The best Chevy sedan yet. by Paul A. Eisenstein
It was simple. Chevrolet didn't have a model to compete with the Ford Contour, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Dodge Stratus. That's a big, lucrative market and a player the size of Chevrolet has to be in the game. Creating a model that could make the lineup was not an easy assignment. These are formidable competitors with good records. Chevrolet would have to hit the proverbial home run if it was to stay in this component of the mid-size game.
Going, going, gone. The Malibu easily clears the center field fence.
The Malibu comes in two competitively priced models. The base Malibu comes with a 150 horsepower, 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine. The LS uses a 3.1-liter V-6 rated at 155 horsepower. The V-6 is an option for the base car.
A comparably equipped four-cylinder Accord will be in the low $19,000 range, a V-6 Stratus around $20,000, a V-6 Contour also around $20,000, so the Malibu is priced right.
When speaking about target audience, Chevrolet talks of people in their mid-30s and 40s looking for quality, safety, reliability, durability, and practicality. That's a something-for-everybody philosophy that a little time behind the wheel reveals the Malibu does indeed offer.
The first thing you notice about the Malibu's shape is there's not much to notice. While certainly pleasant to look at, Chevrolet chose to go the safe route with a generic Japanese shape with no Chevrolet family look. And that's a positive, because Chevrolet's family look is not very distinctive. So while the Malibu's look is derivative, it's good derivative.
The Malibu stretches 190.4 inches bumper to bumper, which makes it a touch longer than most of the competition. The 107.0-inch wheelbase is virtually the same as the Accord, an inch less than the Stratus.
You may have noticed only five horsepower separates the four-cylinder engine from the V-6. So why bother with the larger engine? The answer is in the torque curves. The V-6 generates 30 lb-ft of torque more than the four-cylinder engine, and reaches that maximum output at 4000 rpm which is 400 rpm sooner. That means quicker response off the line, better acceleration for merging and passing and less downshifting on grades and hills. And speaking of shifting, it's all automatic. No manual transmission available for this front-drive family sedan. That's fine because few buyers in this market would likely opt for a five-speed transmission.
Since Malibu is the latest model from Chevrolet, it's only reasonable to assume it reflects Chevrolet's contemporary approach to doing things right. It does.
For example, standard exterior features include clearcoat paint that provides a high-gloss shine, hefty P215/60R touring radials on 15-inch wheels, 5-mph bumpers at each end, body-color door handles, body-color breakaway side mirrors, fog lamps (LS only) and reflector-optics headlamps.
In an effort to reduce wind noise to a minimum, Chevy engineers made the door handles flush with the door, hid the wipers at the base of the windshield, designed a special windshield seal and even went with a permanent spiral ground radio antenna that creates less wind noise.
Another reflection of new thinking is the Malibu's construction that uses a hydro-formed chassis for greater solidity and a net gauge hole body side process that uses four precisely placed location holes in the body to ensure dimensional accuracy of body panels when they are installed. Benefits to the owner range from less expensive crash repair to improved tire life from more accurate wheel alignment.
The Inside Story
If the exterior of the Malibu is a departure from traditional Chevrolet, the interior is a surprising 180 degrees from the traditional direction. The instrument cluster is under a gently arched dash, which flows smoothly to the right and slightly down to the right A-pillar. Directly beneath is a strip of wood containing a pair of vents. The usual controls for air conditioning and radio are stacked in a contrasting panel in the center. Granted, there's nothing unique in this arrangement, but it's so contemporary, so non-Chevrolet as to be remarkable. Steering column stalks have been simplified, with the left stalk controlling the lights only, the right stalk the wipers only. Overall, things are easy to find and operate.
The Malibu is billed as a five-passenger car. Two adults in the back seats will be happier than three, but three is tolerable in a pinch.
The Malibu comes standard with daylight running lights, which come on only when the ignition is turned on, the parking brake released and the shift lever not in Park. A light sensor automatically turns on the head lights to full intensity and turns on all other exterior lights when it gets dark. When it gets light enough, the process is reversed.
Chevrolet says it went into the real world to find what potential Malibu customers wanted, and then reacted. One example is a glovebox pivot system that maximizes access while minimizing intrusion of the door. The glovebox handle is on the left side, closer to the driver. The ignition switch is on the instrument panel, not the steering column. There are front and rear cup holders, including one at the left side of the instrument panel that can do double duty as a storage bin.
Other Features: custom cloth on the buckets in the LS, tilt steering wheel, air conditioning, premium sound systems including one with remote cassette and CD, remote trunk release, power windows (LS) and side window defrosters.
On the safety side, there are dual air bags, side intrusion protection, standard ABS and a safety cage surrounding the passenger compartment. There is a theft deterrent system and the LS has a keyless remote entry system.
Ride & Drive
By tradition, a family sedan is a modest vehicle of four doors with little aspiration other than providing reliable, economic transportation. But in recent years, family sedans have been aspiring to more. And this is a Chevy with a touch of soul.
As promised, it gets going quickly and pulls strongly, well past the legal limit. Shifting is seamless. A powertrain control module keeps tabs on temperature, altitude and throttle position, then adjusts the transmission shift points for smooth or quick shifting depending on conditions.
Visibility is good in every direction with just a little blockage at the C-pillars. Seat position is good, the cushions supportive and the steering wheel and pedal relationship works well for short and tall people.
The handling -- independent suspension all-around -- is vastly improved over past Chevy sedans. The ride is solid with little body roll and the steering is responsive and not over-assisted.
Our test driving included some rolling, twisting, climbing, two-lane xroads in California, and we were pleased at how Chevy's homework -- both technical and human factors -- has paid off. The Malibu was quiet, comfortable and totally confident feeling.
The Malibu was so good it narrowly missed becoming the 1997 North American Car of the Year, an award given by a collection of automotive journalists at newspapers and magazines around the country. The reason was that although as good as it is, it is not a breakthrough, not significantly better than the others in its class.
It was a fair assessment. But the new Malibu is an excellent family sedan. It's the best Chevy sedan yet, and should be on the shopping list of every family sedan buyer.
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