-tan in the LTZ, both with wood trim. They have an elegance that reminds me of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class cabin. But even the base LS model offers two good looking combinations (seen here and here). Not all the color choices look good, though -- I don't particularly care for the monochrome look (here and here) or the Star Trek look.
The interior doesn't just look good, it also works well. I found the front seats quite comfortable and was pleased to see that a tilt-and-telescope steering column and electric driver's seat height adjuster are standard on all Malibus. I wasn't so pleased with the back seat, which isn't particularly comfortable, though does it offer a decent amount of space. But the trunk is great -- 15.1 cubic feet, plus it uses non-intrusive hinges which are superior to the old-fashioned cargo-crushing hinges found on most of the imports.
On the Road: Marvelous four-cylinder engine, but steering's a disappointment
LS and LT models are powered by a remarkably quiet 169 horsepower 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine with a 4-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration is more than adequate and fuel economy estimates -- 22 city/30 highway using the new, stricter EPA tests -- are promising. Hybrids use a modified version of the 2.4 with GM's "mild hybrid" system. It doesn't turn out the stellar mileage of proper hybrids like the Toyota Prius/Camry and Honda Civic, but it's good for an extra 2 MPG or so.
A 3.6 liter V6 and 6-speed automatic combination is optional on the LT and standard on the LTZ. It comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, though they don't work unless the regular shift lever is shifted to "M" -- an extra and seemingly pointless step. Chevrolet is preparing a 4-cylinder/6-speed automatic combo is due to become the standard LTZ engine. I got the chance to drive it, and it's without question the best of the bunch, offering a smoother flow of power than the 4-cyl/4-speed combo and less noise than the V6. (Read the follow-up test here.)
The Malibu has a smooth, comfortable ride that does a great job of keepiing its composure on bumpy roads. The only real let-down is the steering. 4-cylinder models use an electric power steering system that is almost totally lacking in feedback. A car with good steering seems to almost drive itself through turns, offering enough feedback that the driver can steer without conscious thought. Not so the Malibu -- it has to be deliberately guided through the curves. The V6's traditional hydraulic system is a bit better, but still not great.
Journey's End: Malibu's won me over -- but what about the buying public?
I'll be honest -- as good as it is, I have mixed feelings about the Malibu. On the one hand, I'm truly pleased and amazed by how well it turned out -- how good it looks, how refined it is, and how much value it delivers. On the other hand, I'm a bit frustrated because its biggest flaws -- the steering and the back seat -- are things that GM could have gotten right. Then again, I suppose we're always more critical of the home team.
During the media introduction, Chevy had a Camry, an Accord and an Altima for us to drive, all 4-cylinder models priced around $3k higher than a base-model Malibu. The Malibu quietly trumps them all on engine refinement, though it lags behind on back seat comfort. The Malibu's interior and controls are way better than the Accord's, quite a bit better than the Altima's, and as nice as the Camry's (which isn't as pretty but is amazingly functional). As for the driving experience, the Malibu's steering puts it in the penalty box; aside from that it grips the road better than the Altima but isn't as much fun to drive as the Accord.
There's still the one great unknown: Build quality. In the short term, the Americans seem to be making great strides forward, while Toyota seems to be slipping backwards. Long term? We won't know until the first brave bunch of Malibu buyers start racking up the miles.
Does the Malibu have the talent to take on the imports? Yes. But will that be enough to convince Toyota, Honda and Nissan owners to buy American? That's going to be a tough sell. -- Aaron Gold