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Second Opinion: ’08 Chevy Malibu

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As long as I've written about cars and the auto industry (about a dozen years), GM has been on the verge of a comeback in the compact- to mid-size sedan segment. Quite a few different, highly heralded models have come out during this time, that I like to call “comeback kids” — the Oldsmobile Intrigue, Chevrolet Impala, Saturn L-Series, Pontiac G6, and most recently, the Saturn Aura are the ones that most readily come to mind. These are all models that, when new, were surrounded by marketing halos, critical acclaim, and lots of general hoopla at the local dealership. But by the time I found my way into these vehicles for a test drive, I have to admit that (except for the Intrigue) I ended up feeling a little underwhelmed. And a year or so later, the buzz is gone and everyone’s back to bowing to the import stalwarts. It has to breed some cynicism whether you're in Detroit, Manhattan, or Orange County.

The last Malibu, introduced for the 2004 model year, was the first one built on GM’s premium Epsilon architecture, shared with cars like the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra (and later the G6 and Aura), and it was a big improvement over the model that preceded it, especially in terms of ride, handling, and solidity. But that model was still a bit behind in refinement, its interior appointments were dull compared with the competition, and its styling was the odd one out in my opinion, in a very undesirable way (except for the distinctive shape of the now-discontinued Maxx model, which had lots of untapped potential but was effectively killed by poor marketing).

I just spent a week a new Malibu LTZ, the top-of-the-line model in the range, mine with a sticker price around $28k. That seemed expensive at first glance, but it does come with just about every option and accessory that entry-level luxury models might have — such as automatic climate control, heated power front seats, leather upholstery, a remote starter system, power heated outside mirrors, and power-adjustable pedals. Ours was even optioned with a 110-volt rear power outlet and retractable rear sunshade.

Most notably, though, the LTZ comes with a 3.6-liter DOHC (!) V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, with paddle shifters aside the steering wheel. A four-cylinder model that may better fit your car and fuel budgets is available starting at $19,995. Gone is the coarse and outdated (but surprisingly economical) pushrod V-6 and four-speed automatic, long a mainstay in GM’s front-drivers.

The Malibu’s new appearance as a complete turnaround from the last-gen model, thankfully. Its styling in back is especially attractive, building more on the Impala’s styling details than the model that preceded it. But I didn’t expect such a revolution inside — I was completely wowed by the interior, which has gone from the back of the pack to one of the best. For the first time, all the trim seems to match, all the materials feel of high quality, and the swoopy, wrap-around, ‘split-cockpit’ design of the instrument panel in particular lends a very premium feel. GM has almost always done switchgear well, but it all fits together here in a cohesive package.

Seating space is surprisingly roomy in back as well as in the driver’s seat, with plenty of headroom. And GM fixed the power seats that we complained about in previous generations — tall folks can now tilt the lower cushions back for good thigh support without driving in a reclined, arms-outstretched position.

The Malibu’s V-6 makes 252 horsepower and 251 lb-ft — that’s slightly less power but slightly more torque than the rival Accord and Camry V-6s, but all three are now comparable. The different real-world feel of the Malibu really comes down to transmission behavior; the new six-speed auto has been programmed to almost lug the engine (to help save fuel) at cruising speeds, sometimes under 1500 rpm, but the engine is so flexible that it stays very smooth. There’s a little bit of tranny hesitation if you press down on the throttle at anything but to the floor, but when you really ask for it the transmission finds the right cog and a rush of high-rev power is delivered.

Powertrain refinement is impressive, as we’ve come to expect from this engine, but the sound levels in the cabin are what’s downright astonishing. Thanks to an acoustic windshield and a host of other improvements, the Malibu feels hushed and vaultlike, more like an expensive German sedan, at a steady 75-mph cruise, with no wind or road noise. The steering keeps a good center on the highway, and although the suspension is a little on the firm side compared with some of the competition, the lack of vocalization of coarse surfaces makes a difference.

The feeling of isolation and heft (it’s a bit heavier than the competition) that makes the Malibu so enjoyable on the highway doesn’t go away on tight city streets or curvy lanes, where you want a little more ‘tossability,’ and that’s our only real complaint, other than severely restricted rearward vision when parking.

Patriots might also enjoy hearing that the Malibu is an American thoroughbred. The engine and transmission originate in the U.S., it’s assembled in Kansas, and our window sticker indicated 85 percent U.S./Canadian content.

I’m thrilled to not be underwhelmed this time. The days of Chevy being a full step behind the import brands (at least with mid-size sedans) are over, and buzz aside, the Malibu is looking like a real comeback kid.
 
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Comments (22)
  1. I don't like the 2008 malibu.The rear end is ugly..the tail lights too plain and has no trim across the trunk...which makes it look better.They made the car LARGER...(hellooooo)...gas prices getting soooo high and they make the car larger????I don't care for the two tone interior.I have a 2005 malibu and was thinking of trading,but now I will look at a toyota or saturn.My 2005 3.5 gets better gas milage then the 2008 3.8...they are going the wrong way.No wonder GM is getting in trouble.......
     
