First Drive: 2004 Chevrolet Malibu *ATTN: TriShield* http://www.canadiandriver.com/testdrives/04malibu.htm First Drive: 2004 Chevrolet Malibu Story and photos by Greg Wilson Chevrolet, which once dominated the North American family sedan market, has been struggling for years to regain its former glory, but in the face of formidable competition, mostly from imports, that goal has seemed elusive. Think 'bread-and-butter family sedan' today, and the names Accord, Camry, Altima, and Taurus spring to mind - not "Malibu". That's not to say the current Malibu isn't a good car. It won J.D. Power and Associates best-in-class Initial Quality Awards for the last two years, and is a Consumer Reports "Recommended Buy". But when you're up against the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, "good" just isn't good enough... The all-new 2004 Malibu sedan, and the upcoming Malibu Maxx wagon/hatchack model, are an attempt to bring the North American family sedan buyer back to a domestic nameplate. Ironically, the 2004 Malibu is based on the German-designed Epsilon platform which now anchors the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. The Malibu is, however, built in Kansas City, Kansas. Compared to the 2003 Malibu sedan, the 2004 edition is 53 mm (2.0 in.) shorter, 12 mm (0.5 in.) wider and 17 mm (0.7 in.) higher, with a wheelbase that's slightly shorter. The new Malibu's interior volume is larger by 18% (from 98.6 cu. ft. to 116.8 cu. ft.), but some of that extra cabin room came at the expense of the trunk which is now 12% smaller (from 17.3 cu. ft. to 15.4 cu. ft.). Styling isn't exactly awe-inspiring. Apart from the arced body creases over the fenders, the design is fairly staid. This is not necessarily a bad thing in the family sedan market. Ford tried radical styling with the 1996 Taurus, and eventually ended up restyling it to look more conservative. Family buyers are looking for a practical, reliable, affordable car, and the new Malibu delivers on at least two of those requirements so far. Whereas the 2003 Malibu is offered with only one engine, a 170 horsepower 3.1 litre V6, the new Malibu is offered with a base 145 horsepower 2.2 litre "Ecotec" 4 cylinder engine and an optional 200 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 - both with a standard 4 speed automatic transmission. I drove the V6 model, and cannot comment directly on the new 4 cylinder car, except to say that the current Malibu used to be offered with a four cylinder engine but it was dropped due to lack of demand. The Ecotec engine is a smooth, capable engine, but I doubt it will have the power buyers are looking for in a mid-sized sedan. But I'll have to wait until I drive it to make a true determination. The new V6 engine, on the other hand, has lots...LOTS of power. This new 3.5 litre overhead valve V6 engine with two valves per cylinder is based on the GM 3.4 litre engine which is now used in their minivans. Although some critics deride OHV engines as outdated when compared to modern overhead cam 4-valve-per-cylinder engines, GM has stuck with their OHV powerplants and is doing just fine. The reason is torque and smoothness. This new 3.5 litre V6 is very responsive from a dead stop, around town, and at freeway speeds. Floor it, and the car lurches forwards in a surprising display of forward motion. Torque steer is minimal, thank goodness. Its maximum torque of 220 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm compares to the Accord's 211 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm, the Camry's 209 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm, and the Taurus' 200 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm. And who cares if it won't rev to 7000 rpm? That's not the point, is it? A brief check of intial fuel economy specs reveals the V6 is only slightly thirstier than the four cylinder engine - a fact attributable to the 3.5 litre V6's low engine speeds at steady highway speeds (2,100 rpm at 120 km/h), and the fact that the 4 cylinder has to work harder to pull the same amount of weight. The 3.5 litre powerplant is very smooth and quiet, particularly at freeway cruising speeds. GM expended a lot of effort to isolate noises and vibrations from the cabin, and the results are impressive. The 4-speed automatic transmission is never jerky or hesitant - it changes smoothly from gear to gear. It has one interesting feature: in "Low" you can manually switch between 1, 2 and 3 gears by pressing a "+" or "-" button on the handles of the shift lever. It's not exactly a "manumatic" shifter, but it's useful for holding the car in gear when climbing a hill or descending a grade. First-time drivers of the new Malibu will also be pleasantly surprised at its ride and handling. Its conservative appearance and comfortable highway ride won't prepare you for how well it corners in tight, twisty switchbacks. You can really go to town on challenging roads. There's some lean, but the car is very controlled up to its limits where it gently understeers - only a lack of performance tires prevents it from being a really great handling sedan. The suspension is a fully independent setup (front MacPherson strut/rear multi-link) with a tight, rattle-free chassis. I found the Malibu's electro-hydraulic variable power-assisted steering really light at parking lot speeds, and firm with a good return-to-centre motion at higher speeds. Brakes are standard front disc/rear drum on all models. ABS with traction control is standard on LS and LT models but optional on base models. With its tall cabin and large windows, outward visibility is better than average. Though it gets top marks for performance, I wasn't impressed with the interior quality of the Malibu. My Malibu LS car had attractive fabric seats, but the material has a hard, coarse and somewhat cheap feel to it. The dash layout is uncomplicated, even though it takes a while to figure out what some of the symbols mean, but the quality of the dash materials is not up to the level of a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. I got a brief look at the Malibu LT with leather, and the seats at least, seemed to be of a quality leather with perforated inserts. Standard interior equipment is generous though: automatic transmission, power windows, door locks and mirrors; power adjustable pedals, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, power driver's seat with power height adjustment and manual ratchet-style lumbar adjustment, tachometer, AM/FM/CD player, outside temperature gauge, and split folding seatbacks and a fold-flat front passenger seatback. Dual front airbags are standard, and curtain airbags are optional. Other noteworthy interior features: the shift lever is placed on the left side of the centre console where's it's easier to reach; there's a small slot in the dash to store a cell phone and another one inside the centre storage bin; and the power window buttons are angled towards the driver. The 2004 Malibu is the first production car available with a remote starter. This is a terrific feature during winter as you can start the car (from inside the house) and warm it up before you get in. All you do is press a button on the key fob for one and a half seconds, and the car starts. The remote has a range of 61 metres (200 feet). For safety, the car's doors have to be locked and the hood closed before the car will start. After the engine starts, you unlock the doors, get in and put the key in the ignition and turn it to the "Run" position. To turn off the engine, you can press the "Start" button on the remote, or turn the key in the ignition, or press the "Hazard" button. The remote starter is standard on LS models with the "B" package, and all LT models. It's a $220 option on other models. Early next year, the Malibu will be available with OnStar's Automatic Crash Notification System. Sensors in the car will detect if the vehicle has been in a collision and automatically notify OnStar representatives. Currently, Onstar is notified only if the airbags deploy. In Canada, base Malibu 4 cylinder models start at $22,160, Malibu LS models start at $24,695; and Malibu LT models start at $29,220. Freight is $900. GM plans to lease Malibus starting at $320/month for 4 years or offer purchasing plans of $499/month. A competitive price, great performance (V6 models), and a roomy cabin are its strong points, but its conservative styling, average interior quality, and lack of a five year/100,000 km powertrain warranty may deter some buyers. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Looks like Chebby might have a winner on their hands here. I really like the integrated remote start feature.