Get out of the fast lane, Toyota Camry. Move aside, Honda Accord. For the first time in a generation, General Motors is back with a game-changing midsize sedan. And the imports better be worried, when they see the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu pull up in their rearview mirror.
There was a time when Detroit, GM, in particular, dominated the midsize market, but that's so far back, many of today's buyers likely won't even remember anything but the more lackluster offerings that followed, like the Chevy Lumina or the various Chrysler K-car variants.
We got a signal GM might be ready to get back in the game at last January's Detroit Auto Show, when the automaker revealed a new version of the Malibu . There was no denying the visual impact of its taut, dynamic exterior, and unexpectedly upmarket interior. But the big question was how would it drive? Would it stand up to the best of the imports -- read Camry and Accord -- which overwhelmingly dominate the segment's sales charts?
After spending time in the '08 Malibu, the answer is unabashedly, "yes." For the first time we can remember, there's no reason to make excuses for a mainstream Detroit sedan, no reason to explain away the compromises. Chevy's new entry stands up solidly on its own four wheels.
Down on Beale Street
To get a feel for the new offering, we headed down to Beale St., the heart of blues country, in Memphis . We spent the day driving all the key Malibu variants that will be coming to market in the weeks and months to come, including the four-cylinder LS and six-cylinder LTZ, as well as the Malibu hybrid (which we'll cover in a separate road test).
Beauty may only be skin -- or sheetmetal -- deep, but it's where an automaker must make a first, and lasting, impression. And GM designers have succeeded handsomely. This is the new face of Chevy, with a chrome-wrapped, split grille, highlighted by a wide, bowtie-bearing crossbar. The creased hoodline suggests power and implies a vehicle decidedly more expensive than Malibu 's starting price of $19,995.
From the side, the new Chevy sits high on its haunches, with still more luxury cues, such as the curvaceous C-pillar. "Good bone structure," is an apt description used by one of Malibu 's designers. From the rear, you'll quickly recognize the twin lamps, long a Chevrolet trademark, but here done far more elegantly than in other, recent executions, such as the awkward Monte Carlo. Rounding things out, the chrome tipped exhaust (a dual pair of pipes on the LTZ) and chrome license plate surround.
For years, General Motors has, frankly, chintzed out, using lowest-common-denominator materials that may have cut costs but given its products all the style and warmth of a resale store. Particularly galling was the use of glossy, often ungrained plastics that could have come from the KMart bargain rack.
With the Malibu, GM's design studio has crafted a two-toned, twin cockpit look that implies a sense of both sportiness and elegance. The materials are far more lavish, easily matching the feel of the Accord and far exceeding that of the Camry, which Toyota seems determined to drive downmarket. The black plastic is gone, even on the base Malibu, incidentally. On the highline model, though, you can opt for a two-toned, nubbly leather that might just as easily show up on the Cadillac line. And kudos for the stylish, yet easy-to-read instrument cluster, complimented by the cabin's tinted ambient lighting.
There's also a fair bit of storage, including a large bin at the top of the IP's center stack. One omission that annoyed us was the lack of door grab handles. This is a common flaw on many new GM products, including Caddy's second-generation CTS. Apparently, engineers haven't figured out how to fit those useful handles over the hidden, roof-mounted airbags.
Keep the noise down
Okay, given a choice, we'll go for the airbags -- in this case, all six of them. There are also front seat thorax and chest airbags, standard on all models. The safety list also includes ABS brakes, traction control, tire pressure monitors and OnStar with its automatic crash notification system, designed to call for help in the event of a collision.
The mid-level LT and top-line LTZ models add electronic stability control and emergency brake assist to the list.
What you won't likely notice is the acoustic glass used in both the windshield and front-seat windows. That's a critical part of the Malibu 's substantial NVH package. For those who don't read automotive jargon for a hobby, we're referring to noise, vibration, and harshness. And in Malibu, all three elements have been trimmed back to class-leading levels.
One way that's been accomplished is through the extensive use of under-hood noise deadeners, as well as a five-element baffle in the four-cylinder's engine's composite cover. In keeping with industry trends, Chevy expects the 2.4-liter engine to account for about 70 percent of its overall volume, especially considering current fuel price trends. That engine delivers 22 mpg city and 30 mpg on the highway cycle, among the best-in-segment.