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  2. I would like to add that the old V6 pushrod was not only "suprisingly economical" but also bulletproof. I bought a new 99 Intrigue and 186,000 miles later (and stretching the oil changes to 7500+ miles) that engine was still going strong when I sold it to a buddy. My grandfather also swore by the 3800 Series II engine for the 2 decades that he used them. I averaged 29.5 mpg on road trips loaded down with extra passengers and gear. That engine will be missed.
     
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  3. Do like the looks, I think they are missing the boat on gas mileage though. Is talk about a six speed auto in the 4cyl, but can't understand why they didn't bring it out at the beginning of the year. Gm has been all talk for several years now, could this be the start of something new? Will wait and see what they produce in the next year or so, am betting they are still stalling on their electrics and hybrids.....
     
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  4. Two comments: Linda, as LEDs are phased in, the current trend is away from huge lighting fixtures and toward smaller, more precise-looking ones -- so we'll see more sheetmetal in back. If it's well sculpted, such as here, that's just fine. To me the plasticky chrome bars that have haunted scores of affordable sedans this decade are low-rent mimickry of a few luxury models that pulled it off tastefully.

    And Tom, I'm entirely with you on the 3800 (the 90-degree family). Nothing but good words. The old 60-degree family on the Malibu (the 3.1-liter and later the 3.5-liter) and other GM cars had been getting better but it always felt behind the curve in refinement. The fuel economy they have to work on with the new V-6, but there's the four and also a new Hybrid model that I hadn't mentioned above.
     
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  5. That pushrod 3800 did well Down Under, too - it was a staple of GM Australia's rear-drive Holden Commodore line till replaced in 2006 by the current-gen 'World' V6 (3.6). There were a few issues with the early 88-89 (US-made, locally asembled) motors made in Melbourne but, after the major rework around 90-91, these engines were known for long life and easy fixing.
     
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  6. The new Malibu is a huge step for GM. Styling wise just park it next to a '04-'08 Acura TL to see the similarity in size and looks. Only when it's heavily dicounted will it be competitive against the Accord/Camry. Question is how will it hold up after 5 years and what about resale.
     
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  7. Scott, the new Malibu is ALREADY more than competitive with the Toyondas out there. One reviewer wrote that he felt like he was stealing, the car was such a good value. And the Malibu BEAT the new Honda Accord to win the North American Car of the Year Award. The voters were the N. American automotive press, so it's not like they were people who don't know cars.

    Linda, if you don't like the looks, that's certainly your prerogative. You said you'd look at Toyota and Saturn. The Saturn Aura beat the Toyota Camry in 07 for the same award mentioned above. And you'd be helping Americans, rather than Japanese, if you buy the Aura.

    Larry, GM is hardly stalling on hybrids or electrics. GM has sold hybrids for many years now, though they get no credit for it. They are hybrid BUSES for large cities, which is a much more appropriate application for hybrids than a tiny commuter car. And the Chevy Tahoe hybrid just won the Green Car of the Year Award in LA because it gets the same city mileage as a 4-cyl Camry. GM has numerous additional hybrids coming out over the next couple years, and the Chevy Volt which is in production engineering right now is the most significant game-changer in the entire industry.

    Like I said, not exactly stalling on hybrids or electrics.
     
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  8. The exterior styling is excellent, but so are some of the numbers of the Malibu.

    Few have noticed that its wheelbase is far longer than previous cars of this type, at 112", almost E-class and 5-series territory, which not only allows for more interior room, but also for a far better HIGHWAY ride on cruise control.

    But I disagree that it is a "huge" step of any kind. The design is evolutionary; the car is almost identical (mechanically) to the G6, and then the Saturn Aura (or G6 2.0!) and then the Malibu (or G6 3.0!)
     
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  9. I drove the Saturn with the 3.6.V6 last fall and was blown away by the refinement and overall quality. The Malibu is essentially the same car, and it way outselling the Saturn. Is it the styling or the negative aura (sorry, couldn't resist that one) of the Saturn brand for people who like cars?

    I had the 3.8 in an Olds 88 and now have the 3.5 "Shortstar" in my 2000 Intrigue. The newer motor is infinitely superior in all respects, and doesn't run out of breath at 4500 rpm. It is approaching 150K miles.
     
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  10. Now, I would consider an all wheel drive version of this. Chevy must think this way to compete in that segment. At least to get customers like me.
     
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  11. I rented a 4 cyl Malibu a couple of weeks ago. I only put about 30 miles on the car so I didn't get a lot of seat time - but what I got I liked. 0-60 aside it worked very nicely for me. The ride was nice and firm yet isolated. It was much quieter than my wifes 07 Odyssey EX-L. And the interior materials were as nice or nicer (not including the leather since the Malibu didn't have any - although what it did have was very nice too). My only two gripes were 1) there was no obvious way to access/reset the trip odometer (I don't think I should have to open the manual to get that info), and 2) The driver's window switch has an auto down function but no auto up. The other window switches had no auto functions - my 95 maxima has auto down and no auto up - 13 years and no improvement?

