2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Grant Yoxon

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2008 Chevrolet Malibu

Morro Bay, California – Compact cars may be the best sellers in Canada, but it is the mid-size sedan, the staple of families, rental car companies and taxi fleets, that is the most popular type of vehicle in North America. And for the past decade this segment has been owned by Toyota and Honda.

The Camry and Accord have dominated sedan sales, turning back pretenders to the throne one after another, year after year. The Camry became the best selling car in North America in 1997 and has remained at the top with the exception of 2001 when Honda’s Accord (perennially number two) took the title.

1997 was the same year GM resurrected the Malibu nameplate to do battle with the Japanese duo (and the waning Ford Taurus, the king of the previous decade). But that 1997 version failed and the revamped model introduced in 2004 fell flat too. Neither of these Malibus could muster enough interest to be a serious challenger.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT. Click image to enlarge

Being one who described the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu as “resembling a potato,” I’m not prone to throwing around unjustified superlatives. But I have to say, after spending a full day driving the 2008 Malibu 320 kilometres from San Jose to Morro Bay, California, that I was impressed. No, I was more than impressed. I was excited.

This new version of the Malibu doesn’t in any way resemble a potato – no ungainly shape, stubby front and back, no raised headlight ‘eyes’.

No, this Malibu is quite handsome, or pretty, should you think of vehicles as ‘he’ or ‘she’. A longer wheelbase, now a big-for-a-mid-size 2852 mm (112.3 in.), pushes the wheels and tires further into the corners giving it a more stable stance both visually and on the road.

By pushing the rear window further back, the car looks lower than it is, and from the side shows a graceful arch to a short rear deck. The trunk lid is relatively small as a result, supported by struts and hinges that no longer intrude into the luggage space. While the opening is small, the space beneath is not – at 444.6 litres (15.7 cu. ft.).

Nor is the rear head and leg room cramped. More space between the wheels translates into more space for passengers.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT. Click image to enlarge

The grille is representative of what is to come from Chevrolet – a design that will find its way on to most everything that carries the Chevrolet brand in the world. It doesn’t impress as much in photos as it does looking at it in the rear view mirror. It is a substantial and recognizable face. The tail lights are reminiscent of those found on the Corvette or an older Impala, another distinctive Chevy symbol, but the dual round lenses are subtle and contained within a larger taillight bezel. Look closely, you’ll find tiny Chevy bow ties at the centre of each.

When it goes on sale, which is now, the 2008 Malibu will start with a price of $22,995 for the Malibu LS, $24,895 for the 1LT package, $25,995 for the 2LT and $33,610 for the LTZ model. A hybrid version is also available with a starting price of $26,995, a few hundred dollars less than the Saturn Aura Green Line hybrid, and thousands of dollars less than the Camry and Altima hybrids.

Do a little comparison shopping and you might think that the Malibu must give up something, maybe a lot, to come in at prices like this (compared to the manufacturer’s suggested retail prices of its competitors – and remember, dealers will sell for less); but start tallying up the list of standard equipment and you soon come to realize that a Malibu may be a very good deal.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT. Click image to enlarge

Take for example the base LS model: 16-inch “sterling silver” painted wheels, air conditioning, driver information centre, courtesy, reading and accent lights, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, power driver’s seat height adjuster, manual lumbar adjuster, a six-speaker audio system with auxiliary input jack, traction control as well as power door locks and windows, remote access and cruise control – all standard.

Step up to the 1LT package and the Malibu gets 17-inch chrome finish wheels, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, an improved audio system and chrome exhaust tip. The 2LT package adds 17-inch ultra-bright aluminum wheels, power adjustable pedals, remote start, rear reading lights, auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass, leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter, illuminated vanity mirrors and heated front bucket seats, six way power adjustable on the driver’s side, with UltraLux Sheer Suede seating.

LTZ models also get fog lights, “sterling silver” painted mesh in the grille, auto-dimming driver’s side mirror, LED taillights, 18-inch inch ultra-bright aluminum wheels, automatic climate control, premium instrument cluster, six-disc CD changer and eight-speaker 210-watt enhanced sound system, two-tone leather seating and eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat and six-way power passenger seat.

