Malibu Maxx SS - Super Sport with room to spare

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Chevrolet has put a bit of performance back into its model mix.

Improved performance is designated by the reemergence of the SS trim level, and there are nine Chevy models with the SS badge for 2006.

The SS or Super Sport performance package was first unveiled in 1961 and earned a place in automobile lore through the ’60s culminating with such beasts as the 1971 Malibu SS with 425 horsepower.

Chevy has stuck this type of old-fashioned V-8 power in some of its 2006 products. The TrailBlazer sport utility SS gets an almost obscene 391 horses from a 6.0-liter V-8. The Impala and Monte Carlo come with SS packages that include a more modest but very entertaining 5.3-liter V-8 generating 303 horsepower. Some products get supercharged V-6 engines and one gets a supercharged 4.

Our test vehicle, the Malibu Maxx SS, comes with a new 3.9-liter V-6 generating 240 horsepower and 241 pound-feet of torque.

We amongst others have been urging General Motors for years to put more horses under the hood to give its customers a choice. For instance, it seemed a no-brainer to put a V-8 engine in the Monte Carlo. Chevrolet and NASCAR are fused at the hip, and GM has issued special edition Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon models. Trouble was, they came with a rather pedestrian V-6 engine that belied their race-inspired exterior. It’s high time the Monte Carlo customer had the opportunity to drive a V-8.

Unfortunately the SS push comes as gas prices skyrocket. That may have some people shaking their heads over GM’s sanity. But planning a new lineup of cars takes many months — if not years — and the General is the victim of bad timing.

Additionally GM’s move is simply keeping up with the competition — keeping up with Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

For example the mid-sized Malibu sedan and our Malibu Maxx test car. The new Malibu’s entered the world in 2004 with very capable 200-horsepower 6-cylinder engines.

But most of the cars the Malibu competes against had larger engine options in 2005 than the Malibu. They include the Honda Accord (244 horsepower), Toyota Camry (210 horsepower), Nissan Altima (260 horsepower), Mazda6 (220 horsepower), Mitsubishi Galant (230 horsepower) and Dodge Magnum (250 horsepower). All of the above have smaller engines, too. But the point is their customers have the opportunity to purchase lusty V-6 performance. And now Chevy customers have the same choice with the Malibu and Malibu Maxx.

Since gas mileage and gas prices are on everyone’s mind these days, a few words about the Maxx’s mileage. The Maxx SS is rated at 18 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway with 87-octane. That means moving up to more performance will result in a small sacrifice at the pumps. The standard 3.5-liter Maxx is rated at 22 and 30.

We would give up a bit of fuel economy for the entertaining performance offered by the new 3.9-liter pushrod V-6 mated to GM’s standard 4-speed automatic transmission. We enjoy performance and we think a small V-8 under the Malibu hood would create excitement worth shouting about. But, in light of gas prices, the 240-horsepower engine seems a good compromise. GM misses a bet by not upgrading the Maxx SS to a five-speed automatic that would enhance performance and gas mileage as well.

The Maxx SS is sprightly from a stop and yields solid punch at highway merging and passing speeds. It nearly equals the performance offered in the Honda and Nissan. We figure between 7 and 7.5 seconds from 0 to 60.

While the engine is just a bit on the course-sounding side of the equation under hard acceleration, the interior is quiet with road and wind noise well muted.

Steering is accurate with the standard hydraulic power steering. Other Malibu trim levels come with GM’s electric steering.

The Maxx is what General Motors calls an “extended sedan.” It’s actually a modern version of the once-popular hatchback or perhaps a station wagon with a slopping, fastback roof. General Motors would prefer those tags not be placed on the Maxx. They are verboten words in the 21st Century lexicon used by auto manufacturers, perhaps conjuring up images of mom-mobiles of the past.

The Maxx is a variation of the Malibu sedan. When it was introduced in 2004, it was the first all-new Malibu since its most-recent inception in 1997. General Motors went back to the drawing board to create the new sedan and wagon, giving them a more European feel and flavor. The Malibu is based on the Epsilon platform shared with the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra.

We found after a couple hundred miles that the Maxx has similar traits to the sedan, but with a practicality that elevates it a notch. You get some of the extra space afforded by a sport utility, but with the drivability and economy of a car.

We applaud General Motors for an idea that, once on the showroom floor, is so obvious we wonder why it hasn’t been done in some of the other popular mid-sized sedans. It is not so much the added space — 22.8 cubic feet behind the seats in the Maxx compared to 15.4 cubic feet in the sedan’s trunk — as the configuration of the space.

Wheel a 32-inch television from your favorite discount store out to a mid-sized sedan and you will find, much to your chagrin, that there’s no way to get it into the trunk, and it won’t fit through the rear door. You will have to retreat to the store and call for help.
With the Maxx, the television will slide neatly into the rear opening. And the 60-40 split rear seats fold forward to create a large amount of useable space.

When not hauling large objects, an adjustable shelf in back creates two-tier storage. It has been endowed with grocery sack hooks and nets. It can also be used for a table at tailgating parties.

Although the Maxx is the same length as the Malibu, the wheelbase has been extended six inches by pushing the rear wheels further back. This gives the Maxx a big advantage when compared to the sedan, creating unmatched rear-seat stretch-out room. To make matters even more alluring, the rear seats can be moved forward and back seven inches. And the seats can be reclined into a comfortable traveling position. Second-row passengers also have a unique fixed sun roof over the seats. Sun shades can be pulled across the glass to keep out the mid-day rays.

The dashboard layout is straight forward, switch gear is intuitive and the stereo controls easy to use. But the small read-out in the stereo is not big enough to impart all the information from the information center and the stereo. For instance, it is not possible to show outside temperature and the XM radio readout at the same time. To make crowded matters even worse, the trip odometer is included with all the other information instead of in the more traditional position on the speedometer.

The interior has good fit and finish and materials are generally first rate. We would have no qualms about showing off our new Maxx to the neighbor who drives an Accord. Pride in ownership can be obtained with the Chevrolet.

The Maxx SS is well priced with a base of $24,690. Included as standard equipment are head curtain airbags, 4-wheel ABS, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, keyless entry with remote vehicle start (allowing the locked vehicle to be started and heated or cooled from inside the house), cloth and leather combination seats, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks and stereo with CD player and six speakers.

The only option on our test car was XM Satellite radio — don’t leave home without it — for $325.

The Maxx — whether you decide on the standard 3.5-liter V-6 or the SS version — is a great alternative when you want a sedan but need the extra space of a hatchback. The Maxx is incredibly practical. And we prefer our practicality with a bit of SS attitude.