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Review and photos by Paul Williams
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A recent General Motors contest called “The Long and Short of it,” awarded a 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx to “a driving twosome” with the greatest height differential. The winners measured 198 centimetres (6′ 6″) and 131.5 cm (4′ 4″).
The idea was to show how the Malibu Maxx comfortably accommodates all sizes of drivers.
Now, I’m not convinced that a 4′ 4″ person will be properly accommodated behind the wheel of any standard automobile, but after driving a Malibu Maxx, I’d agree that if you can’t find a comfortable and safe driving position in this vehicle, it’s unlikely that anything else on the market will be significantly better.
Our top-of-the-line $33,025 (plus $1,200 freight), 2006 Malibu Maxx SS tester, for example, came standard with adjustable pedals, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, six-way power seat adjustment, a power seat height adjuster and a manual, two-way lumbar adjuster.
Getting settled behind the wheel of a Malibu Maxx, therefore, should not be an issue for most drivers.
To backtrack a little, the Chevrolet Malibu is a conventional front-wheel drive, midsized sedan from GM that competes with vehicles like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion.
The “Maxx” version of the Malibu is something else again. It’s an “extended sedan,” with a 152-millimetre increase in wheelbase and a rear hatch that gives it the look of a sport wagon, rather than a traditional station wagon (GM says it provides versatility, without necessitating the purchase of a minivan or SUV).
And the “SS” package adds horsepower, bigger wheels and performance features that, along with some other Chevrolet models, revive that brand’s classic “Super Sports” designation.
There are actually eight Malibu trim levels (see the Autos Buyer’s Guide for full details), combining the two body styles and three engines. The base LS sedan, and uprated LT sedan are powered with a 2.2-litre, four cylinder engine making 144 hp. The LT sedan can also be purchased with an optional 3.5-litre V6 engine that produces 201 hp, while the same engine is standard on the LT Maxx and LTZ sedan/Maxx. The SS sedan/Maxx arrives with a 3.9-litre V6 engine that generates 240 hp @ 5,900 rpm and 241 lb.-ft. torque at 2,800 rpm.
The SS engine is a more powerful version of the 3.5-litre V6, and although it features variable valve timing, this is a comparatively old pushrod design with an iron block and two valves per cylinder. Fuel economy is Energuide rated at 13.1/8.6 L/100 km, city/highway, using regular gasoline (a considerable increase over the 3.5-litre engine’s 10.6/6.8 numbers).
A four-speed automatic transmission with a “Sports” manual override (“tap up/tap down”) operates by gripping the shifter and using your thumb to change gears via a rocker switch (no paddle shifters, should you prefer those). Or you can just put it in “Drive.”
So you may be thinking that compared with other vehicles in its class, the lack of an all-aluminum, dual-overhead camshaft engine and five-speed automatic transmission would under-perform. It’s true that fuel economy is not the SS forte, but power is substantial, with lots of torque to work with at lower engine speeds.
Furthermore, the Malibu Maxx SS handles well. Its foundation is GM’s Epsilon platform, which also forms the basis for the sporty Saab 9-3 and Europe’s Opel Vectra.
The Malibu Maxx SS is equipped with 18″ wheels on P225/50R18 all season tires (optional summer performance tires of the same size can be selected) and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. A four-link rear suspension combines with a MacPherson strut front suspension to provide agile handling through the SS’s hydraulic power assisted steering (other Malibu models use electric power assist).
The SS interior features a combination of cloth seating inserts with leather-covered side bolsters, and a specially trimmed instrument cluster. The three-spoke steering wheel with aluminum accents is sporty and substantial, and aluminum trim brightens the doors and dashboard. Unlike some other models that seem to hide their identity, the word “Malibu” is prominently located above the centre stack, and “SS” is in the middle of the steering wheel.
Seating, as we’ve already pointed out, is impressively adjustable. This includes the rear seats that slide fore and aft, and can be adjusted for rake. Rear seat passengers are also treated to fixed rear skylights with retractable sunshades (a power, sliding sunroof over the front seat is an optional addition to these).
