Chevrolet moves closer to matching top Japanese sedan rivals with its 2006 Malibu, which comes in additional trim levels—including higher-performance SS versions.
The new Malibu also has mildly revised styling, inside and out, although it's far from being a head-turner.
The regular front-wheel-drive Malibu is a 4-door sedan with the conventional styling seemingly favored by most midsize sedan buyers, judging by sales of such cars.
Most Versatile Version
But the most versatile Malibu is the Maxx 4-door hatchback, which is a functional blend of sedan, station wagon and hatchback, although its rear end resembles the stern end of Winston Churchill's bulldog.
The majority of Americans continue to shy away from autos described as "hatchbacks" because old Japanese hatchbacks gave that body style a "cheap" image. Chevy thus calls the Maxx a "five-door extended sedan"—when most anyone can plainly see it's a hatchback.
Why not just call the Maxx a "crossover?" That's the type of vehicle that's becoming increasingly popular as more folks move away from truck-like SUVs to versatile, more fuel-thrifty car-based crossovers.
Chevrolet just says regular and Maxx versions of the Malibu "are adaptable to different individuals and lifestyles."
Odd Rear Styling
The standard Malibu sedan's regular trunk allows conventional styling—front to back. The Maxx has a 6-inch-longer wheelbase (distance between axles) than the standard 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. However, Chevy should have avoided a Maxx rear end that resembles part of an English bulldog.
Both regular and Maxx versions of the Malibu are offered in new higher-performance SS (Super Sport) form, with a 3.9-liter 240-horsepower V6 featuring variable valve timing. It moved my test Maxx SS with authority under all conditions.
The SS also has a sport suspension, big 18-inch alloy wheels with wide 50-series tires and unique interior and exterior appointments, including a rear spoiler that doesn't have a boy-racer look.
Weak Entry Engine
The entry Malibu engine is a 144-horsepower 4-cylinder that is weak during passing maneuvers above 65 mph. But there's also a potent 201-horsepower V6 for midrange versions.
All engines are hooked to a responsive 4-speed automatic transmission, with the one in SS versions having manual shift capability. However rival Toyota and Honda models have a more efficient 5-speed automatic.
Good Fuel Economy
Estimated fuel economy is 24 mpg city, 32 highway for the 4-cylinder, 22-24 city and 30-32 highway for the 201-horsepower V6 and 18-19 city and 26 highway for the SS versions. All engines only need 87-octane gasoline.
The rigidly built Malibu rides on General Motors' Epsilon platform, also used for the Saab 9-3 chassis. It helps allow good handling and provides a solid feel.
Steering Needs Improvement
The variable hydraulic power steering of my test Maxx SS was rather stiff and rubbery, although it was quicker than on other Malibus, which have electric power steering that sometimes feels too light, sometimes too heavy.
Malibu SS versions have sharper handling than non-SS versions and a supple ride, despite a firmer all-independent suspension and tires larger than those on regular versions. Stops are straight and controlled, thanks partly to an easily modulated brake pedal.
Gauges can be quickly read, and clearly marked controls are easy to reach on all Malibus. The ignition switch is on the dashboard so one need not grope for it on the steering column, especially in the dark. But a driver can't easily reach his front console cupholder with the shift lever in the "drive" position because that lever gets in the way. Inside door handles should be larger to allow easier exits.
Interior materials aren't comparable to those of top Japanese rivals, although they're attractive. A deep, covered storage bin easily swallows objects such as cell phones.
The 2006 Malibu gets a new front-end look with a different grille design and body color side moldings for a more upscale appearance.
The base Malibu has been discontinued, but there is a new uplevel LTZ model with additional premium features.
The quiet Malibu interior, which comfortably seats four tall adults, has updated trim and a new 4-spoke steering wheel. There's also new low-beam daytime running lights.
The Maxx hatchback provides a cargo area that accepts 22.8 cubic feet of household miscellany, or 7.4 cubic feet more than the regular Malibu sedan, which has a decent-size trunk. With rear seatbacks folded forward, the Maxx can swallow 41 cubic feet of cargo. No wonder more pragmatic—and less spoiled—European motorists favor hatchbacks.
Sliding Rear Seat
The Maxx rear seat reclines and slides fore and aft nearly 7 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 from dirty outside metal, the light Maxx liftgate has two hand-hold indents lined with a sandpaper-like material that provides exceptional grip, even in wet weather. That's a nice touch that often will be appreciated every time the liftgate is yanked shut.
A Maxx exclusive is a fixed rear glass skylight over the rear 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 on which to hang items such as grocery bags.
Options include 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 back seat is too hard for occupant comfort, anyway.
Other extras include a power sunroof, XM satellite radio and OnStar assistance.
Malibu prices begin at $17,365 for the base LS trim level and end at $24,065 for the Maxx SS, with various prices for midrange LT and LTZ regular and Maxx versions.
Even the entry LS is well-equipped, with such features as air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD player and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry.
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.
The LS and LT come with the 4-cylinder engine, while the LTZ/LTZ Maxx versions have the 201-horsepower V6, which is optional for the LT.
Anti-lock disc brakes and traction control are optional on the LS and LT, but standard on other Malibus. Wheel sizes are 15-inch on the LS, 16-inch on the LT, 17-inch on the LTZ, with the SS getting 18-inchers.
Front torso side airbags and side-curtain airbags are standard on LTZ and SS versions, optional on others.
All Malibus have a tilt-telescopic steering wheel and power driver's seat height adjuster. The LTZ and LTZ Maxx, along with SS trim levels, have standard power adjustable pedals and heated front seats, which are extra for the LT and LT Maxx. The LTZ has leather upholstery, while the SS has a cloth-leather combination.
The standard Malibu is fine, but the Maxx version is handier—and its unusual rear styling may even grow on owners.