    Anyway - in short - I liked it. If I were in the market for a mid size sedan with an automatic I would be comparing it with a new Accord (Toyota lost me a few years ago in terms of interior and exterior styling)
     
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  12. Looks a very good product as GM gear usually is.Need to embrace the Diesel to get the economy and the new generation ones are smooth and powerful. US take note from Europe where GM have some good Diesels.
     
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  13. Where I live diesel fuel is at least 30 cents per gallon higher than gasoline. As long as thats the case, I don't see much market for diesel vehicles.
     
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  14. The Malibu is a winner, sure enough. But anyone who could be "underwhelmed" by an '06 or later Impala SS with its exquisite small block V-8 has serious problems.
     
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  15. Maffy wants an AWD version to compete in the segment. Can anyone tell me which cars in this segment have AWD? I can think of no sales leaders (or sales losers, actually) in this segment which offer AWD.
     
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  16. Try thinking of Subaru Legacy.
     
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  17. Scott Granacher writes............."Only when it’s heavily dicounted will it be competitive against the Accord/Camry." I would appreciate your better defining this statement if you could, please, so I can better understand just what you mean.

    I priced all three top line models, similarly optioned, on both Kelly Blue Book and manufacturers websites, to find out for myself just how comparable (pricewise) these three models are. My findings:

    Malibu LTZ - KBB $28,790 - MFG $29,090
    Camry XLE - KBB $29,780 - MFG $29,879
    Accord EX-L - KBB $28,695 - MFG $29,415
     
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  18. Randall;
    Thank you for your research, and your level head. It seems to me that the new Malibu is a vehicle that is extremely compeditive with Accords and Camry in pricing. As for features and value, my research tells me that the Malibu is a clear cut leader. Start with OnStar; 5 yr./100k powertrain warranty, with courtesy transportation & roadside assistance; satellite radio;112 inch wheelbase; and power adjustable pedals (LTZ).

    As far as styling...; Chevrolet really needs to get someone in the styling department to come up with some colors that have life to them. Colors that don't blend into the background.
     
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  19. I loved the completely new Malibu and anticipated it "actually" competing and genuinely persuading others in it's segment to realize that Chevrolet has FINALLY answered the global stomping by the serious players with OUR version of what everyone would be proud to own and drive. The pictures on the billboards alone were enough to snag us sleepers who are moved by actual art in architecture... What a wonderful feeling for a change for the American industry to finally take the gloves off and do this thing right I thought to my self.

    When I finally saw the car on the highway I was most impressed and anticipated it's approach in the rearview mirror as it overtook me with it's fluid confidence and authority. I actually yelled out "Right On" in my uncontrolled enthusiasm.

    THEN...the rear of the car passed and my dream sequence- like a jet fighter's tail hook, snagged the arresting cable of reality, and instantly transferred a shocking astonishment through my mind that said, "there's no way in the world ANYONE at Chevrolet would let them put that hideously ugly taillight/back end on this beautiful car. Well some total idiot...no doubt some left brained corporate jackass with NO BUSINESS being able to make those kinds of decisions did. Whomever this person or group is should all be fired.

    At the most critical time in the American automotive industry someone or group had what it takes to create and bring to reality everyone on this team's concept of a world beater, and did, until they got to the red zone. They then chickened out, (or sabotaged, in my opinion) the entire project calling for a field goal which was kicked into the goalpost flailing off for no points and thus loosing the game.

    Redesigned the tail end...the tail lights especially, to look as beautiful and arresting as the front end and you will have your world market car. The old concept of improving and refining in the following years is over. In these days of instant communication, you have to build a benchmark stunner and simply tweak it. You may not get a second chance.

    Don't get me wrong, I like this car...but right now my old Honda looks good from every angle all the time. I know what I am talking about...I grew up in Detroit and quit buying American cars when they quit designing and engineering them. My budget simply forced me to purchase a better looking , and better engineered car that gets excellent mileage...five more miles a gallon than the American cars.
     
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  20. Dan is completely right. If you look at standard features, the Malibu is clearly a better value than Camry and Accord. Some of the features that Malibu has as standard cost extra on the other cars. Also, gas mileage is almost identical. Styling is subjective but personally, I don't care much for the side view of an Accord - looks like a mini dust buster to me. Interior wise - The Accord matches up to the Malibu but the Camry is bland, dull, and has no personality. Overall, I feel the Malibu has more going for it. It has a "classy" yet sporty look, without being overdone.
     
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  21. 2 Words why Toyota and Honda Kill GM -
    RESALE VALUE !
     
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  22. I was to understand that the 2008 Aura/Malibu is the Opel Vectra platform. GM was to bring over the Opel Insignia as the new 2009 Aura. Would the Malibu also benefit from this? There was to be a turbocharged 4 as well as several diesel engines available.
     
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