The regular Chevrolet Malibu is a conventional front-drive sedan, but the Maxx hatchback is a functional blend of sedan, station wagon and hatchback -- although the back end resembles the stern end of Winston Churchill's bulldog.
Chevrolet thinks most Americans dislike hatchbacks, equating them with "cheap'' cars, so it calls the front-drive Maxx a "five-door extended sedan.'' That's silly, because it can be plainly seen that the Maxx is a hatchback. Why not just call it a "crossover'' vehicle? Chevy says regular and Maxx versions of the Malibu "are adaptable to different individuals and lifestyles.''
Both versions of the mid-size Malibu are offered in new high-performance SS (Super Sport) form for 2006, with a 3.9-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 with variable valve timing. It moved my test Maxx SS with authority in town and on highways.
The SS also has a sport suspension, large 18-inch alloy wheels with wide 50-series tires and unique interior and exterior appointments, including a rear spoiler.
The entry Malibu engine is a 144-horsepower four-cylinder best suited for in-town use, but there's a potent 201-horsepower V-6 for mid-range models. All work with a responsive four-speed automatic transmission, with the one in SS versions having manual shift capability.
Estimated fuel economy is 24 mpg city, 35 highway for the four-cylinder, 22-24 city and 30-32 for the 201-horsepower V-6 and 18-19 city and 26 highway for the SS models. Only 87-octane gasoline is needed for all engines.
The Malibu is rigidly built, riding on the General Motors' Epsilon platform also used for the Saab 9-3 chassis. That helps provide good handling, although the SS versions have the sharpest moves.
The variable hydraulic power steering of my test Maxx SS was stiff, although quicker than on other Malibus, which have electric power steering that sometimes feels too light, sometimes too heavy.
The Maxx SS has sharp handling and a supple, comfortable ride despite its firmer all-independent suspension and tires larger than those on non-SS models. Stops are straight and controlled, thanks partly to an easily modulated brake pedal.
Gauges can be quickly read. Clearly marked controls are easy to reach on all Malibus. The ignition switch is put on the dashboard so a driver need not grope for it on the steering column. But a driver can't easily reach his front console cupholder with the shifter in the "drive'' position.
Interior materials are attractive, but still aren't comparable to those of top Japanese rivals. A deep, covered storage bin easily swallows objects such as cell phones.
The 2006 Malibus get a new front-end appearance with a different grille design and body color side moldings for a more upscale look. The base Malibu has been dropped, but there's a new uplevel LTZ model with additional premium features. There's also new low-beam daytime running lights, and the quiet, four-passenger interior has updated trim and a new four-spoke steering wheel.
The standard Malibu sedan's regular trunk allows conventional styling from front to back. The Maxx four-door version has a six-inch longer wheelbase (distance between axles) than the regular Malibu, but is a half-inch shorter in overall length. That shows what can be done when a trunk need not be hung behind the rear wheels.
The Maxx hatchback body provides a cargo area that accepts 22.8 cubic feet of household miscellany, or 7.4 cubic feet more than the Malibu sedan, which has a good-size trunk. With rear seatbacks folded forward, the Maxx swallows 41 cubic feet of cargo.
The Maxx rear seat also reclines and slides fore and aft nearly seven inches to provide more rear occupant room or additional cargo space. Rear seatbacks can be folded forward for a more spacious cargo area. The regular Malibu sedan also has split/folding rear seatbacks, and both body styles have a fold-flat front passenger seatback for extra-long objects.
To help keep hands clean, the light Maxx liftgate has two handhold indents lined with a sandpaper-like material that provides surprisingly good grip, even in wet weather. However, the Maxx cargo opening is rather high.
Exclusive to the Maxx is a fixed rear glass skylight over the back seat to provide an open atmosphere, with a split/retractable shade to control the amount of light through the skylight.
The Maxx also has a removable heavy-duty parcel shelf/tailgate table that can be used at four positions for two-tier loading; it has hooks to hang items such as grocery bags. Optional are a rear-seat audio system and DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones that can be stored in the center fold-down rear armrest, which has dual cupholders. The center of the rear seat is too hard for occupant comfort, anyway.
Malibu prices start at $17,365 for the base LS version and end at $24,065 for the Maxx SS, with various prices for mid-range LT and LTZ regular and Maxx models.
Even the entry LS is well-equipped with such items as air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD player and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry.
The LS and LT have the four-cylinder engine, while the LT and LTZ versions have the 201-horsepower V-6, which is optional for the LT sedan.
Anti-lock disc brakes and traction control are optional on the LS and LT, standard on other Malibus. Wheels sizes are 15-inch on the LS, 16-inch on the LT, 17-inch on the LTZ, with the SS getting the 18-inchers.
Front torso side air bags and head-protecting curtain side air bags are standard on LTZ and SS models, optional on others. All Malibus have a tilt-telescopic steering column and power driver-seat height adjuster. The LTZ and LTZ Maxx, along with SS versions, have standard power adjustable pedals and heated front seats, which are optional for the LT and LT Maxx. The LTZ has leather upholstery, while the SS has a cloth-leather combination.
A remote engine start system that lets you get a head start on the interior heating and cooling systems from a range of up to 200 feet is standard on all models except the LS, which is equipped for dealer activation of the system.
Various options include a $725 power sunroof, $325 XM satellite radio and $695 OnStar assistance.
The regular Malibu is fine, but the Maxx version is a model of practicality and the kind of vehicle that's been missing from Chevy showrooms for a long time.
2006 CHEVROLET MALIBU
Versatile. New performance SS model. Comprehensively equipped. Roomy.
Stiff steering. Odd Maxx rear styling.