New for '97: The 1997 Malibu is a brand new, mid-size, front-wheel-drive sedan from Chevrolet division of General Motors. Malibu replaces the aging Corsica as Chevrolet's mid-size sedan offering marketed between the compact Cavalier and full-size Lumina.
Background: The Malibu name was dropped by GM in the early 1980s, but makes a triumphant return this year. The new Malibu share its automotive platform with Oldsmobile's 1997 Cutlass. On May 27, General Motors settled a 52-day strike at its Oklahoma City plant; one of two places where GM assembles Malibu. General Motors' Wilmington Del. plant also builds Malibu.
Trim Levels: Chevrolet offers the 1997 Malibu in two trim levels: A Base 4-door sedan and uplevel LS. We had a chance to try out the Base Malibu.
Price: Base models come decently equipped at $15,470. Upscale LS editions start at $18,190. Our test-drive vehicle, a Base Malibu, with options including remote keyless entry, power window and locks, rear window defogger and AM/FM/cassette stereo had a bottom line of $17,226 including at $525 destination charge.
Notable standard equipment: A four-speed, electronically-controlled automatic transmission with a floor-mounted shifter is standard on both models. No manual transmission is offered. Air conditioning, four-wheel independent suspension, cloth seats, tilt steering column, AM/FM stereo and intermittent windshield wipers are also standard in both trim levels.
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, dual air bags, child-safety rear-door locks, bumpers which prevent damage in low-speed, five-mile-per-hour impacts and a PassLock theft-deterrent system, which disables the vehicle if an incorrect ignition key is used, are standard in both editions. A remote Keyless entry is standard in LS, but optional in Base editions. Traction control is not offered.
Optional equipment: Many of the options in Base editions are standard in the upscale LS including rear-window defogger, power windows and locks, cassette and compact disc players, cruise control and remote keyless entry. Fog lights and six-way power drivers seat are only available in LS editions. Sunroofs are optional in both trim levels.
Interior: Headroom is extremely generous in front, and better-than-average in back. General Motors promotes Malibu as a five-seater and its does as good as any competitor in offering enough head and leg room for five adults. The stereo, along with its conveniently large pre-set buttons, situates above the climate control center. Fan speed, direction and temperature control monitor from three large, easy-to-grab dials. General Motors uses this same design in many of its other vehicles and is one of the most driver-friendly in the business. One neat touch is a single cup holder, located left of the steering wheel, which retracts out from the dashboard when needed. There is also a second single cupholder between the front bucket seats and dual cupholders in back. The center armrest doubles as a bi-level storage compartment. The ignition switch is found on the instrument panel, not the steering column. Headlights operate from the turn-signal stalk while windshield wipers operate from a right-hand side steering column stalk.
Engine: A potent, 2.4-liter twin cam engine delivering 150 horsepower is standard in Base models. This is one of the most powerful four-cylinder engines in its class. The LS edition comes standard with a 3100 V-6 engine delivering 155 horsepower. The six-cylinder engine is a $395 option in Base models. The four-cylinder powertrain is not available in LS editions.
Target audience: Chevrolet estimates Malibu shopper have a median age of 45 years with an average annual income of $50,000. Seventy percent of buyers are married and 45 percent are college-educated.
Exterior: From the outside, one would initially think the new Malibu was manufactured by an import car maker. The new Malibu looks remarkably similar to Nissan's mid-size Altima, and Toyota's 1996 Camry. Two distinctive nuances are the jewel-like, kidney-shaped headlights. Door handles are mounted flush to the body. Exterior color choices include white, silvermist, sandrift, cherry, black carmine red, blue and jade green. A clearcoat finish is used with all paint colors. Fifteen inch tires are standard and offer better road-gripping characteristics than 14-inch tires offered on some competitors.
Dimensions: Wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle): 107 inches Length: 190.4 inches Width: 69.4 inches Height: 56.4 inches Headroom: 39.4 inches Legroom: 38.0 inches
Fuel economy: Fuel estimates check in at 24 miles per gallon city and 38 mpg highway for Base models with the four-cylinder engine. We averaged 26 miles in combined driving with 9,000 miles on the odometer. Six cylinder engine estimates are slightly lower at 22 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. The fuel tank holds 15 gallons of unleaded fuel The fuel door does not lock.
Trunk: The long, flat trunk accommodates 16.4 cubic feet of cargo, excellent for a mid-size vehicle. LS models include a spilt-folding rear seat with a pass-through feature. This feature is optional in Base editions.
Final thoughts: Malibu offers decent value for the money. Air conditioning and anti-lock brakes come standard. Cargo volume, head and legroom are superior than most competitors. Handling and cornering may not be as refined as some rivals, but Malibu was not designed as a high-performance automobile. The four-cylinder engine in our test drive Base model was potent, but noisier than many four-cylinder competitors.