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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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