The Chevrolet Malibu sedan should seriously worry Japanese automakers because it shows General Motors can offer a reasonably priced, competitive rival in the big-number midsize auto market.
GM wasn't afraid to do things very efficiently with the front-drive Malibu. For instance, the ignition switch has a European-style location just to the left of the radio on the dashboard--not on the steering column. Another nice touch is a gearshift handle angled toward the driver that makes it easier to use.
The Malibu has a golden 1960s Chevy name. But it looks much like the costlier Nissan Maxima. And it generally performs like an efficient foreign four-door--although it's not as refined as, say, a Toyota Camry. It has about the same 107.5-inch wheelbase of the older Chevy Lumina sedan, but is larger inside despite being nearly a foot shorter.
So what's it like to drive the rigidly built, nicely painted Malibu? It's fun. Acceleration is lively, and steering and handling are sharp. The ride from the supple, all-independent suspension is comfortable. The easily modulated brake pedal has a nice feel and stopping distances are commendably short.
The base Malibu lists for $15,950, while the high-line LS model stickers at $18,910. This is a fairly new Chevy, so the only thing new for 1999 is Bronzemist Metallic paint, which goes well with the car's smooth lines.
Even the base four-cylinder Malibu is well-equipped. Standard items include a four-speed automatic, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, sports sedan gauges AM/FM radio, outside mirrors, remote trunk opener, intermittent wipers, tilt column and battery rundown protection.
The LS adds a V-6, remote keyless entry, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette, split folding rear seat, and power driver's seat, windows, mirrors and door locks.
Major options include a $650-$690 power sunroof and $595 leather upholstery for the LS, which really gives the interior a European look.
The base model's 2.4-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder has 150 horsepower and provides strong acceleration, although it's noisy under full throttle. The 3.1-liter pushrod V-6 also produces 150 horsepower--but more torque for quicker throttle response.
The V-6 is quieter and smoother than the four-cylinder, but sounds more raspy than multivalve, overhead-camshaft V-6s in comparable imports. It's a $595 option for the base Malibu, but the four-cylinder should be fine for many Malibu buyers.
Fuel economy is an estimated 22 m.p.g. in the city and 30 on highways with the four-cylinder, and 20 and 29 with the V-6.
The automatic shifts crisply and conveniently stays in passing gear until nearly 80 m.p.h. with the V-6.
Four 6-footers easily fit in the highly functional interior, which has high-grade materials and is quiet except for some tire noise. The cockpit has supportive front seats, easily gripped door handles and large, high-mounted controls. The controls have a plastic feel but work smoothly. A cupholder pops from the dash to the left of the steering wheel so a front-seat passenger can't accidentally spill a drink from it. And there are a good number of storage areas.
The rear seat area, which has sturdy cupholders, is impressively large. But the center of the back seat is too hard for a third passenger on anything but short trips. A high rear parcel shelf makes it impossible to see through the rear window when backing up, and the plastic rear bumper looks as if it can be easily scratched.
The large trunk has a low opening for easy cargo loading, and the neat-looking engine compartment has conveniently located fluid filler areas.
The substantial Malibu offers much value for the money, and its functional design makes it reminiscent of popular mainstream Chevy sedans of the past.