SEE ALSO: Chevrolet Buyer's Guide
Despite the amount of publicity given to sport-utility vehicles, midsized sedans are the heart of the passenger car business. And, as should be expected in this day and age, the "midsized sedan" category is highly competitive and subdivided into several segments. "Midsized sedan" may be an all-inclusive interior size-based EPA category, but in the real world the term covers a wide range in size and price. Chevrolet has two entries in the class. The Lumina is the larger in size, and aimed towards American car buyers. The new Malibu is strategically placed at the smaller end of the class, and targets people who might normally consider imports.
The import-brand midsized sedans set a high standard for construction quality, but at a high price. Chevrolet's aim with the Malibu is to be competitive in quality, and beat the imports on price and content. Its main advantage over competitors is its comprehensive standard equipment list. Two trim levels are available, the Malibu Sedan, and the Malibu LS, the subject of this test. Even the base Malibu Sedan is a very well-equipped car. Standard fare includes antilock brakes, air conditioning, a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, rear heater ducts, a center console, an electric trunk release, and an automatic transmission - features that are optional on much of the competition. The LS adds a V6 engine, power-adjustable driver's seat, upgraded stereo, power windows, mirrors, and locks with remote keyless entry, and more to the mix.
All of those features would be meaningless without a solid base, and the Malibu chassis platform fills the bill. It is a rigid unit- construction piece with a sturdy safety cage around the passenger compartment. All body panels are made of two-side galvanized steel for corrosion resistance. Also adding to the Malibu's convenience are its low maintenance requirements, with extended-life coolant and transmission fluid, and engines designed to go 100,000 miles between tune-ups.
If it seems from the specifications that Chevrolet has designed the Malibu to be a transportation appliance, so be it. Indeed, the Malibu LS struck me as a most appliance-like car during the week I drove it. It got me where I needed to go with no fuss, was maneuverable in traffic and easy to park, and held as many people as I needed to carry. I was most impressed with its practicality.
APPEARANCE: The Malibu is a clean, contemporary, conservative design, very appropriate for a family sedan. What it may lack in flashy style is made up for in comfort and interior room. And, it does have its own understated style, with a familiar Chevrolet egg-crate grille flanked by kidney-shaped headlights. The "double bubble" line of the top of the lights is taken back through the front fenders for a modern look. Gently rounded edges give way to a crisp line for the rear fenders and deck lid, with the slightly convex rear panel dominated by large wraparound taillights. The large passenger cabin hints at the room within.
COMFORT: The Malibu's interior is designed for daily family practicality and commuter comfort. It is roomier than the leading imports. Optional leather seating in my test LS added a touch of class, with good comfort as well. All of the necessary modern power convenience amenities are included in the LS package, and very good placement of useful storage spaces and cupholders makes the Malibu a reasonable place in which to endure commute traffic. Controls and gauges are placed and marked well, and most switches are backlit for easier night-time use. Automatically dimming interior "theater lighting" is another useful feature. The rear seat is sized for two adults or three children, and folds for extra cargo ability. The trunk is one of the largest in the class.
SAFETY: Safety is a concern for midsized sedan buyers, so all 1998 Chevrolet Malibu models have safety-cage construction with front and rear crush zones, integrated side-impact door beams, antilock brakes, a brake/shift interlock, dual next-generation front airbags, child-safety rear door locks, the Pass-Key passive antitheft system, and daytime running lights as standard equipment.
ROADABILITY: The Malibu is a conveniently-sized car. Good space utilization means small overall size for the amount of room, which makes the ever more elusive parking space easier to find. The steering effort is light, but not too light. Ride comfort is typical for the Malibu's class, and its fully-independent suspension does give nimble handling. It's no sports sedan, but deals well with the cut and thrust of traffic.
PERFORMANCE: The venerable 3.1-liter cast iron V6 used in the Malibu LS may not be at the leading edge of engine technology, but it is perfect for this application. Although it has the same horsepower rating at 150 as the base Malibu's 4-cylinder, the 3100 V6 has considerably more torque for improved acceleration. It is a good match with the 4T40-E electronically-controlled 4-speed automatic transmission. The Malibu LS is no Z28 Camaro, but is quick enough for everyday driving and goes a long way on a gallon of regular gasoline.
CONCLUSIONS: The Malibu LS is Chevrolet's full-featured midsized family sedan.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 18,470 Price As Tested $ 19,840 Engine Type 12-valve, pushrod ohv V6 Engine Size 3.1 liters / 189 cu. in. Horsepower 150 @ 4800 Torque (lb-ft) 180 @ 3200 Transmission 4-speed electronically -controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 107.0 in. / 190.4 in. Curb Weight 3100 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.7 Fuel Capacity 15.0 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P215/60 R15 Firestone Affinity Brakes, front/rear vented disc/drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson Strut/ independent tri-link Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 29 / 23 0 to 60 mph 9.0 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.6 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Special leather bucket seats $ 475 AM / FM / Cassette / CD Stereo $ 200 CA / NY / MA emissions $ 170 Destination Charge $ 525