Chevy Takes Another Swing at Relevance The new Malibu rides on the longest wheelbase in the class, if you don't count the Saturn Aura's, which is identical. By Daniel Pund, Senior Editor, Detroit Date posted: 10-07-2007 The entire weight of General Motors does not rest on the shoulders of the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. In fact, only several thousand megatons of pressure weigh upon Chevy's latest sedan. When General Motors North America Vice President Gary White says, "We have got to get back in the game here," he delivers the line with stress on "got." And just in case you might underestimate the gravity of the situation, White leaves a half-beat of silence before and after the word. The game he's referring to is the midsize sedan market — the big, meaty center of car sales. It's a tacit acknowledgment that the General has been floundering. That Chevrolet, once king of America's mainstream car brands, has floundered in this most mainstream of markets is especially distressing. It's simply stumbled from weakness to weakness in the form of Malibus, Corsicas, Luminas, Celebrities and finally more Malibus. All the while, Toyota and Honda were eating Chevy's lunch. It's enough to make Mom cringe and drop the apple pie. Naturally, White wouldn't have been talking this way if he didn't think the company had a car to get the company back into play. Not Built of Lego Blocks The new Malibu Hybrid uses the same powertrain as the Saturn Aura Green Line and should get 24/32 city/highway mpg. Did you know that when the last-generation Chevy Malibu was introduced, several GM staffers tried to convince us that the car was intentionally unexciting because midsize buyers wanted a boring-looking car? We can scarcely believe we heard it, even now. Fortunately, this time around Chevy has tried to make the Malibu, you know, pleasant-looking, and it has worked. You won't mistake it for an Aston Martin, but the Malibu's smooth, subdued shape carries none of the previous model's silly slashes and little of its rental-car stance. It looks like a car you might want to buy. And it has none of the self-conscious oddness of recent designs from Toyota and Honda. And will wonders never cease, this Chevrolet sedan has a decent interior. The dual-cowl design is a great improvement over the previous interior, which was drawn with a straightedge and no French Curves allowed. No longer a gloomy assemblage of medium-gray plastic sheets, the new interior is attractive and welcoming and is available in two-tone combinations with sassy names such as Cocoa, Cashmere and Brick. And they actually look pretty good. In this class, only the Honda Accord's interior really stands clearly above that of the Malibu. The Toyota Camry's interior (which looks as if Toyota has wrung every extra penny of cost out of it) is certainly no better in terms of material quality or consistency of design. Under Wares Seen here at its unveiling at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, the 2008 Malibu is the company's strongest attempt at a midsize car in a very long time. There's more to the new Mailbu than just the sheet metal and the low-sheen plastic. Even the proportions look significantly better thanks to a wheelbase that's a whopping 6 inches longer than the outgoing Malibu (now the longest in the class). From nose to tail, the Malibu measures 3 inches longer than before, and this visually pushes the wheels to the corners of the car and gives it a stable look. These dimensions should also provide GM with the means to make tangible improvements in ride quality and handling compared to previous efforts. The new Malibu shares its chassis systems with the critically well-received Saturn Aura, which is an evolution of other GM midsizers. This means the expected MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink independent rear. It bodes well for the Malibu; just don't expect a revelatory driving experience. Chevrolet says it used a new ride and handling philosophy for the Malibu, which apparently means the car is meant to slot between the soft Camry and the sporty Nissan Altima. That's roughly where a little-known car called the Honda Accord resides. Stuck in the Middle With You, and You, and You The color combination on this Malibu LT isn't the most thrilling, but overall, the interior is now class-competitive. Of course the midsize class is not big on revelations anyway. The major competitors form a sort of extreme bell curve, wherein the vast majority of successful entries crowd the middle and share a shocking number of similarities. In size, they differ only by an inch or two in any dimension. In interior roominess, they hover somewhere around 100 cubic feet of passenger space. The differences in these specifications often appear larger on paper than they seem in practice, since all competitors seat four comfortably and five in a pinch. All the major players also offer 2.4- or 2.5-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engines for these cars. The Malibu's 2.4-liter (which is standard for all three trim levels), makes 169 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque, putting it squarely in the middle of the output range of all its competitors. Naturally, the serious entries in this class also offer a V6 of about 3.5 liters. Chevy's is a 3.6-liter 24-valve motor that makes a credible 252 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque. That's less than the big three Japanese sedans, but more than the Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata can muster. Despite a standard six-speed automatic, the V6 Malibu returns EPA fuel-economy figures of 17 city and 26 highway — a couple of mpg worse than its competitors. Possibly this is due in part to the V6 Malibu's heft. At 3,649 pounds, it's the fat kid of the group. Even so, the 2.4-liter returns fuel economy of 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway, which is very competitive in this class. The Malibu will also be offered with the same mild-hybrid powertrain as the Saturn Aura Green Line and should return 24 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway. Happy Crashing! Chevrolet says that the taillights are inspired by the Corvette. They are not. But the car is pretty handsome. A driver who runs into things will be happy to know that the Malibu will cover virtually the entire interior with airbags. Front and rear head curtain impact bags and front seat-mounted side-impact bags are standard along with dual-stage front bags. Standard ABS and traction control along with electronic stability control (standard on Malibu LT and LTZ models) are there to prevent impromptu testing of any of these airbags. There isn't a competitor that offers a better allotment of standard safety features. Furnishings and Financials Chevrolet is proud of the Malibu's new interior, which boasts better material quality and less clunky design than that of the old Malibu. We don't have full details on standard and optional equipment for the Malibu yet, but the base-level $19,995 LS comes with 16-inch wheels, the above-mentioned safety gear and XM Satellite Radio. The LT version adds 17-inch wheels, dual chrome exhaust tips and driver shift control. The full-zoot LTZ adds 18-inch wheels, foglamps and LED taillamps, and starts at $26,995. The Malibu Hybrid carries a $22,790 base price. Even though the new car starts a couple thousand dollars higher than the outgoing model, the 2008 Malibu is competitively priced. General Motors appears to have covered all the bases here. There isn't a glaring omission on the Malibu (unless you consider lack of a satellite navigation system to be glaring). Neither is there anything radical about its engineering or equipment. But it is clearly in the game, as it were. Now GM just has to figure out a way to win. We'd recommend staying in the game.