Chevrolet’s 2008 Malibu lives up to GM’s expectations and then some

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

No car in our memory has been pitched to the American public like the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. We can’t fathom a man, woman or child who reads a newspaper or magazine, watches television or surfs the Web that hasn’t seen at least one if not a 100 commercial spots for the newest Chevy. Rumors have it that the budget for Malibu is between $100 and $150-million dollars. That’s lots of scratch.

General Motors took extreme and these very expensive measures to insure that the Malibu message — this is the best Chevrolet sedan for the money in decades — got to every person carrying a driver’s license, and then some.

The problem with this approach, of course, is living up to the hype. GM has made promises before and then failed to deliver. But this time General Motors was supremely confident that it had the car to back up the claims.

We’re here today to say the Malibu is as good as its advertising. No excuses.

Once the star of rental fleets, the Malibu has been endowed with a new upscale personality. It’s as good in most aspects — and perhaps better in some — than the Japanese mid-size leaders Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima.

Will it catch the sales leader Camry or second-place Accord? Probably not, at least any time in the foreseeable future. That’s because not only does Chevrolet need to offer an outstanding car, it needs to overcome decades of mediocre products and perceptions.

For example we’ve encountered two people in the past few weeks that have dismissed the Malibu despite the extensive advertising and our recommendation to take a test drive. Both people, in the market for a new sedan, said they simply weren’t going to waste their time in a General Motors store. Their shopping would be relegated to two or three Japanese products. Perception is a difficult thing to change.

Styling alone should get a few newcomers into Chevrolet showrooms. The Malibu has a simple, elegant look with slim windows and a thick C-pillar that adds a luxury tone. The new Chevrolet signature, the split grille, has not been done better and gives the sedan a modern, stylish nose.

The styling is more tasteful and refined than the new Accord and more interesting than the Camry.

It’s a design that catches the eye and should wear well over the years.

Likewise, the interior trumps both the Camry and Accord with a handsome two-tone dual cockpit look that can be ordered in various color combinations and with metallic or wood trim accents. Plastics are upscale and switchgear, much like controls found in other recent GM products such as the Saturn Aura and the Chevrolet Silverado, feel good to the touch.

Gauges are easy to read and nighttime illumination is first class.

When moving up to the top trim line, the two-tone leather seats are harmonious with the dashboard and door panels.

Does this sound like an entry-level luxury sedan? It could pass for one, but prices start at just $20,645 including destination charge. And even the base LS models come with the upscale look and feel.

As enticing as the Malibu’s new look may be to a curious shopper, the car has to deliver more. It’s got to have the passenger and cargo space as well as a driving experience that matches the competition. Again we can report Chevrolet success.

Seats are comfortable and a good driving position is easily reached especially with the power adjustable pedals that come as standard equipment on the LTZ trim level or as part of a $515 package on the mid-level LT trim.

Rear legroom is excellent for second-row passengers. This is due to the size of the new sedan, which has grown 3.5 inches in length (191.8 inches) and six inches in wheelbase to 112.3 over the previous generation.

But how does this new Malibu size measure up to the Camry and Accord?
Quite well, actually, with a three-inch longer wheelbase than the Toyota and two inches more than the Accord. Malibu trunk space is also larger at 15.1 cubic feet. And the space comes without hinges that intrude on cargo. A folding rear seatback and a front-passenger seatback that folds flat for those rare occasions when long objects need transportation are also part of the equation.

While all the aforementioned things are important, the driving experience is the key ingredient.

Most people, GM officials say, will opt for the 2.4-liter 169-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. For now, it’s mated to a four-speed automatic, and the combination works quite well yielding 0-to-60 times of around nine seconds and gas mileage measured by the EPA of 22 city and 30 highway.

During extensive highway driving in Tennessee and Mississippi we found the engine up to the performance standards set by Honda and Toyota. And gas mileage is on a par with the Accord and Camry 4-cylinders which are rated at 22/31 and 21/31 respectively.

The biggest difference between GM’s Ecotec 4-cylinder of the past and the Japanese four-cylinders was noise. But this time the General has gone to extremes to keep the engine racket out of the passenger compartment through better engine mounts and spray-in insulation. This has led to a smoother-feeling powerplant even at higher rpms. Chevy officials estimate that at least 70 percent of its customers will opt for the four, so getting that engine right was of paramount importance.

If you wait a few months, you can be rewarded with the four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic. We drove the six-speed in Mississippi and found it very intriguing.

Engineers are still fine tuning the transmission hoping to find an attractive combination of better performance and improved gas mileage. When the six-speed reaches showrooms around April, the Malibu will be the first sedan in the industry to match a six-speed to a four-cylinder engine.

We drove a well-equipped 3.6-liter 252-horsepower V-6 mated to the six-speed automatic for a week and found it superb in quietness and performance. Tests have shown 0-to-60 time of 6.5 seconds. A downside — rather mediocre gas mileage (17/26) compared to the competition.

We have found over the years that a quiet interior gives a vehicle a luxurious feel. And Chevy has hit the nail on the head in this regard. Thicker glass and more insulation have resulted in a hushed environment. One of our regular passengers was quick to express his amazement at the solitude of our LTZ test car.

Prices and equipment levels are also strong suits. The base LS at $20,645 comes with such standard features as front and rear airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, full power equipment, audio with MP3 and CD player, cruise control, XM radio and OnStar with turn-by-turn navigation.

The mid-level LT starts at $20,955 and can be outfitted with the V-6 and a handful of additional items for $24,710. The LTZ V-6 starts at $26,995 with features such as leather interior, automatic climate control, remote start, 18-inch wheels and premium audio system. Our test car with a couple of options including a power sunroof carried a bottom line of $28,340.

One Chevy mistake is the lack of a navigation option. Nav systems are available in virtually all mid-sized cars these days, and as good as the OnStar turn-by-turn works, it’s no substitution. But our nitpiks with the new sedan are minor, indeed.

Right now production is running behind demand as dealers clamor for more – especially the high end LTZ. This is music to GM’s ears as their work in changing perceptions is only beginning to taking hold. The initial run probably brims with Chevy loyalists, but peppered in the mix are some people that Chevy dealers have never talked too. That’s good.

Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman and product guru told us that the Malibu was the best $20,000 car that GM could build and that it was a quantum leap forward in the segment for Chevrolet. We couldn’t agree more.

Base price, $20,645; as driven, $28,340
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6

Horsepower: 252 @ 6,300 rpm

Torque: 251 foot-pounds @ 3,200 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Drive: front wheel

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 112.3 inches

Length: 191.8 inches

Curb weight: 3,649 pounds

Turning circle: 40.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.1 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 16 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 26 highway, 17 city

0-60: 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver)

Also consider: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Saturn Aura

The Good

Exemplary styling inside and out

• Quiet interior

• High level of standard equipment

The Bad

• Navigation is not available at any price

The Ugly

• V-6 gas mileage not up to the competition