The Chevrolet Malibu LTZ with a smooth four-cylinder engine lets its driver contend reasonably well with $4-plus fuel prices while enjoying the practicality of a roomy, top-line mid-size sedan.
The handsome, front-wheel-drive Malibu is thoroughly redesigned for 2008 and no longer is a rental car darling. It comes in base LS, mid-range LT and top-line, well-equipped LTZ form -- besides as a hybrid gasoline/electric model.
The LS and LT have a strong, smooth 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 169 horsepower for swift merging and passing. The LTZ comes standard with a more potent 252-horsepower V-6, but a new "LTZ Spring Special" option substitutes the Malibu's quiet, dual-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder for the V-6, besides slightly smaller 17-inch wheels for less rolling resistance and thus better fuel economy.
The option includes a responsive six-speed automatic transmission, which also comes with the LTZ V-6 and is superior to the rather dated four-speed automatic found in the LS and LT four-cylinder models. The fuel-saving six-speed is an industry exclusive with the four-cylinder because four-cylinder engines from leading Chevy rivals such as Honda and Toyota have a five-speed automatic.
The Spring Special knocks $1,075 from the $26,795 list price of the Malibu LTZ six-cylinder, lowering it to $25,720. The LS costs $19,645 and the LT is $20,930. But those four-cylinder models lack the LTZ's leather upholstery, automatic climate control, power/heated front seats, power-adjustable pedals -- and an in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer.
The Malibu hybrid combines a four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric motor. But this hybrid system isn't as versatile as those in more-advanced gas/electric hybrids because it doesn't run on a combination of gasoline and electric power. Instead, the Malibu hybrid four-cylinder -- a version of the standard Malibu four-cylinder -- shuts off at a stop to save fuel.
Fuel economy of the LTZ four-cylinder nearly matches that of the more-complicated -- and thus more potentially troublesome --Malibu hybrid powertrain. Estimated figures for the LTZ four-cylinder are 22 mpg in the city and 32 on highways, while those for the hybrid are 24 and 32.
The Malibu LTZ V-6 gets 17 city, 26 highway. All Malibus just require regular-grade gasoline.
The redesigned Malibu is the first Chevy to seriously challenge top Japanese rivals in the mid-size sedan market and has made a splash, with 74,925 units sold through June this year, against 59,627 in the same year-ago period. It trails the rival, more-established Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, but it is one of General Motors' most successful new models.
The 2008 Malibu looks more modern than its predecessor, with a flowing sculptural body. It's more than 3 inches longer overall, with a wheelbase extended 8 inches for a smoother ride and roomier interior. The body and interior have fits that provide a feeling of substance and quality.
The precise steering has the right amount of power assist, although those accustomed to very light steering might feel it's a bit heavy, The supple all-independent suspension provides a nice ride, and handling is quite good for a family sedan that's solid but only moderately sporty. Brake pedal action is firm and progressive for smooth stops.
The quiet interior has comfortable room for four tall adults, with especially supportive front seats. Backlit gauges can be read quickly, and audio and climate controls are easily reached and refreshingly simple to use. The glove compartment doesn't hold much more than the owner's manual, but there's a dashboard storage bin and a fairly deep front console covered storage bin. Also, front doors have nicely sized storage pockets and bottle holders, although the slim rear door pockets are virtually useless.
Rear cupholders are an awkward reach at the back of the front console near floor level, but rear windows lower all the way.
The roomy trunk has a rather high opening, but its lined lid opens on hinges that don't consume cargo space. Rear seatbacks flip forward for additional cargo room but don't sit completely flat. The pass-through opening between the trunk and backseat area is moderately large.
Most of the Malibu's top Asian rivals are bought with four-cylinder engines, so giving the top-line Malibu LTZ a solid four-cylinder in these fuel-price-conscious times is a smart marketing move.
2008 CHEVY MALIBU LTZ FOUR-CYLINDER
Likes: Four-cylinder fuel economy with new money-saving option. Good, smooth acceleration. Excellent general design.
Dislikes: Rather high trunk opening. Folded rear seatbacks don't sit entirely flat. Low rear cupholders.