Forget trucks for a moment -- General Motors is heavily concentrating on new cars such as the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu to make it a stronger rival in the auto market, which increasingly is being grabbed by foreign cars.
Chevrolet hopes the new front-drive Malibu will capture hearts and wallets of more mid-size car buyers, many of whom flock to the Japanese Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.
The 2004 Malibu starts off on the right foot by having the rigid European chassis used by cars such as GM's Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra, besides more room, power and styling pizzaz.
The reasonably priced $18,370-$22,870 Malibu sedan has lots of standard equipment. One alluring option is a first-ever factory installed remote starting device to let a driver get a head start on the car's interior heating and cooling from a range of about 200 feet. That device is standard on the top-line Malibu LT and a $150 option on other Malibus.
J.D. Power ratings say the 2003 Malibu is the most reliable mainstream mid-size car. Alas, Chevrolet didn't promote the last-generation Malibu much, although it was roomy and economical and drove much like a nicely designed European sedan. That Malibu will be sold to auto fleets as the Malibu Classic.
The new Malibu now comes as a $18,370-$22,870 sedan with a conventional trunk, and three trim levels: base, LS and LT. Starting in December, the Malibu also will be offered as a $21,600-$24,100 sportier hatchback version called the Maxx. The Maxx has a six-inch-longer wheelbase than the sedan and is roomier, although half an inch shorter.
Only the Malibu sedan was available for testing. It has a slightly shorter wheelbase and overall length than the 2003 Malibu, although it's a bit wider and higher with more upright glass. It's thus a little roomier than its predecessor.
The base sedan comes with a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine generating 145 horsepower. It provides decent in-town acceleration but ho-hum highway performance for the 3,174-pound car. The higher-line LS and LT are only slightly heavier and have a 3.5-liter V-6 with 200 horsepower and more torque. That smooth engine provides strong highway acceleration.
Fuel economy is becoming an issue, but the four-cylinder engine is only slightly more economical than the V-6. It provides an estimated 24 mpg in the city and 34 on highways. Figures for the V-6 are 23 and 32.
Both engines work with a responsive, carryover four-speed automatic transmission, which was the only transmission available. The Accord offers a five-speed automatic.
The new Malibu is no sports sedan, but has quick electric variable-speed steering for low- and high-speed maneuvers, agile handling during normal driving despite tires designed more for comfort and adequate brakes with good pedal feel. The ride is supple.
Transmission aside, even the base model is nicely equipped. Standard items include air conditioning, AM/FM/CD sound system, split folding back seat, fold-flat front passenger seat and power windows, locks and mirrors.
There's also a power driver's seat height adjuster and a tilt-telescopic steering wheel to help drivers of various sizes get comfortable. Power adjustable pedals are standard on the LS and LT. For the base sedan, they're in an $835 package, which also contains cruise control, remote keyless entry and upgraded sound system.
Moving to the LS gets you the V-6 and standard anti-lock brakes, traction control system, remote keyless entry and cruise control. The LT adds leather seats, remote starter, automatic climate control, heated front seats with a six-way power driver's seat, larger (60-series) tires for better handling and side curtain air bags, which are $395 for other Malibus. There's also a rear spoiler, but it has a tacked-on look.
Large door handles make it easy to enter the quiet, generally attractive interior. It's plenty roomy for four tall adults, with fairly supportive front seats.
Speedometer and tachometer numbers are too small, but the car has large, well-placed controls for the sound and climate control systems -- and a convenient dashboard ignition switch. A large console storage bin is near nicely placed front cupholders. Dual cupholders pop out from the rear of the front console for rear occupants, who can enjoy the longest, highest seat cushion in recent Chevy history.
The fairly large trunk has manual hinges, but a low, wide opening. The split rear seatbacks fold fairly flat to enlarge the cargo area, and the fold-flat front passenger seat allows even more cargo space.
The heavy hood is held open with an old-fashioned prop rod, but the engine compartment has easily reached fluid-filler areas. There's no ugly plastic covering for the V-6.
The new Malibu sedan is a solid buy and worth a good look, although the Maxx version promises more fun and better versatility.
2004 CHEVROLET MALIBU SEDAN
Nicely redesigned. Roomy. Strong V-6. Supple ride. Good handling. Well-equipped. Reasonably priced.
Small base four-cylinder engine. Tiny gauge markings. Tacked-on look for rear spoiler.