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2004 Chevrolet Malibu LT - Review

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2004 Chevrolet Malibu LT

Can an American sedan be based on a European platform? With the all-new 2004 Malibu, Chevrolet is betting that it can be done. The much-recycled name may be familiar, but the 2004 cars bearing it share essentially nothing else with any previous version. They are the first North American implementation of GM's ``Epsilon'' architecture, previously seen in the latest Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra.

Cars? As in plural? Indeed. In addition to the Malibu sedan is the Maxx. The Maxx is an interesting concept, and a surprising one for the usually conservative Chevrolet. It's a five-door hatchback, a half an inch shorter than the sedan but with a six-inch longer wheelbase. It has unusual features including a sliding rear seat with seven inches of fore-and-aft movement, split 60/40 in both back and cushion for max(x)imum versatility.

But it is the sedan that is this week's subject, as that is what was delivered to me recently. The three trim levels offered are the base Malibu, with the 2.2-liter ``Ecotec'' four-cylinder engine, and the LS and LT, equipped with a new 3.5-liter V6. To bring value into a very competitive class, equipment levels, particularly on the LS and LT, are high. All have a tilt and telescope-adjustable steering wheel, power windows, doorlocks, and mirrors, and power adjustment of the driver's seat cushion height. The LS and LT also feature power-adjustable pedals, for enhanced comfort and safety. The LT even has a remote-starting system, to allow the climate-control system to bring the interior to a comfortable level in hot or cold weather.

I've just spent a week with a Malibu LT. It's a well-balanced package with power and comfort for real-world use. Like the previous version, it's conveniently at the small end of midsize outside, for ease of parking. But it's larger and more upscale inside. It has many of the features of a near-luxury sedan for a considerably lower price. In perfect fall weather, remote starting was an amusing high point in American remote-control technology; in seriously cold or hot weather it should be very, very useful.

APPEARANCE: Chevrolet's sedans have, in the recent past, mostly been noted (or not) for conservative styling. Not this one. There is little that is conservative in the new Malibu's styling. Its front face looks almost like a product of the Japanese ``Anime'' school of art, with bulging eyes made by the large, bright semi-triangular headlights. The mouth and nose come from the wide grille bisected Silverado pickup-style by a thick chrome bar with the Chevrolet bowtie logo in the center. Character lines cut into the hood suggest high fenders; flared side panels remove any slab-sidedness, while oversized triangular taillights and another thick horizontal chromed bar give a contemporary look. The LT has alloy wheels and a small spoiler.

COMFORT: Although the new Malibu is slightly smaller than its immediate predecessor in both wheelbase and length, it has more interior space. And its bright, modern look is a mixture of Chevrolet heritage and internationally-inspired styling that makes it seem even roomier. The Chevy heritage? Check out the ``twin- cockpit'' instrument panel - a tip of the hat to the Corvette. Crisp lines and bright but non-distracting aluminum trim on the dash and around the shifter and window lifts could be out of the Opel stylebook. In the LT, seats, heated in front, are trimmed with leather, with perforated ``ultralux'' suede-like seating surfaces. This looks good, and is practical and comfortable as well. As mentioned, a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and power-adjustable pedals allow the perfect driving position to be easily found. The steering wheel also has a leather rim for comfort, and cruise and auxiliary audio controls for convenience. Power points and storage spaces are numerous and conveniently located. The rear seat is roomy for the size of the car, and folds 60/40 for cargo ability. Unusually, the front passenger seat back can be folded forward, flat, in case long items need to be carried. A usefully large trunk adds to the Malibu's practicality.

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 are standard on all models; the LT also has head-curtain side airbags, antilock brakes, and traction control.

ROADABILITY: Most buyers won't care that the Malibu is the first implementation of the Epsilon architecture used previously for upscale European cars. What they will notice is that, due to the platform's strength and rigidity, the Malibu feels very solid. It is not meant to be a European sports sedan, so its MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension is tuned fairly softly for the ride comfort Americans expect. Good damping helps both the comfort and the handling response.

PERFORMANCE: Immediately after taking delivery of my test car, I had to leave for a meeting. The local freeway onramp is short, at the bottom of a grade, and merges into heavy traffic with cars and trucks doing well over 65 mph. It is a serious test of acceleration, and the Malibu LT passed with flying colors. Its LX9 3.5-liter V6 is based on GM's old 3.4-liter engine, but most components have been seriously upgraded. If, with an iron block and pushrods operating two valves per cylinder, it seems low-tech and old-fashioned compared to its high-tech Japanese competition, it is simple and works well. Borrowing a phrase popular back in the past, Chevy calls it ``appropriate technology.'' And that is true. The projected Malibu buyer is not someone looking for maximum technology, but someone looking for practical transportation. With 200 horses at 5500 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at only 3200 rpm from the 3.5, make that practical and quick transportation. The good low-end torque makes it perfect for American everyday driving, with very good acceleration at city and highway driving speeds. A diet of regular unleaded gasoline and mileage around 25 mpg keeps operating costs down.

CONCLUSIONS: America and Europe can combine to make a car with American character.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu LT

Base Price $ 22,870
Price As Tested $ 25,720
Engine Type 12-valve pushrod overhead valve V6
Engine Size 3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower 200 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 220 @ 3200 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length 106.3 in. / 188.3 in.
Curb Weight 3315 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 16.6
Fuel Capacity 16.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P215/60 SR16 Bridgestone Insignia
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / disc (LS & LT); antilock standard LS & LT
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 23 / 32 / 25
0 to 60 mph est. 8.6 sec

Malibu Preferred Equipment Group 1SB- includes: auto-dimming inside mirror, homelink transmitter, power sunroof $ 905
OnStar system with 1-year ``Safe and Sound'' package $ 695
XM satellite radio (subscription extra) $ 325
AM/FM/6CD audio (replaces std) $ 300
Delivery charge $ 625