The rear hatch unlocks electrically, but can be an awkward lift. There’s nothing to rest packages on (okay, you have to put them down�), and even if you balance your groceries on the edge of the rear bumper, the travel of the hatch pushes them off as you open it. Once opened, the low floor makes loading easy, however, and a height adjustable, rigid platform provides a useful two layers of storage or acts as a screen to hide cargo.
With the rear seat folded, a large cargo area easily holds long and bulky items, but the angle of the hatch can get in the way if you’re transporting a large, square box (a TV set, maybe). As an aside, it’s interesting how GM has eliminated the hatch from its Saab models, only to see another iteration of this body style appear on the Malibu.
The Malibu SS arrives with a competitive range of safety equipment, including front-to-rear side curtain airbags and front seat-mounted side impact air bags. Traction control (electronic, all-speed) is standard, and our car came with the optional ($995) OnStar vehicle communications service (oddly, this is standard on the LTZ model, below the SS). A remote starter is a distinctive Malibu feature on all but the base LS sedan.
On the road, the Malibu is quiet at speed, and provides a nice, sporty sound when accelerating. The car feels solid throughout; the doors close with a reassuring thunk and all components appear substantially constructed. Parking lot manoeuvres and u-turns require extra attention due to the Malibu Maxx’s wide turning circle. Highway driving is comfortable and stable, with the powerful engine making short work of passing opportunities (although sometimes it takes a while for the gear to “kick down” when asked).
While this may just be a matter of taste, the driver’s seat feels a bit dead when you drop into it — the seat doesn’t rebound or absorb � it’s more like a futon than a mattress, if you’ll permit the analogy.
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And while heated seats are standard on the LTZ models, they’re not available on the SS. Too bad.
The gauges are big and easy to read, but the knobs and switches on the centre stack are numerous and similar. They’re neatly arranged, but quickly finding the right one can be challenging.
In winter, the integrated front windshield wiper/washer system may be a problem (the washer nozzles are located in the wiper assembly), but it was comparatively warm when we tested the Malibu Maxx SS, and the system was very effective in those conditions.
The rear glass, however, gets covered in road salt and spray with monotonous frequency. The switch for the rear wiper/washer (which you’re going to use a lot) is a reach, being inconveniently located at the base of the centre stack, in front of the shifter.
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In slippery conditions, the traction control system did a good job helping the car through deep snow and mud. It’s not the full StabiliTrack system, as GM calls its electronic stability control technology, but it kept the car straight when others were sliding around and was regularly appreciated during our test. The firm suspension typically provided a smooth, surefooted ride, but was occasionally flustered on broken pavement.
The Malibu Maxx’s chunky exterior design suits the big wheels, the special bodyside mouldings, dual exhaust tips and the smart rear spoiler that are part of the SS package. But while the overall look is distinctive, it is also somewhat dated. This was a general feeling I had about the car; that it just didn’t seem very modern compared with its Asian competition.
However, on this model, dark blue metallic paint is particularly striking, and our tester attracted quite a bit of attention and curiosity. Ultimately, the jury was out on the Malibu Maxx rear design. It’s not for everybody, but then that’s the point of a niche vehicle like this, right?
Technical Data: 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS
|Options||$1,430 (AM/FM Stereo with in-dash CD changer, $435; OnStar service, $995)|
|Price as tested||$34,225 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger “extended” sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine, front-wheel drive|
|Engine||3.9 litre V6, OHV, variable valve timing|
|Horsepower||240 @ 5,900|
|Torque||241 @ 2,800|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic with Driver Manual Shift Control|
|Curb weight||1,642 kg (3,620 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2,852 mm (112.3 in.)|
|Length||4,770 mm (187.8 in.)|
|Width||1,773 (69.8 in.)|
|Height||1,476 mm (58.1 in.)|
|Interior volume||2,993 litres (105.7 cu. ft.)|
|Cargo capacity||646 litres (22.8 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 13.1 L/100 km (21 mpg Imperial)|
|Hwy: 8.6 L/100 km (33 mpg Imperial)|
|Warranty||3-year/60,000 km complete vehicle and roadside assistance|