Saturday, February 28, 2004

Malibu leads GM's car push

Midsize sedan offers abundant luxury and value

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Chevy Malibu

Malibu's European flavor can be found in its stiff Epsilon body structure.
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Chevy's midsize sedan finally ready for Prime Time

What I drove: 2004 Chevrolet Malibu, four-door, five-passenger sedan w/four-cylinder engine

Base price: $18,370

Price as tested: $20,775

Options on test vehicle: Preferred Equipment Group: cruise control, remote keyless entry, driver seat manual lumbar, power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, seatback map pockets, cargo net, AM/FM CD player with six speakers, floor mats; antilock brakes, head curtain airbags, remote vehicle start system.

Rating: mmmm

Summary: Chevy's midsize sedan finally ready for Prime Time

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive

Engines: 2.2-liter in-line 4-cylinder producing 145 hp and 155 lb-ft torque, or 3.5-liter V6 producing 200 hp and 220 lb-ft torque

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 106.3 in.

Length: 188.3 in.

Width: 69.9 in.

Height: 57.5 in.

Weight: 3,174 - 3,315 lb.

EPA mpg, city/hwy: 24/34

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; drivetrain: 3 years/36,000 miles; roadside assist: 3 years/36,000 miles

Assembled in: Kansas City, Kan.

Safety: Dual-stage front airbags, three-point safety belts in all seating positions, safety belt pretensioners in front seats, LATCH child seat anchors, antilock brakes, traction control. Optional head curtain airbags front and rear

Cool: Remote starter, roomy trunk, fold-flat passenger seat and rear seats, fuel economy, affordable price

Uncool: No manual transmission offered, engine less powerful than competitive models

Accolades: Named "Best Family Sedan" in MotorWeek's 2004 Drivers' Choice Awards; rated as "very good" in Consumer Reports' family sedan review.

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Car Talk
Mention Toyota, and we think of a Camry. Say Honda, and we visualize an Accord. But mention Chevrolet, and we don't see a midsize sedan. What a lot of people see is a truck. That's not surprising, since for the past decade, Chevy's emphasis has been on - and the majority of its sales volume has come from - trucks.

But the times, they may be a-changing. At this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors officials deemed 2004 "The Year of the Car," and announced that no fewer than 12 new GM car models would debut during the '04 and '05 model years.

No vehicle better exemplifies GM's new "car-centric" attitude than the all-new 2004 Chevy Malibu.

The outgoing version of the Malibu, which debuted in 1997, was a value-packed midsize sedan that cost thousands less than its import rivals. Despite its attributes of roominess and feature-laden value, the Malibu proved more popular with Hertz and Avis than it did with regular consumers, who flocked to import sedans like the Camry, Accord and VW Passat.

In an effort to woo buyers away from the imports, Chevy designers went back to the drawing board. They gave the 2004 Malibu a brand-new platform, an edgier exterior, and offered it with a new V6 powerplant.

The result is a solid player in the midsize car wars - a sedan with refined ride and handling and European character.

New platform

The key to the Malibu's European flavor can be found in its stiff Epsilon body structure, which also underpins the new Saab 9-3 and the Opel Vectra. GM developed much of the Epsilon platform with its Opel subsidiary in Germany.

"A lot of customers may not care that we call this the 'Epsilon architecture,' but if they have driven a previous version of the Malibu, they will immediately notice a firmer, quieter, more linear feel in the ride and handling of the '04 version," said Gene Stefanyshyn, vehicle line executive of the Malibu sedan and Malibu Maxx (the Malibu's wagon stablemate).

Driving the new Malibu won't set your heart aflutter, but then it won't scare you on twisty mountain roads, either. The new Malibu feels confident and light on its feet; it's more enthusiastic than a Camry and a little less entertaining than an Accord. The steering feel is communicative, the four-cylinder engine provides decent power, and the brakes work great.

At highway speeds, road and wind noise are well muted.

Good fuel economy

Two engines are offered: a 145-horsepower, 2.2-liter in-line four-cylinder engine, or a 200-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6, which produces a healthy 220 pound-feet of torque. Both engines come mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. A manual transmission isn't offered.

When it comes to gas mileage, the Malibu is at the head of its class. Four-cylinder models get 24 miles per gallon in the city, and 34 miles per gallon on the highway. V6-equipped models get 22 mpg in town and 30 mpg on the open road.

When I first glanced at the $20,000 price of my base Malibu tester, I suffered a bout of sticker shock. But it was reverse sticker shock, because the "base" Malibu is so chock full of features, I couldn't believe its low price.

Which brings me to the Malibu's three trim levels: base, LS and LT. Base models ($18,995) get the four-cylinder engine; cloth seats; air conditioning; a CD player; a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel; a driver information center; a power height-adjustable driver's seat; power windows, mirrors and door locks; and a 60/40-splt rear seat. LS models ($20,995) get the V6 engine, aluminum wheels, power-adjustable pedals, keyless entry, higher-quality cloth seats, antilock brakes and traction control. The LT ($23,495) adds heated leather seats, a "remote vehicle starter," automatic climate control, 16-inch aluminum wheels and fog lights.

Remote vehicle starter

One feature people in hot or cold climes will appreciate is the "remote vehicle starter system," which enables you to start the engine from up to 200 feet away. Simply press a couple of buttons on the key fob, and the engine rumbles to life, buying you a few extra minutes to grab a last-minute muffin or slug of coffee before heading to work. You can also use the remote starter to convince people there's a ghost living in your car.

Interior abundance

The interior has been vastly improved over the previous Malibu, with more space (101 cubic feet), better fit-and-finish, and higher-quality materials. The plastic on the dash, door panels and center console is soft to the touch, and the buttons and switches are easy to use, if not quite up to the quality of a VW Passat's.

The Malibu is the first midsize sedan to offer both adjustable pedals and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, which, when combined with the adjustable driver's seat, make it easy to find a comfortable driving position. The rear seats are roomy, but the rear backrests proved too upright to promote somnolence in my rambunctious daughter.

The trunk has a generous 15.4 cubic feet of space, which can be expanded when the front passenger seat and rear seats are folded flat.

Solid in performance, heavy on standard features, and light on fuel usage and price, the Malibu is a great value and, finally, a serious player in its segment. But even more importantly, the Malibu represents GM's re-emergence as a serious maker of cars, not just trucks.


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