Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Big-car ride in a mid-size sedan.
In the early 1970s, the Chevy Malibu conjured sunny images of cruising along a windswept coastal highway bound for some beachfront shindig. But since Chevrolet revived the Malibu nameplate in 1997, the Malibu has projected a different sort of image-one of comfort, quietness, practicality and affordability.
When designing the current Malibu, Chevrolet aimed at the vast legions of sensible sedan buyers who have helped make the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry the best-selling cars in America in the 1990s.
Designers could do a lot worse than borrowing a few pages from the Accord/Taurus/Camry playbooks. When you're taking on the leaders, there's nothing wrong with showing your influences. And the Malibu does that-both with its styling, which bears a stronger resemblance to the Japanese sedans than it does to the Chevy family tree, and with the way it successfully offers a little something for almost everyone.
For 1999, the Malibu is largely unchanged from the '97 and '98 versions-a wise move, given how warmly the Malibu has been embraced by the public.
The Malibu's generic-import body styling-one that might be called neo-classic-doesn't cry out for attention. That means it might get lost in a crowd; but it also means its looks will hold up better over time than some of the trendier designs.
At 190.4 inches, the Malibu is a couple of inches longer than its primary Japanese competitors-Accord and Camry-but more than seven inches shorter than its main domestic rival, the Taurus.
The Malibu comes in two trim lines-the base model and the LS. The base model offers a respectable line of standard equipment features: air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, four-speed automatic transmission, rear-set child security locks, tilt steering column and tachometer. It is powered by a four-cylinder engine.
The LS adds a few more niceties as standard equipment: power windows/door locks/mirrors, keyless entry, electronic speed control, AM/FM stereo with cassette, pass-through rear seats, and a V6 engine.
We tested the LS, which has a base price of $19,445, including the $535 destination charge. The base Malibu goes for $16,485.
By comparison, the Accord LX V6 and Camry LE V6 sedans are both priced at about $22,000. (The 4-cylinder versions are around $19,500 and $20,000, respectively.) The Taurus LX and SE, both with V6 engines, are $17,995 and $18,995 respectively.
Our LS test model was equipped with a few options-leather bucket seats ($595), power glass sunroof ($650), CD player ($200) and mud guards ($60), which hiked the total price to $20,950.
When it comes to interior amenities, it's often the little things that count. Like, for example, the Malibu's ignition switch being situated on the instrument panel, plainly visible and reachable-instead of being hidden at the base of the steering wheel. Or like the rotating air vents, at the base of the A pillars, which can be swiveled outward to defrost the side window, allowing maximum visibility of the outside mirrors.
Then there's the 6-way power seats, which offer up as many seating positions as we've seen in some high-priced luxury cars. The optional leather seats are as firm, supportive and comfortable as we've seen in some luxury cars. There's commodious front-seat headroom and ample legroom for a 6-foot driver. Also earning our praise is the location of the stereo system-it's higher on the dash than on many cars, making it more easily operable.
Our LS cabin's decor was done up in three shades of beige-to-sienna-a scheme that will seem bland to some, comforting to others. The fabric covering the headliner and pillars is plush to the touch, and the double-console configuration is spacious enough to house a half-dozen CDs and another five or six cassette tapes-each with their own notches. The big T-shaped gearshift is a point of debate-some say it's homely, but Chevrolet says it's useful as a hand rest if the forearm is resting on the console.
Chevrolet's goal with the Malibu was to provide full-size ride quality and quietness in a mid-size car. On that front, they succeeded-in part by designing separate steel subframes for the front and rear ends. This approach protects the cabin-and its inhabitants-from engine vibration and from harsh bumps absorbed by the front MacPherson struts.
The independent rear suspension is attached to a rear subframe, which yields a smoother, more uniform ride as each rear wheel responds individually to varying road surfaces. That definitely made a difference when we took the Malibu out onto some suburban-Detroit dirt roads, which were freshly rutted after a post-blizzard thaw. Ordinarily, this would be a molar-rattling experience, but the Malibu fended off the bumps like a bigger sedan.
Chevrolet engineers also gave the Malibu a suspension that's significantly firmer than that of previous mid-size Chevy sedans. That means the Malibu handles more crisply-and minimizes body roll-in corners and during abrupt lane-changing maneuvers.
We had an opportunity to drive a Malibu down a gnarly, narrow back road in a back-to-back comparison with a Taurus, Camry and Accord. In the handling department, we rank the Malibu higher than the Taurus, and at least as good as the Camry. The Taurus feels big and heavy on a winding road where the Malibu feels light and agile. The Accord had a slight edge, but not a big advantage. The Malibu's steering responded quickly in hard-cornering situations. Overall, the Malibu rewards the driver with good feedback and sporty, predictable handling response.
The 3.1-liter V6 that comes standard in the Malibu LS puts out 150 horses. On paper, that's the same amount of horsepower as the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that comes standard in the base Malibu. But the V6-an option in the base model-delivers 35 more foot-pounds of torque than the 4-cylinder engine. That translates into more passing power and more thrust from a dead stop. So if you're buying the base Malibu and you're not on a tight budget, we recommend the V6.
That V6 hustles the Malibu from 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. That's quicker than the Dodge Stratus V6 (9.2 seconds) and Ford Contour V6 (8.8 seconds), but not as quick as the Camry CE V6 (7.0 seconds) or the Accord LX with its new 3.0-liter V6 (7.7 seconds).
The Malibu provides plenty of power for merging briskly onto the freeway. We were impressed with how well Chevrolet has damped wind noise at high speeds with little touches like recessed door handles and a special windshield seal.
The smooth-shifting, highly efficient transmission monitors factors like temperature, altitude and throttle position to determine optimum shift points. And in both normal and emergency-stopping situations, the brakes are solid and firm, with no discernable fade or grab.
The Malibu may not stand out in a crowd, but it delivers excellent handling, plenty of power, lots of headroom and a quiet and comfortable ride. Handling on back roads is superior to that of the Taurus and as good or better than the Camry. Add to that the Malibu's value and it is well worth adding to the mid-size shopping list.
Oklahoma City, Okla.; Wilmington, Del.
Options As Tested
Leather bucket seats, CD player, power glass sunroof, mud flaps.
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