Most safety features are pretty much standard too: dual-stage front air bags, front seat-mounted thorax air bags, front and rear head curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, tire pressure monitoring system (that displays the air pressure in each tire) and one year OnStar subscription with safe & sound package and turn-by-turn navigation. Electronic stability control is standard on LT and LTZ models.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid (top) and 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ. Click image to enlarge

So where are the compromises? None that I could find. The quality of interior materials is excellent. The dash is covered in soft to touch plastics. The instrument panel features a Chevrolet-signature dual-cockpit design, with prominent gauges, back lit in blue. Accents are wood and metallic.

Thoughtful touches are everywhere. The latch unlocking the dash top storage box could have been plastic, but instead it is chrome coated (as are door handles). Inside, the box is lined with a rubberized material to prevent contents from rattling around, as is the coin box left of the steering wheel. The centre console has a two level storage compartment beneath the armrest, a dual cup holder that is hidden from view by a sliding door and storage compartment divider to keep things in place.

There are several interiors to choose from including three two-tone leather combinations standard on LTZ and one very nice all-black interior, standard on the 2LT package, features ultra suede-trimmed seats. The all-black cabin combines wood and chrome trim, while the two-tone leather is combined with either wood or black chrome trim.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT (top) and 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Cloth seats are available in both black on black and parchment on black. These are very attractive interiors, with durable feeling materials, that look good both day and night, when the back lit gauges and ambient lighting in the overhead console and door-pull pockets glow.

The interior environment is not only nice to look at, it is exceedingly quiet, thanks to spray-on sound deadener, laminated steel and glass and composite wheel liners. Testing by GM showed interior sound levels better than many luxury cars.

And the cabin stays quiet no matter which engine is under the hood. The base engine is a 16-valve, dual overhead cam 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that produces 169 horsepower and 160 lb.-ft. of torque. Optional is a 3.6-litre V6 engine, also with four valves per cylinder and dual overhead cams. This engine is rated at 252 hp and 251 lb.-ft. of torque.

The 2.4-litre will be offered with all trim levels, which is welcome. Typically up-level equipment packages are combined with a larger, usually six-cylinder engine.

For now all four-cylinder models are backed by a four-speed automatic transmission, but in the early Spring, LTZ models will get a new six-speed automatic transmission – the only four-cylinder/six-speed automatic combination in a mid-size sedan. Six-cylinder models also use a six-speed transmission.

Naturally, the six-cylinder provides the power punch an enthusiast would look for, but don’t disregard the four. This engine had plenty of pep to run up the steep hills and switchbacks of California’s coastal highway, so you will never be embarrassed merging into freeway traffic. Its lighter weight also results in a better front to rear weight ratio and, in my opinion, a better handling car. The Malibu is super-stiff and, with its long wheelbase, well balanced.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
2008 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Steering in the four-cylinder and hybrid models is electric. It is one of the best examples of this new technology that I’ve driven, with a good weight and decent on-centre feel. It was not twitchy, like I’ve experienced with some smaller cars, only wandered off centre gradually and did not feel significantly different from the six-cylinder model’s traditional hydraulic steering.

Considering the fuel saving, the four-cylinder Malibu is well worth a look. Cost is lower and fuel savings are significant – 9.6 L /100 km city and 6.5 L/100 km highway, compared to 12.2 and 7.8 for the V6 – and you don’t have to give up creature comforts to drive a four.

But if you really want to save fuel, the hybrid is the Malibu for you. GM’s hybrid system uses an electric motor to assist the same 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine during acceleration, but the primary role of the motor is to generate power to recharge its batteries and maintain accessory power during engine shut-off whenever the vehicle comes to a stop.

The car won’t run on electric power, as a Toyota hybrid vehicle will, but it will save about 10% in fuel and gives the Malibu Hybrid better acceleration than a normal four-cylinder Malibu. It uses three 12-volt storage cells that are mounted in the trunk directly behind the rear seats. They’re close to the floor, so the Malibu’s 60/40 rear-folding seats aren’t affected.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT
2008 Chevrolet Malibu LT. Click image to enlarge

After 10 years of mis-steps, here is a Malibu that can not only compete, but based on the quality of its construction, standard and optional equipment, and price, maybe even rise to the top of the North American sales charts.

I can remember a time, back in the early 70s, when a Malibu in the driveway was as common as door-to-door mail delivery. The Malibu won’t bring back mail delivery, but it might well become a common sight.

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