Autoblog gets numerous comments saying that the domestic automakers could easily sell more products if only they would make them good enough to buy. We agree. With the introduction of the 2008 Chevy Malibu, it could very well be time for us all to put up or shut up.
GM knows the midsize sedan segment is dominated by the Toyota Camry and has taken direct aim at that very car with the new Malibu. The car's measurements come close to the Camry in almost every category, including length, interior space, trunk size and engine displacement. Where they differ is in design. The Camry provides the automotive appliance for those who don't really want a car, but need to go places. The Malibu brings style to the game at a competitive price.
GM invited us to spend some time with the new Malibu in Memphis, Tenn. this past weekend, and we put the car down some of the roughest streets of the city and the twistiest back roads we could find in northwest Mississippi.
To start the day, we chose a top-of-the-line LTZ model with the 3.6L V6 and 6-speed transmission from a lineup of about a dozen Malibus parked in front of the Gibson Guitar factory in downtown Memphis. A couple of passersby stopped to ask what was going on, commenting on how good the new model looked. Apparently, it really is hard to ignore.
With its lines that mimic more expensive cars, the Malibu is sure to continue getting attention. The night before our drive, we were briefed on the new Malibu's "dramatic rear," long hood and short deck, as well as the Corvette-inspired inboard hood. In fact, the design manager for the Malibu redo said the Corvette provided many of the car's cues, including the circular, dual-lamp taillights, the aforementioned hood and the dual, chrome exhausts.
But after opening the door to the new Malibu, it's easy to see where GM really spent some coin. This car has one of the best midsize interiors to come out of Detroit ... ever. The seats are comfortable but supportive and covered in either seemingly high-quality earth tone fabric or leather. All visible plastics are textured, including the A-pillar cover, and every little storage hole is rubber-lined. Starting at the driver's shoulder, a line of either aluminum or faux wood separates the two-tone interior trim, and continues over the chrome-ringed instrument cluster, above the console, tops the glove box and ends on the front passenger's left. It's a unifying element that was obviously intentional, not an afterthought. "One complete, awesome design," we were told at the presentation.
Rear-seat passengers will quickly notice the adequate leg room provided by the front seats' scalloped backs. There's also an optional 110-volt, AC plug back there, a unique and much appreciated touch.
Early morning Memphis traffic was light as we found our way to the Interstate where, for some reason, we found ourselves zipping past car after lane-hogging slow car. The white numbers on the dark blue speedometer showed that maybe they were going fast enough, but we were doing well over the speed limit. Blame it on the Malibu's sound insulation. Its double-paned side glass includes a layer of sound-deadening laminate, while the upholstered trunk keeps noise from sneaking in back there and extra attention was given to the firewall insulation.
The extra padding may be to blame for some of the car's weight gain (about 240 pounds) since last year, but it truly pays off with greatly reduced road and wind noise. Later in the day, a brief ticket-tempting stint with a colleague at the wheel (honest, it wasn't me!) was as quiet as most cars in this price-range operating at law-abiding speeds.
The Malibu's handling was not inspired by the Corvette, but then, the Camry's isn't inspired by the upcoming LF-A. The new Chevy handles itself well, taking curves flat enough and accelerating quick enough to be competitive. The V6 exhibits more torque steer than we like, and easily overcame the car's standard traction control on full-pedal launches.
But we'd still pick the 252-hp V6 over the 169-hp 4-cylinder. The V6 with the 6-speed transmission was ready for some fun when requested, and simply did its job the rest of the drive. Currently, 4-cylinder models get paired only with GM's 4-speed transmission, but as production of the 6-speed increases, customers should be able to order that option soon. We were allowed a short drive in a 4-cylinder, 6-speed prototype, and saw somewhat smoother shifts and maybe a bit less engine noise, but the drive wasn't long enough to make a recommendation.
A third powertrain option is the hybrid Malibu. The same Ecotec 4-cylinder gets a nickel metal hydride battery pack, regenerative braking, and engine shutoff to achieve an estimated 24 city and 32 highway mpg. The hybrid option only costs $1,800 over the 4-cylinder model, yet is only marginally more fuel efficient with the plain 4 getting 22/30 mpg. We drove the hybrid a short way, and thought it wasn't that much different than its slightly-less-green counterpart. Even as a mild hybrid at less than $22,000, it should have plenty of buyers who at least want to look more green than their neighbors.
The base 4-cylinder, 4-speed LS stickers at $19,995 and the LTZ comes in at just over $26,000. GM says choosing every option will put a Malibu just over $28,000.
So, are we gushing about this car? Yes, and we're as surprised as you. My last GM-made car was 13 years ago, and was awful. I swore I'd never step foot inside another GM showroom. This car could very well change my mind about that. It's got the looks, the character and the interior to challenge Camry's reign, and it's about time. If the Malibu can be built to the same quality standards as Toyotas "supposedly" are, GM is back.
Terry Rhadigan, Chevrolet's director of communications, tells us that Chevrolet dealers have already spoken for 2008 Malibu production through 2007. This tells us that high demand is at least expected for this car. He wouldn't say how many cars that actually is, or how many the company expects to sell. "We'll let the market decide how many we build," he said. Speaking of dealers, we asked Rhadigan if GM was doing anything special to address customer/dealer relations issues. He told us it's an "ongoing thing," and said, "We'd be better off with fewer, more high-quality dealers." Sounds like they at least acknowledge there's a problem.
Rhadigan also addressed concerns that the Malibu would again be a rental fleet favorite. He said Chevrolet hoped to cut Malibu fleet sales in half. And he said Chevrolet would encourage rental fleet buyers to buy nicely-equipped Malibus instead of stripped-down models. The goal being to use a rental as a missionary opportunity to showcase the new car's attributes.
Don't expect an SS or Maxx model anytime soon, unfortunately. We believe it when GM tells us the hatchback version is dead, but despite being told by two different GM sources that the SS isn't planned, we still have reason to hope.
While we only put about 180 miles on some new Malibus during the six hours we had with them, we can say that mid-size shoppers need to do themselves a favor and at least take one for a drive. It's the best Chevy in years, and as Car and Driver said, "Camry beware ..."