Composed ride and handling, Fuel-efficient engine, Plenty of passenger and cargo space
Awkward entry/exit, Budget four-speed automatic, No stability control on base model
If you hadn't noticed, General Motors is getting serious about building quality vehicles that are as good or better than the import competition. First was Cadillac CTS, then full-size GMC Yukon, and finally the startling Buick Enclave. Now, it is Chevrolet's turn to get a world-class contender, the midsize 2008 Chevrolet Malibu.
Make no mistake, Malibu has some tough competition, headed up by none other than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. But the opposition doesn't stop there, Ford's got the roomy Fusion, Mazda the sporty 6, Nissan the polished Altima, and Subaru the all-wheel-drive Legacy. That's just the like-priced competition, it is also hard to count out low-price midsize competitors like the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.
Compared to the 2007 Malibu the '08 model rides a six-inch longer wheelbase and is three inches longer overall. Malibu shares chassis with the Saab 9-3 and Saturn Aura. Front bucket seats and a split-folding, three-place bench seat are standard. Dropped from the lineup this year is the wagon version called Malibu Maxx.
Three trim levels are offered: LS, LT, and LTZ. All models come standard with front-wheel drive, antilock brakes, traction control, tire-pressure monitor, and front, front-side, and curtain side airbags. LT and LTZ models add stability control, which is not available on the LS.
Base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 169 horsepower. Optional on LT and standard on the LTZ is a 252-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 engine. Four-cylinder models come with a 4-speed automatic transmission and V6 models get a six-speed automatic with separate shiftgate for manual operation.
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LS
Base Price: $19,345
As-Tested Price: $20,075
Built in Kansas City, Kansas.
Engine: DOHC 2.4-liter I4
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Drive Wheels: front-wheel drive
Later in the '08 model year, Chevrolet will offer the six-speed automatic with the four cylinder as well as a hybrid model. Malibu Hybrid will come with the four-cylinder engine and employ a battery and a larger alternator to enable modest engine boost and engine stop at red lights.
LS models come standard with air conditioning, OnStar, tilt-telescope steering wheel, cruise control, center console, power locks, mirrors, and windows, keyless entry, DC player with digital-media player connection, satellite radio, alarm system, and 16-inch wheels. LT adds to LS steering wheel radio controls, floormats, and 17-inch wheels.
LTZ models at to LT automatic climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather upholstery, heated front seats, eight-way driver seat, six-way power passenger seat, power adjustable pedals, six-disc CD changer, remote start, automatic day/night mirror, fog lights, and 18-inch alloy wheels. Key options include power sunroof, power rear sunshade, and 110-volt power outlet.
LS has a base price of $19,345, LT lists for $26,345, and LTZ has an MSRP of $26,345. When it becomes available, the Hybrid model will have a price of $22,140. All models have a destination charge of $650 and are assembled Kansas City, Kansas.
Get up and Go
General Motor's 2.4-liter four-cylinder has been around for a while, but Chevrolet has updated the engine considerably for use in the Malibu. It provides adequate acceleration from a stop and reasonable passing power. Its no jackrabbit, but it gets the job done in most situations and is finally a match to four-cylinders from Honda and Toyota.
The engine is subdued in cruising and refined under hard acceleration. Sadly, the four-speed automatic isn't as sophisticated as the engine. Though it upshifts smoothly in mild acceleration, it hesitates too long before downshifting for more power and hampers overall acceleration. Luckily, Chevrolet will begin offering the six-speed automatic with four-cylinder models later this year.
EPA numbers for the four-cylinder/four-speed combination are 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Those are slightly lower than Accord and Camry four-cylinder numbers, but easily within the class average. In routine driving expect to average 25 mpg, perhaps has high as 28 mpg if your commute includes plenty of sedate highway cruising. Chevrolet says that all Malibu engines run fine on regular-grade gasoline.
On the Road
Thanks to a significantly longer wheelbase, stiffer chassis, and more sophisticated suspension, Malibu rides as good as any midsize car. Undue body motions are easily kept in check and the shocks do an excellent job of filtering out small road imperfections and taking the edge off larger ones.
According to Chevy, the suspension setup between all three models is identical, so differences in ride quality are due to wheel size and tires. Obviously, the LS model with its 16-inch wheels has the softest ride. The LTZ has 18-inch wheels, so the ride is slightly firmer. The LT with its 17-inch wheels is somewhere in between and probably the best overall compromise.
When the road grows twisty, Malibu really shines. Body lean is minimal and the tires have plenty of grip. Four-cylinder models get electric steering while V6 models have traditional hydraulic steering. The differences are subtle with the electric steering having slightly more boost and a less on-center highway feel. Brakes are stronger in LT and LTZ where whey are four-wheel discs vs. disc/drum offerings in the LS.
Chevrolet engineers obviously spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel as Malibu is very quiet at highway speeds. There's a little wind rush around the A-pillars and some tire roar on concrete surfaces. On the whole, Malibu is easily as quiet as the new Accord and perhaps slightly more noisy than Camry.
Overall, the new Malibu is a match on road for competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and that's saying a lot.
Behind the Wheel
From the moment you close the solid-sounding door, it's apparent that Malibu's interior is a cut above the midsize norm. Even base models sport two-tone dashboards and soft-touch surfaces abound. Indeed, the goal of Chevy designers was not to match interiors offered by Toyota and Honda, but exceed them. Compared to the somewhat conservative interiors in those competitors, Malibu sports a sweeping twin-cockpit design with simple, clearly marked and well illuminated controls. Topping everything off is subtle chrome trim surrounds on the gauges and radio and climate controls.
Front seats are comfortable and well padded, yet the seating position is a bit awkward--perhaps a bit laid back. Head and leg room are good and standard height-adjustable driver seat and tilt-telescope steering wheel make it easy for drivers to get comfortable. Power-adjustable pedals are also available.
NHTSA Crash-Test Results, 2008 Chevrolet Malibu
|Front Impact, Driver ||5 stars|
|Front Impact, Passenger ||5 stars|
|Side Impact, Driver ||NA|
|Side Impact, Rear Passenger ||NA|
|Rollover Resistance ||4 stars|
Visibility is good to the front and sides and outside mirrors are generously sized. Rear visibility is hampered by large C-pillars and a tall deck. Park assist or a rear-view monitor should be available. Getting in and out of the front seats is slightly challenging because the B-pillar is pushed well forward for improved crash protection. Even after a week of driving, you don't get used to sitting down on the front of the seat and sliding backward.
Rear seat bottoms are positioned low, but there's good room for two adults. If you're more than six feet tall, you might want a touch more headroom. The driveline hump is very large and that means that three adults can't sit three across.
Malibu has a large trunk with a big opening. Trunk lid sports expensive hinges that don't intrude on cargo space. Rear seats fold in a snap to create a generous-size pass through. Interior storage is a cut above the norm with an additional storage space at the center of the dash top.
Chevrolet has been very bold in the new advertising for Malibu and with good reason. It's an exceptional vehicle and finally competitive with the best the imports have to offer.
Malibu also compares favorably on price. Matching Accord and Camry dollar for dollar and feature for feature. While the resale value of Malibu suffers slightly when compared to those two, it does offer a substantially better warranty, and for many cash-strapped buyers, a better warranty makes all the difference--just ask Hyundai and Kia owners.
Performance, economy, passenger room, cargo space, and even style, Malibu has got is all. Now it is up to Chevrolet to make sure quality is on par with the Japanese and dealers to offer the kind of experience that today's buyers expect.