New Car Review: 2004 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx LS
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
"Chevy's Malibu Maxx in a class of its own."
A medium-sized sport-utility vehicle is useful for carrying various combinations of people and cargo, but with rising gasoline prices and low SUV fuel economy ratings that versatility can be expensive to operate.
Is there another solution, especially if you don't need four-wheel drive or extra ground clearance? Indeed there is. It's called the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx. Based on the all-new 2004 Malibu sedan, but with a wheelbase stretched six inches, Chevy calls the Maxx ``a five-door extended sedan.'' With its sloping rear window, it's not quite a wagon. Five-door hatchback stretch limo, anyone?
Like the new Malibu sedan, the Maxx is based on GM's new front-wheel drive ``Epsilon'' platform, also used by the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. It's stronger and more rigid than the platform used for the old Malibu, and this translates to improved ride and handling characteristics and lower noise levels. Power is from GM Powertrain's new 3.5-liter V6, an extensive development of the proven 3.4-liter engine. Two well-equipped trim levels, LS and LT, are offered.
I've just spent a week with an LS-level Maxx. Although not the top model, it's comprehensively equipped and as comfortable as any other mid-sized sedan. But it has a few things no other car has, like an incredibly versatile seating system that allows all of the functionality of an SUV. For the dual-service passenger and cargo use that is a necessity for many Americans, that plus good power, true car ride and handling, and excellent fuel economy (25 mpg average, 30+ on the highway) put Chevy's Malibu Maxx in a class of its own.
APPEARANCE: From the windshield forward, the Maxx is the same as the new Malibu sedan, with a front face highlighted by bright multi-element headlights under plastic fairings and a massive-looking chrome crossbar decorated with the Chevrolet bowtie logo across the grille.
Behind the windshield, the Maxx is very, very different. It's a five-door hatchback, with a sloped backlight and short rear deck, but the noticeably-lengthened wheelbase gives it a proportion unlike any hatchback ever made. Chevy says it's styled to keep its looks for a long time, and this rings true. It has a somewhat European appearance, with roots in `Eighties styling concepts, yet it looks contemporary. The Chevy bowtie is a giveaway to its national origin, but with an Opel or Vauxhall grille it could easily pass for a European import.
COMFORT: If ever there was a car designed and built for the rear seat passengers, the Maxx is it. Like its regular sedan sibling, the Maxx's interior is plain and unpretentious with a grille-matching horizontal chrome bar at mid-height across the instrument panel the only interior flash. The LS has high-quality fabrics on the seats and textured plastic materials on the dash and door panels. Panel gaps are tighter than ever before, for high fit and finish levels. The front buckets are as comfortable and supportive as any in the midsize sedan class. The driver's seat is power-adjustable, and power-adjustable pedals and a manually-adjustable steering wheel make a safe, comfortable seating position attainable for nearly any size driver. Instrumentation is protected from glare and very legible, the controls are simple and easy to use, and there are plenty of useful storage spaces and two power points in the front seat area. But behind that is where the Maxx really shines. The rear bench is, typically for a midsized sedan, contoured for two and adequate for three for shorter periods. And it's split 60/40, but with a difference. Both the seat backs and cushions are split, so each side may independently be slid seven inches fore and aft, and each seat back may be reclined separately. Since the rear passengers, unlike the driver, can safely be distracted by the scenery, they also are treated to an interesting skylight panel. Floor heater vents and high-airflow center front air conditioning vents keep the rear climate comfortable.
When it comes time to carry cargo, the Maxx makes like an SUV. The sloped rear window may steal a little potential space in comparison to a wagon, but there is still considerably more than is a typical midsized sedan even with the rear seats in passenger position. And that's helped by a moveable horizontal partition that doubles as a cargo screen. Each side of the rear seat folds flat separately, as does the front passenger seat. All seatback load surfaces are made of strong, hard plastic, and long items such as kayak paddles, lumber, or downspout material up to nine feet long fit easily.
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 and anti-lock disc brakes are standard on all models; head-curtain side airbags are available.
ROADABILITY: Those extra six inches in the wheelbase do as much for the Maxx's ride and handling as they do for interior space. It's smooth and stable on the highway, yet capable on secondary roads. Its fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension is tuned in a very European manner, with a good balance between comfort and handling response. The effort required for the variable electric-assist power rack and pinion steering is not too light, for good steering response. Strong four-wheel antilock disc brakes ensure good stopping abilities.
PERFORMANCE: In its technical specification, the Maxx's 3.5-liter LX9 breaks no new ground. Its 12 valves are pushrod-operated, with no fancy overhead cams, and the block is low-tech cast iron. It's a near-total revision of GM's venerable 3.4-liter V6 that has powered many a car and minivan over the years, and a fine example of those phrases ``proven technology'' and ``appropriate technology.''
The Malibu buyer, and Maxx customer by extension, is presumed not to care about having the latest complex technology but to just want a solid and reliable car. With 200 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm, performance is quite good, and with 30-plus miles out of each gallon of unleaded regular at realistic highway speeds and an overall average of 25 mpg, fuel costs will be far lower than those of any SUV.
CONCLUSIONS: European flair meets all-American versatility in the new Chevrolet Malibu Maxx.
Base Price $ 21,600
Price As Tested $ 23,150
Engine Type 12-valve pushrod overhead valve V6
Engine Size 3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower 200 @ 5400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 220 @ 3200 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length 112.3 in. / 187.8 in.
Curb Weight 3,458 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 17.5
Fuel Capacity 16.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P215/60 SR16 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 22 / 30 / 25 0 to 60 mph est. 8.8 sec
OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Preferred Equipment Group 1SB - includes: front & rear floor mats, 6-way power driver's seat, remote starting system, head curtain air bags, rear audio system $ 925
Destination charge $ 625