Chevy tackles the volume kings with new 2004 Malibu

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, in addition to a handful of other imports including the Volkswagen Passat, have become the benchmarks for the mid-sized family sedan.

To successfully compete in this still-lucrative segment, a car needs to emulate the Japanese and German products in build quality, content, reliability, drivability and design.

U.S. automakers no longer play a leading role in the mid-sized segment, once dominated by the Ford Taurus. The Taurus has slipped to also-ran status, a major player in rental car fleets.

Chevrolet revived the Malibu name in 1997, slapping the famous moniker from Chevrolet’s past on a mid-sized sedan to compete against the imports. The Malibu was loaded with amenities, including a 6-cylinder engine, at a good price. But, like the Taurus, it has lagged in sales and has not been able to crack the upper echelon of imports despite heavy discounting and good quality ratings.

In fact it’s still possible to purchase a loaded 2003 Malibu for thousands less than sticker as dealers work to clear their lots for the 2004 model now in showrooms.

General Motors went back to the drawing board to create the all-new 2004 Malibu. To give it a more European feel and flavor, the Malibu is based on the European Epsilon platform shared with the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra.

Chevrolet hopes its new version of the Malibu, which also comes in station wagon guise under the name Malibu Maxx, will reach the rarefied air of 300,000 sales a year. It’s no cigar winner compared to the 400,000 plus that Accord and Camry achieve, but it’s one heck of a giant leap forward for the venerable brand.

We received a baptism by interstate, taking possession of a top-of-the-line Malibu LT in Georgia just minutes from Interstate 85. The next seven hours were spent at interstate speeds blipping over road imperfections, fighting heavy rain and negotiating stop, start and lane shift maneuvers.

The European-flavored Malibu answered the call in exemplary fashion. There was no problem holding a steady line, road bumps were isolated and not shockingly sent through the cabin, the suspension seemed to have just the right tweaking between comfortable yet firm enough for good handling, and the driver’s seat and the seating position kept away driver fatigue.

The standard 3.5-liter V-6 found in the mid-level LS and the top-level LT is responsive at all speeds. Although advertised as new, the 3500 V-6 is based on the venerable 3400-pushrod engine. GM officials say the new powerplant has been completely redesigned. Although it doesn’t have the multi-valve architecture and doesn’t measure up to the horsepower ratings of the Accord and Nissan Altima, it does offer a pleasing measure of performance from its 200-horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque.

The engine is mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode. Performance has been measured at 8 seconds from 0 to 60 miles per hour and 16-seconds in the quarter mile. Both are very acceptable times for the segment.
The engine found in the base Malibu is GM’s new 4-cylinder 2.2-liter Ecotec developing 145 horsepower. For those on a budget, the 4-cylinder should not pose a performance problem. It has been rated at a solid 9 seconds in the traditional 0-to-60 sprint.

We would have used a more daring styling approach to an all-new sedan, but Chevrolet decided to take the conservative route, apparently in an effort to appeal to a broader audience. That’s a consensus characteristic of the segment.

That being said, the new Malibu has more character than the previous all-vanilla packaging. The styling is rather plain, but not unattractive. It includes the new-look Chevy front end with a long center bar and bowtie now found on everything in the Chevrolet lineup including trucks and sport utilities. The raised back gives the sedan a wedge shape, topped off on our LT tester by a rear decklid spoiler.

The interior is tasteful and the controls are well placed and easy to use. A trip computer readout on the stereo screen in our upgraded LT had such useful information has miles to empty, outside temperature and time. One glitch - when XM radio was in use, the outside temperature reading was eliminated.

Chevrolet has upgraded interior materials. Plastic has a more quality look, and the cloth seats have a nice feel and texture.

One nice feature on the LT, and an industry first as factory-installed equipment, is a remote starter that can be activated with the keyfob. Smartly the doors must be in the locked position before the engine can be started. Certainly it’s a worthwhile feature for those cold mornings when entering a warm car is a blessing.

A high seating position, a manual tilt and telescoping steering wheel and power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals make finding the optimum driving position a snap.

Rear seating is spacious. There is adequate leg and hip room for adults. The seats seem supportive and comfortable. The rear seats also fold forward in a 60-40 configuration, a must for families who occasionally have the need to haul a larger item that won’t fit in the back seat or the spacious 15.4-cubic-foot trunk. In addition, the front passenger seat folds flat allowing for the storage of a long item such as an 8-foot ladder.

Like the previous Malibu, the new edition offers a lot of features for the money. The base Malibu, which includes such convenience items as power windows and locks, a compact disc player, air conditioning and automatic transmission, starts at under $19,000. Safety items such an antilock brakes and head curtain side airbags are low-cost options.

The top-of-the-line LT, loaded with standard features, begins at $23,495 including destination charge. Standard features abound including automatic air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels with antilock brakes and traction control, side curtain airbags, heated front seats and power pedals.
Extras on the test car included power sunroof, the OnStar communications system, XM radio and an upgraded stereo with 6-CD changer. That brought the bottom line to $25,750.

The Malibu is definitely a step in the right direction for Chevrolet. It has a lot of good things going for it, but it still seems to lag a bit in the overall refinement that Honda and Toyota have achieved in their products.

Consumer Reports had many good things to say about the Malibu ranking it fifth - the highest ranking of any U.S.-brand sedan - out of 14 mid-sized cars tested over the past 12 months. That’s high praise for a publication that eats, drinks and sleeps Japanese.

It’s an important car for Chevrolet and GM as the world’s biggest automaker seeks to regain some of the considerable share it has lost to the imports. And frankly, Malibu is good enough to help GM gain back some of that passenger car share.