This is the type of slick, nicely designed sedan that Chevrolet should have sold years ago to avoid losing sales to Japanese cars in the affordable sedan market. It has a very manageable size but can comfortably handle four tall adults while delivering good performance and fuel economy.
The front-wheel-drive Malibu carries a breezy 1960s Chevy name and won Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year award after it made its debut for 1997.
Chevy positions the Malibu between its subcompact Cavalier and mid-size Lumina model. But the Malibu is more of a mid-size car than a compact.
For instance, it has nearly the same wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) of the Lumina but is about 10 inches shorter overall. Six adults can squeeze into the Lumina, but only five fit in the Malibu because it has individual front seats.
The Malibu is offered as a $15,670 base model with a strong 2.4-liter, 150-horsepower four-cylinder. The car is well-equipped, with anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM radio, tachometer, power trunk lid opener and dual outside mirrors.
The $18,620 LS model adds a 3.1-liter V-6, which produces 155 horsepower and more torque. It's a $595 option for the base model.
The LS adds cruise control and power driver's seat, windows, door locks and outside mirrors to the base model. It also provides standard remote keyless entry, split folding rear seat, casstte player, rear defogger and alloy wheels.
New options are $595 leather upholstery for the LS and a $310 power driver's seat for the base model.
One can live easily with the base Malibu, but the LS version is more enjoyable. Buyers of either model get their money's worth.
The engines are noisy when pushed, although the V-6 is quieter. They work with a smooth four-speed automatic transmission that conveniently stays in passing gear until 78 m.p.h. with the V-6.
Both motors offer plenty of zip for merging into fast traffic and doing 65-75 m.p.h. passing on highways, but acceleration slows noticeably above 75 m.p.h.
The dual-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder delivers better fuel economy: an estimated 23 m.p.g. in the city and 32 on highways. The pushrod V-6 provides 20 and 29.
The ignition switch is conveniently located on the dashboard instead of on the steering wheel column, but it's easy to accidentally activate the windshield wipers when starting the car.
All doors in the quiet interior have easily gripped handles. And a cupholder that pops out from the dashboard is nicely positioned to the left of the steering wheel so a front-seat passenger can't accidentally spill a beverage in it.
The gauges are easy to read and controls work smoothly. But the front seats have mushy sides that offer no lateral support.
The quick, precise power steering is almost too light at highways speeds, but handling is good. So is braking, although the brake pedal has a curiously springy feel. The ride is smooth, but some road surfaces cause it to become floaty.
The trunk is roomy and has a low opening for easy cargo loading.
Quality is pretty good, but the old-fashioned hood prop is held in place by a cheap plastic clip.
The solidly built Malibu feels somewhat like a good foreign sedan, but still has Chevrolet's All-American personality.