In the Autoblog Garage: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT

click above for a high-res gallery of the 2008 Chevy Malibu LT
Once upon a time, General Motors' mid-sized models were the perennial top-selling passenger cars in America. Within my own lifetime, the Oldsmobile Cutlass topped the sales charts for years on end. But somewhere along the way, it all went pear-shaped for GM. Its cars went from being perpetual sales leaders into a perpetual sales decline. As GM's car sales tanked, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord picked up the slack and are now considered the standard by which others in the class are measured.

The first signs of a real revival in the GM sedan lineup appeared in 2006 when the Saturn Aura debuted to decent reviews though somewhat lukewarm sales. Then, last January at the Detroit Auto Show, GM debuted two new production sedans, the Cadillac CTS and the car that just spent a week in the Autoblog Garage, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. The Malibu is here now, so let's find out what it's like to live with for a week.
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All photos Copyright ©2007 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

The Chevy Volt may represent the future of General Motors power-train technology, but before it can become a reality, GM needs a steady cash flow to fund development. That's the job of the Malibu. The last generation Malibu was bland with some slightly odd design details, while the one before that was just plain invisible. In this class, bland styling is not necessarily a bad thing as the Accord and Camry have clearly demonstrated over the past decade. However, the Japanese brands have backed up their innocuous looks with a reputation for impeccable build quality and levels of refinement that are considered well beyond their price point. That's something equivalent domestic models have been lacking until relatively recently.

When the latest edition of the Malibu debuted last year, it wore what is easily the best interpretation of Chevy's current corporate face with a large, horizontally-split grille. In addition to the bold-looking nose, virtually the whole car drew praise from onlookers at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. The one possible weak spot was the back end that features taillights which still look like something of an after thought. The rest of the car is so good, however, that the back lights are easily forgotten. The car has handsome proportions with a long, sleek roof-line that draws some obvious inspiration from the Volkswagen Phaeton, among other cars.

The relative absence of surface detailing serves to point out how well Chevrolet got this basic look just right. The details that appear upon close inspection also show the thought that was put into the new Malibu. Even on this slightly above entry-level LT, nothing on the outside of the car looks cheap. The 225/50R17 tires and wheels aren't undersized, fill the wheel wells nicely and sit flush with the surrounding body. Those attractive five spoke wheels? They are actually plastic wheel covers on steel wheels. They may be less expensive than aluminum, but they sure don't look cheap. The turn signal repeaters on the front fenders also give a European touch. Even the little Chevy bow-tie molded into the rear signal lens is a subtle reminder that someone was paying attention.

My wife has never been a GM fan, but when she started seeing the Malibu in TV commercials, she couldn't believe it was a Chevrolet. For the first time in the 14 years we've been together, she actually wanted to check out a GM car. We think this type of reaction is happening all over the U.S. when people see the new Malibu for the first time.

The glass moon-roof on our test unit didn't get much use during the cold pre-Christmas weather around Ann Arbor, but when I tried it out, I noticed it opens up on the outside of the roof so that it doesn't detract from interior headroom.

Upon opening the doors of the Malibu, it was immediately clear that this car is a huge step forward for GM mid-sized cars. Compared to the Dodge Avenger and Caliber SRT-4 that we've reviewed in recent months, the doors felt solid and closed with a tighter seal than even the new Accord. The cloth covered seats in the 1LT model weren't quite as good as those in the new Accord, but are still very comfortable and supportive.

The interior of the Malibu is a revelation for a mainstream domestic car. Even on this low-end model, the quality of the materials was excellent. The appearance and feel of the plastics was of a higher quality than either the Toyota Highlander Hybrid or Jeep Grand Cherokee we've driven in recent months, both of which were more than twice the cost of the Malibu. The steering wheel rim was thick and covered in a rubberized plastic that offered a good grip and feel. The 2LT and LTZ trim levels have a leather-wrapped wheel, but even this one felt better than the skinny leather wheel in the new Highlander.

One of the first things we looked for in the Malibu was the alignment of the trim on the door panels and dashboard. Every Saturn Aura we've looked at had a misalignment between the door and dash trim, a point we've made sure to mention to GM. A rep indicated that the company was aware of this issue and working to address it before Malibu production started. At least on this example, they succeeded. The interior has plenty of storage including wide pockets in the doors, a deep bin under the center armrest and a compartment in the center of the dash top. The backs of the front seats are also scooped out to provide extra legroom for rear seat passengers, and the back seat is nicely cushioned and comfortable. It folds down 60/40, but the thick padding prevents the seat back from folding completely flat.

The latest Accord has grown quite a bit and the extra two inches of width it has over the Malibu can easily be felt in the back seat if you add a third passenger. The rear compartment of the Malibu is great for two passengers but a tight squeeze for a trio.

Another place where the Malibu has a distinct advantage over the latest Accord is interior sound levels. The Chevy is exceptionally quiet, especially for a car with a base price just shy of $20,000. Even the 2.4L EcoTec four-cylinder was well muted.

Other nice touches in the Malibu include pale green ambient lighting behind the door handles and next to the dome light switches. The lighting was just enough to allow occupants to find the handles in the dark without fumbling around. The trunk lid also has four bar link hinges that don't intrude on space the way the goose-necks do on the Accord. It's small touches like these that convey to the buyer that bean counters didn't build this car.

The aforementioned 2.4L EcoTec four-cylinder engine had plenty of power for moving the 3,400-pound Malibu, although the four-speed automatic transmission was partly to blame for the 21 mpg test average. Most of our time in the new Chevy was spent driving around town while Christmas shopping, which meant we logged a lower than normal percentage of highway miles during the week before Christmas. Mileage should be improved next spring when the four-speed will be supplanted by GM's new six-speed unit as the company ramps up production of the new transmission.

The electrically-assisted steering was nicely weighted and provided decent feedback. The brake pedal feel was excellent and the four-corner disc brakes responded well to inputs while being easy to modulate. The Ann Arbor area got a fairly healthy mid-December dumping of snow, which provided good opportunities to test the traction and stability control. Thankfully, both systems worked smoothly and consistently, particularly the stability control. It just kept the car going where the steering wheel was pointed. The back end stayed put with the ESC warning light flashing quietly on occasion, but there was no additional feedback through the steering wheel or extra alarms. The suspension was well sprung and damped, absorbing bumps and frost heaves without ever feeling floaty or harsh.

Overall, the Malibu is easily the best mid-size car from General Motors in my lifetime and probably yours, and it's one of the best cars available in its class today. Even the entry level model doesn't look or feel like a Hertz or Avis special. The ebony interior is perhaps a bit too monochromatic, although those who have small kids with dirty hands might prefer it over the lighter two-tone gray interior treatment. The 1LT model GM provided us prices out at $22,230 including the sun-roof. Moving up to the 2LT model starting at $23,135 nets you a leather-covered steering wheel and shifter, seat warmers, aluminum wheels and other standard amenities. With all that equipment, the 2LT Malibu is a real bargain and a truly viable competitor to the Camry and Accord.

All photos Copyright ©2007 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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