From its oft-ordinary configurations in the '70s and '80s to the high-revving posture of the recent Malibu Maxx, the Malibu has always been Chevy's middle-of-the-road sedan that suffered from a bit of an identity crisis.
For 2008, the new Malibu compares relatively well to the competition. It certainly is a value-minded sedan, but that, coupled with the hybrid version that is arriving in dealers soon, is promising news for consumers who need good value and better fuel economy.
Based on the design of its GM stablemates Saab 9-3, Saturn Aura and the Pontiac G6, the new Malibu is upgraded with a 6-inch increase at wheelbase, additional safety features and more power. I'd still consider the exterior refresher to be conservative, but in this class that's what really seems to sell.
Three trim levels of Malibu exist: LS, LT and LTZ. The LS and LT trims offer a 169-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Standard on the LTZ is a 252-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 (optional on the LT) mated to a six-speed automatic.
Once inside the cabin, Malibu is roomy and open. Ample use of glass really delivers great sightlines for the driver. Seating is firm and comfortable. I especially appreciate the optional adjustable foot pedals, which allows for more variations on the seat settings.
The LT tester featured attractive interior styling. Softer materials used throughout felt less cheap while a slick chrome liner surrounds gauges and vents. Selective placement of wood trim in the test model added a touch of refinement.
Headroom and legroom were better than average. I think the rear seat legroom was especially surprising given the size of the trunk, but tall passengers will be quite comfortable on short and long trips.
As far as utility space goes, I think Malibu is close to the top in its class. I especially like the extra large pass-through from the split-folding rear seats to the trunk. It's just a small detail, but families utilizing this functional option use it more often than you might think.
Families will also appreciate additional curtain side airbags and front side airbags.
Though there is both a four-cylinder and a V-6 option, I would be hard pressed to recommend anything other than the 3.6-liter V-6. The tester's acceleration was adequate from a dead stop. Maneuvering about town, I found the V-6 to be responsive and sometimes sprite in getting around city traffic. Entry and exit off the highway is also easily handled by the V-6. All engines use regular-grade fuel.
Driving the Malibu around town is a pleasure. The cabin is free from most wind and engine noise. I found the suspension to be a bit stiff but never distracting or uncomfortable.
Overall, the new Malibu should be a real contender for Chevrolet in the very competitive mid-size sedan class. While I still feel the exterior styling is a bit uninspiring, it is not a detractor from buying this car. Malibu delivers a long list of great features, refined interior treatments and good driving characteristics, which will make it a force to be reckoned with among like-equipped sedans. No doubt this is a great value for the dollar, $19,345 - $26,245.