Chevrolet officials must have had winter's bitingly cold winds and low temperatures in mind when they re-engineered and redesigned the Chevy Malibu.
Why else would they make the new 2004 Malibu the only auto in the midsize sedan market that can be fitted at the factory with a remote vehicle starter, allowing a driver to start the car—and, most importantly, the car's heater—without climbing inside the frigid interior?
OK, maybe they were thinking of the 100-plus-degree heat of the desert Southwest or the high humidity of a Florida summer.
Anyone facing these weather extremes, it seems, can appreciate the Malibu's handy remote feature which allows a driver to activate the vehicle starter, with the car's doors remaining locked to prevent theft, from as far away as 200 feet.
This remote starting feature, a $150 option that's normally available only as an aftermarket purchase, is just one of the changes that make the 2004 Malibu worth a look for family car shoppers.
The Malibu rides on a new, improved platform for a better ride and has sedan styling that would be expected from the popular Japanese family sedans such as Toyota Camry and Honda Accord—not from expressive Chevrolet.
The '04 Malibu also includes a comfortable, five-passenger interior with standard driver-seat power height adjustment and a standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
There's a good choice of other features, too, that include optional OnStar emergency notification system, optional XM satellite radio and power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals for proper driver positioning behind the wheel.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail prices at introduction of between $18,300 and $23,000 put this extensively revamped model squarely in the heart of the family sedan competition.
Strong sounds and power from V6
The test Malibu was the top-of-the-line LT sedan whose price tag was more than $25,700 with options and destination charge included.
It had the top engine—a 200-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 whose design uses overhead valves rather than the more modern dual overhead cam technology of the smooth-running and quiet Accord and Camry.
Still, the test Malibu with four-speed automatic transmission ran quite smoothly, with satisfying engine sounds easily heard inside the vehicle accompanied by good power that got me merged into traffic without a hiccup. Torque is 220 lb-ft at 3200 rpm.
Note the Malibu isn't the power leader in the segment, but the new V6 is way ahead of the 170-horse V6 with 190 lb-ft of torque that was in last year's Malibu.
Meantime, Toyota's Camry in 2004 offers twoV6s for the first time: A 210-horse 3.0-liter V6 with 220 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, and a 225-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 with 240 lb-ft of torque. The Accord's top 3.0-liter V6 generates a maximum 240 horsepower and 212 lb-ft at 5000 rpm.
I averaged 26.1 miles a gallon in mostly highway driving in the Malibu test car. But the V6 Malibu's official government fuel economy rating is 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, which is higher than the top-V6 Accord and Camry.
Base engine for the '04 Malibu is a 2.2-liter Ecotec four cylinder that's capable of 155 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The 2003 Malibu didn't offer a four banger at all.
Auto writers are making much of the fact the new Malibu uses a version of the auto platform that's in the European-tuned Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3. (Chevy's parent company, General Motors Corp., operates Opel in Europe and controls Swedish automaker Saab.)
Don't expect the '04 Malibu to ride like a sporty German car or a Saab. It doesn't.
The front-wheel-drive Malibu test car had a supple ride, with the suspension working well to absorb and manage many road bumps and control body roll and dive.
Sure, I felt road imperfections as I traveled. It was a mostly mild sensation of rolling over uneven pavement, and there was no harshness, even when the Malibu made a "cha-chunk" sound as a wheel rolled into and out of an occasional sunken manhole cover.
Overall, the car conveyed a sense of control and comfort with nary an artificial, cushioned feel. I didn't need a long spell behind the Malibu steering wheel to get accustomed to the car's on-road mannerisms.
The front suspension is independent MacPherson strut, while the rear is an independent, four-link design.
The test car had 16-inch Bridgestone tires that didn't convey a lot of road noise—unless I put pedal to the metal right from a stop. Then, the tires could be made to squeal and I felt a short tug of torque steer before electronic traction control took over and put a stop to this power play.
At highway speeds, there was scarcely any wind noise in the rather plain, yet pleasantly styled Malibu.
New safety efforts
The previous Malibu wasn't competitive in safety crash test ratings of midsize sedans. In fact, there wasn't a single five-star rating for the 2003 Malibu in any of the tests—frontal or side.
Competitors like the Accord sedan and Camry had some five-star ratings, so among the updates to the Malibu, Chevy engineers added high-strength steel in strategic areas. Head curtain airbags are available for the first time, too.
At this writing, the federal government had not released crash ratings for the 2004 Malibu.
Interior a surprise
The '04 Malibu's dashboard and gauge are straightforward and nicely arranged.
I appreciated that buttons and knobs are good-sized, so even gloved hands in winter can operate things without much fuss. A knob to tune the radio manually was an especially nice addition.
I also liked the attention to detail. The Malibu's ignition keyhole is in plain view on the dashboard, not hidden on the side of the steering column. Below the keyhole, a piece of black rubber keeps keys from banging and marring the Malibu's decorative, matte dashboard trim.
Check out the ceiling material. It's textured and upscale, the kind you might expect in a ritzier car.
I enjoyed the suede-like material that was in the middle of the test car's seats. My, how quickly the front-seat heaters could work in winter to warm driver and front-passenger behinds.
Notice how generous the Malibu's rear-seat cushion is. When I sat back there, the cushion extended all the way to the back of my knees to provide good support.
Rear doors and rear-door windows are good-sized, too.
There's a lot more functionality to this Malibu sedan than what people realize. For example, the rear seatbacks fold down. So does the front passenger seatback. This means a really long item can be stuffed through the trunk, over a rear seatback and come to rest on top of the hard plastic back of the front passenger seat.
Try doing that in an Accord sedan.