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2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS Review

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2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Chevrolet

General Motors is not normally thought of as a niche marketer, but times are not exactly normal at GM. And perhaps that is making the once-conservative corporation a little more adventuresome. If so, there is a silver lining to the cloud.

Consider, as an example, the new for 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS. The Malibu Maxx is already a niche vehicle, an almost-mid-size almost-wagon that doesn't want to be called a wagon. And with the SS, Chevy has added good power and a very good suspension setup to make a car that has the space and versatility of a small SUV and the performance and handling of a sports sedan.

The Malibu Maxx SS is just one of many new Super Sports models in Chevrolet's 2006 lineup. The SS badge goes back to a Corvette race car from 1957, and was first used on a production car for the 1961 Impala SS, with an optional 409-cubic inch V8. Remember ``She's so fine / my 409'' anyone? That was the inspiration. Later Chevelle SS396s and SS454s are highly prized today.

But that was the past. Today, the concept is embodied in affordable enhanced performance and appearance, and it works, especially in the Maxx. The Maxx is a European concept with an American accent. The basis is GM's global Epsilon platform, also used for the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. Compared to the Malibu sedan, the Maxx has a stretched wheelbase, for extra interior space including a first-class rear seat that is adjustable fore-and-aft and for back angle. The suspension has been reworked to sport spec, and finally Chevy's engineers have been allowed to do the job right. The SS gets GM's new 3.9-liter V6 engine, a larger version of the 3.5-liter in other Maxxes. Its 240 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque move the Maxx SS along smartly, and reasonably economically. If the sport wagon concept is European, the larger size and engine are thoroughly American.

My first experience in a Maxx SS was at a GM event in Southern California a few months ago. I was navigator; the driver was a gentleman of upscale European tastes, fellow Auto Channel contributor Andrew Frankl. He misjudged a tight mountain switchback slightly, coming in faster than anticipated. A touch on the brakes, a little more steering, and the Maxx just went right around as if enjoying itself thoroughly, without even a squeal of rubber. I didn't notice that he hadn't planned it until he told me. And then he commented on how good the suspension was.

More recently, I've spent a week at home with a Maxx SS. With space and comfort, and good engine performance and economy for its size, plus the aforementioned great ride and handling, it builds significantly on the regular Maxx's strengths. It combines sport plus utility in a way that no SUV or crossover can approach.

APPEARANCE: All angles, with large, bright headlights and a massive chrome crossbar grille with the gold bowtie logo in its center, Chevy's Malibu Maxx is identical to the sedan ahead of the middle of the passenger compartment, but is stretched six inches in wheelbase while being half an inch shorter. It's not quite a wagon, as the backlight is sloped and there is a vestigial rear deck, but its length makes it unlike any five-door hatchback ever made. The SS shares bodywork with other Malibu Maxx models, but gets unique trim, with a flat-faced ``air dam'' lower front fascia with foglamps, matte silver trim around the upper and lower grilles, monochromatic side moldings, twin exhausts, and a rear roof spoiler.

COMFORT: Inside as out, the SS builds on the regular Maxx interior. It gets an all-black color scheme, leather-bolstered front sports seats, a leather-rimmed tilt and telescope-adjustable steering wheel, and a unique instrument cluster. It also has the same space and versatility as all other Maxxes. The oft-forgotten rear-seat passengers get treated at least as well as those in front, with space and adjustability for optimum comfort. When time comes for load-carrying duty, the rear seat folds flat with a 60/40 split to make a cargo area as long as than of many a small or even mid-size SUV or crossover - and there is a much lower lift needed. The hard cover that covers the cargo area when the rear seat is in passenger position may be repositioned for varying use, and the rear passengers get a non opening skylight.

SAFETY: High-strength steel forms a protective structure around the passenger cabin, helped in the event of collision by front and rear crumple zones. Dual-stage front airbags, anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, and seat-mounted side thorax airbags and head-curtain side airbags are standard in the Maxx SS.

RIDE AND HANDLING: In the SS, as in all Maxx models, the longer wheelbase helps stability and ride comfort. As does a fine tuning of the fully-independent MacPherson strut front, four-link rear suspension, capped with 18-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires. It's firm for good control of body motion and weight transfer in acceleration, deceleration, and cornering, but never uncomfortable. In the past, some GM ``sport suspension'' efforts have been overly harsh. Not here, not now. The Maxx SS has a degree of refinement that puts it in the same class as some big-name sports sedans. It's an absolute hoot to drive, and you can take just about everything and everyone you need with you.

PERFORMANCE: Need a definition of ``proven technology''? Look under the Maxx SS's hood. Its 3.9-liter V6 makes 240 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 240 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm, very competitive figures for the mid-size sporty front-wheel drive class. But overhead cams are not to be found. The design, while all new and sharing only its hydraulic valve lifters with any previous GM engine, seems to be archaic. Although the heads are aluminum alloy, the block is cast iron. And there is a single camshaft in the block, operating two valve per cylinder by means of pushrods. That cam does have variable phasing, for the first time ever in a cam-in-block engine. The engine is physically smaller and less expensive to manufacture than an overhead cam engine. If technology matters more than results, it doesn't look good. If results matter, it gives results, good results. The torque curve is broad and low, for quick acceleration at just about any time and speed. The transmission, too, initially seems outdated, with only four speeds, but with the engine's torque and the transmission's smoothness and adaptive shift logic, four are plenty. There is a manual shift mode, which is useful for keeping the car in a lower gear during enthusiastic driving, but the placement of the manual-shift button on the shift lever is strange - a shift gate could have worked just as well. That's a minor concern, really, as D works great 95 percent of the time. Fuel economy, 18/26 by the EPA and 20 by my experience, is competitive.

CONCLUSIONS: Add sport to utility and versatility with the 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS.

2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS

Base Price	        $ 24,065
Price As Tested  	$ 25,015
Engine Type	        16-valve pushrod overhead valve V6,
			        cast iron block and aluminum heads,
			        variable cam phasing
Engine Size              3.9 liters / 238 cu. in.
Horsepower	        240 @ 5800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)	        240 @ 2800 rpm
Transmission	        4-speed automatic with
		                adaptive shift logic
			        and manual shift mode
Wheelbase/Length	        112.3 in. / 187.8 in.
Curb Weight	        3620 lbs. +200 from sedan
Pounds Per Horsepower    15.1
Fuel Capacity	        16.3 gal.
Fuel Requirement 	87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires		        P225/50 TR18 Goodyear Eagle LS2
Brakes,front/rear        vented disc / solid disc,
			        antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut /
		                independent 4-link
Drivetrain 	        front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
          city / highway / observed     18 / 26 / 20
0 to 60 mph				est. 7.5  sec

XM Satellite Radio			$325
Destination charge			$625