For quite sometime, a mid-size, front-wheel drive sedan has held the top spot as the best-selling car in the United States. During the past decade, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry have all held the honor at one time or another.
General Motors sells more vehicles worldwide than anybody. Yet, with all this volume muscle, it has been unable to muster its way into the top-selling car spot for more than two decades. The next-generation 2004 Malibu expects to challenge the status quo.
Chevrolet is the top volume division within the world’s largest auto company, so it strategically makes sense to develop a five-passenger, front-wheel drive car that can challenge the challengers
A big plus for Malibu in 2004 is a second body style. In addition to the five-passenger sedan, a five-door version, with a rear hatchback named the “Malibu Maxx” is scheduled to arrive by mid-December. Both are built off General Motors’ all-new “Epsilon” global architecture. Malibu and Malibu Maxx are the first North-American built applications of this platform. Expect future Pontiac, Saturn and Buick models to utilize this same building block structure. Two other vehicles built outside the U.S. currently share the Epsilon architecture; the Opel Vectra available in Europe and Saab’s all-new 9-3 sedan.
Chevrolet assembles the 2004 Malibu and Malibu Maxx at GM’s Kansas City assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas, a switch from the previous generation Malibu sedan built in Lansing, Mich.
Malibu offers more variety in the new model year. During 2003 two trim levels and one V-6 powertrain were available. In 2004, three trim level and two engine selections dot the landscape. The Base Malibu comes standard with an in-line 2.2-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine generating 145 horsepower. Optional in Base, but standard in LS and the new-for-2004 LT trim level is a 3.5-liter, overhead-valve, V-6 engine delivering 200 horsepower, up 30 from the 2003 V-6. Both powertrains utilize sequential multi-port fuel injection and are mated to an electronically-controlled, four-speed automatic transmission.
The four-cylinder engine is the economy leader with 23 miles per gallons estimated in city travel and 33 m.p.g. highway. The all–new six-cylinder engine registers a respectable 22 m.p.g. city and 30 m.p.g. highway. The fuel tank holds 16.3 gallons of fuel. Regular, 87-octane fuel is recommended for both engines.
Ford’s Taurus offers two V-6 engine selections: a base V-6 generating 155 horses and the Duratec V-6 pumping out 201 horsepower. The Toyota Camry’s V-6 generates 210 horses while the Accord V-6 provides 240 horses.
Our test car included the new six-cylinder engine which responded instantly, with no hesitation when punching the accelerator.
All trim levels come standard with rear window defroster, variable intermittent front wipers, four wheel independent suspension, power door locks, electronic speed proportional power steering, tilt and telescoping steering column, power mirrors, air conditioning, power locks and AM/FM stereo with compact disc player.
The LS and LT versions add cruise control and keyless remote entry standard (both come optional in base editions). XM Satellite Radio and a power sunroof are optional in LT and LS. A rear spoiler comes standard in LT and is available for $175 on LS. Several upgraded sound systems are also offered.
Standard in the uplevel LT edition and optional elsewhere is a factory installed remote vehicle starter system that can start the engine rumbling via the key fob from a range of about 200 yards away. Malibu in the first mid-size sedan offering this feature.
Our test drive car, a top-of-the-line Malibu LT sedan included a starting price of $22,870. With options including power sunroof ($905), OnStar satellite-linked safety system ($695), XM satellite radio ($325 plus a $9.95 monthly fee) and six-disc compact disc player ($300), the bottom line added to $25,720 including a $625 destination charge.
A Base four-cylinder Malibu sedan checks in at $18,370 while a mid-level LS lists at $20,370.
Malibu comes standard with automatic transmission and four doors, some competitors offer two-door bodystyles and manual transmission. The lowest priced Taurus, an LX edition checks in at $19,803. Taurus is a six-cylinder exclusive sedan. Honda Accords are also available in coupe bodystyle with manual transmissions. Toyota’s Camry also is available with manual or automatic transmissions. The lowest-priced Camry, an LE edition with a four-cylinder engine and manual transmission lists at $19,875.
Front bucket seats in this five-passenger vehicle seem a bit higher than other mid-sized competitors recently tested. With generous window size and thin rear “C” pillars, the Malibu sedan provides excellent road visibility. As with the previous-generation Malibu, headroom is more than generous throughout.
Cloth fabrics are found in Base and LS trims while LT versions receive a synthetic suede type with leather appointments. Two interior color schemes are available: light beige or gray. Rear seat backs fold with a 60/40 split and the front passenger-side bucket seat folds flat for added cargo-carrying options when needed. Three average sized adults can fit in back for short trips around town, but if planning an extended journey, two in back is recommended.
In between the front bucket seats are the floor-mounted four-speed automatic transmission and two beverage holders slightly separated from each other. Chevrolet conveniently includes many small nooks and areas to store loose change and other items. Power window, lock and mirror controls on the driver’s door are placed at a 45-degree angle. A toggle switch for the adjustable foot pedals is found on the far left side of the dashboard.
The central stereo/ventilation area includes a totally new layout where buttons and switches are ergonomically placed and easy to find. The ventilation system along the bottom has a toggle button for controlling temperature and two dials for fan direction and speed.
The instrument panel includes three circular analog readouts with rather small numbers. The center speedometer with miles per hour is the most prominent and features a secondary, digital gear shift indicator along the bottom. The parking brake is foot operated while the trunk release button is found on the driver’s door near the map pocket, a much more convenient location than on the floor left of the driver seat. The ignition cylinder is on the dashboard right of the steering column. Headlights operate from the turn signal stalk while windshield wipers activate from a right-hand stalk.
The trunk holds 15.4 cubic feet of cargo. Position boxes carefully because the exposed, curved inside hinges could come into play. Under the flat cargo floor covering is a temporary spare tire.
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Overall length: 188.3 inches
Overall width: 69.9 inches
Overall height: 57.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,315 pounds
Like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, Malibu styling skews towards the conservative side of the scale. Halogen fog lights are optional. All four doors have body colored, strap-like handles. The Nissan Altima, redesigned in 2003 ranks as the most boldly styled of the front-wheel drive, mid-size lot.
Chevrolet’s well recognized bow tie logo adorns the front center grille. Headlight housing is tri-angular in shape. Side view mirrors are black in color and the breakaway type that give way and fold in when brushed against.
Dual-stage front air bags come standard as do daytime running lights, rear door child safety locks and a theft deterrent system. Power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals along with anti-lock brakes with traction control are optional in Base models and standard in LS and LT. Head curtain side-impact air bags are optional across the board. OnStar, GM’s satellite-linked tele-conference system linking occupants with 24-hour-a-day manned centers, is also optional in all three trims.
The basic and drivetrain warranty is good for three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first. Roadside assistance is covered for the same duration. The rust/corrosion warranty is covered for six years or 100,000 miles.
Malibu’s total redesign comes at a good time. Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord all underwent redesigns during the last few years, so Malibu can steal some thunder as the latest large volume, mid-size sedan redesign on the road. One area Malibu has made sound advancements in is reducing engine noise in the cabin. Camry continues as the leader in this category but Malibu’s improvements are dually noted. Malibu boasts firmer ride and handling characteristics with this new incarnation.
Currently, the 2004 Malibu sedan offers a $1,000 cash back offer or zero percent financing for 36 months depending on the length of the loan.