The four-cylinder pulls its weight. It's no rocket, but it's reasonably energetic and, as we suggested earlier, it sounds good, without that rasp-and-gasp that we've often associated with Detroit 's in-line fours. A complaint? Yep, the fact that GM is launching with an outdated four-speed automatic. It's a good transmission, but the competition has been moving to five-speeds and beyond.
GM will get there, however. The upgrade V-6 gets a new six-speed auto, and next year, you'll be able to order that tranny on the four-cylinder Malibu LT. By decade's end, says product strategy boss John Smith, the six-speed should be available, and probably standard, on all Malibus. Late, but not never.
The 3.6-liter V-6, by the way, makes 252 horsepower. On paper, it's not quite as powerful as Camry's sporty six, but we wonder how many owners in this market segment will notice the difference. Like the Malibu's four, the engine is much quieter than in previous incarnations, and doesn't seem to be running out of breath when pushed to wide-open throttle. It'll yield 17/26 mpg.
For those seeking maximum mileage, and perhaps some "green" bragging rights, there's the Malibu Hybrid. It's not a full hybrid, and is unable to run on battery power alone. To keep costs down, GM has opted for a Belt-Alternator-Starter, or BAS, system, basically the same found in the Saturn Vue Green Line. Come to a stoplight and it shuts the engine off, quickly restarting when you press the ignition. It won't run on electric power alone, and unlike Honda hybrid systems, it provides virtually no boost -- barely an extra four to six horsepower.
But the package is only $1800, and with the current $1300 federal tax credit. That works out to a real cost of just $500. Based on our rough estimates, and Chevy's projected 24/32 mpg rating, you'd make that up in fuel savings in two to four years, depending on where, how, and how much you drive.
So, how does the Malibu drive? Or, should we say, Malibus, because there's a bit of a difference between each.
With the four-cylinder, the Malibu is swift enough, but no sizzler. This engine is paired with a fuel-saving electric power steering system. In earlier incarnations, we avoided GM's EPS whenever possible. This latest generation is a sizable improvement. You get a clear feel of the road, with a reasonably linear boost, depending on speed.
The V-6 models go with hydraulic power steering, and despite the improvements to EPS, this is still our preference. Here you'll find a very direct connection to the road, with steering that's predictable, precise, and unexpectedly sporty for a car in this mainstream segment.
The suspension of all models has been tuned to the sporty side. Not enough to bounce and jounce you around on Detroit potholes, but the Malibu holds true in tight turns, and stays glued to the road when you're cresting hills. Overall, the feel of this car puts the Camry to shame, though someone wanting as sporty a ride as possible in a mid-market sedan might still opt for the latest version Accord.
What else matters? Well, a lot. On the plus side, Malibu is roomy, both front and back, and it boasts a large trunk.
Since we're asking questions, we need turn to the toughest of them all. Among midsize sedan buyers, perhaps nothing matters more, acknowledges Marketing Manager Mike Weidman, than QRD. There we go with auto jargon, again. In this case, we're talking Quality, Reliability, Dependability. And that's what has made the Camry the must-have appliance in this segment. So, will the Malibu deliver the same, er, QRD?
We'll have to wait and see, of course. There's no way to predict, unless you're willing to take the assurances of company executives, who'd quickly say, "yes." Lucky for them, a number of recent surveys, including several from J.D. Power and Associates, support that contention. GM quality has been on the rise, while Toyota's is holding or even slipping. The influential Consumer Reports magazine just downgraded the Camry V-6, though the four-cylinder model remains on its Recommended list.
Personally speaking, it's been a long time since I gave a strong endorsement to a GM midsize sedan. That drought is over. From everything I can see of the new Malibu, it is a winner. I'm not foolish enough to believe it will soon knock either the Camry or the Accord out of the box, but anyone who ignores the new sedan, simply because it wears a Chevy bowtie, is doing themselves a disservice.
2008 Chevrolet Malibu
Base price: $19,995
Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 169 hp/160 lb-ft; 3.6-liter V-6, 252 hp/251 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed or six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 191.8 x 70.3 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 112.3 in
Curb weight: 3415-3649 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 22/30 mpg (four); 17/26 mpg (V-6)
Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD player; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; remote keyless entry; alloy wheels; OnStar; XM satellite radio
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes and traction control; dual front, side and curtain airbags; tire pressure monitors
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles