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2008 Chevrolet Malibu Review

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  • 2008 Chevrolet Malibu Review
    By Thom Cannell
    The Auto Channel

    Chevrolet says the new 2008 Malibu that “The Car You Can’t Ignore” is ready to make conquests against mid-sized heavyweights Camry, Accord, Altima, and Fusion. With an entry price five bucks under $20,000, Malibu provides a European-themed package redolent of pure American dynamism, value and a luxurious interior with an abundance of standard features. The 2008 Malibu is sleek, sophisticated, and both looks and feels like a more expensive car.

    Once a mid-level trim designator for ‘60’s Chevelles and El Camino pickups, Malibu has been its own model since 1977. The previous generation was, as is this, based on GM’s continually evolving Global Mid-Sized platform, which carries Saab, Pontiac, and Opel models as well. examined new Malibu models—base LS, LT, and LTZ in Memphis, Tennessee. I drove the base four-cylinder LS automatic, an LT Hybrid, a pre-production LTZ four-cylinder with six-speed automatic, and the high-horsepower LTZ V6 automatic. I began by navigating our way out of Memphis in a base LS model with Custom Titanium cloth interior.

    As an experienced car tester, it’s the little things that catch your eye, forming critical “love—or hate—at first glance” visual or aural cues. These set the tone for a good, or bad experience. After stepping across a sleek metallic logo-embossed sill plate, a simple seat back adjuster started my notebook with a favorable first impression. That manual seat back adjuster had a long handle for easy operation, and it operated smoothly with plenty of angles of adjustment. It’s this kind of attention to minute details that builds a great car; as I tilted back into passenger seat comfort we were off to a propitious beginning.

    Next I noticed sophistication of the color scheme—shades of perfectly matched gray (Titanium) in this vehicle and how well the plastic surfaces were textured. My impression was of sophistication and, dare I say, luxury. The next item to catch my eye was an excellent center stack.

    I have been hugely critical of GM’s propensity to produce a generic box, like an audio head end or HVAC control system, and “brick” it into products randomly, no matter if it was a big black box in a silver interior. Here the control panels create a harmony of surface and most buttons and knobs “poke through” the surface for a smooth and clean appearance that speaks of quality.

    As my pal Jim drove out of Memphis in the clear morning air, I could hear the 2.4-liter four-cylinder Ecotec engine only when he applied full throttle. At cruise, and during minor speed adjustments, the engine was imperceptible. When called on, this engine spins instead of thrashing and sounds more like a trombone or oboe than a piccolo or other shrill instrument. Chevrolet engineers said the engine features a specially designed induction system with nine chambers or devices engineered to minimize intake noise. It works.

    All Malibu use dual overhead cam engines, the 2.4-liter or a 3.6-liter V6, each with variable valve timing. The four makes 169 horsepower and l60 lb-ft of torque, the V6 is appreciably more powerful at 252 horsepower and 251 lb-ft of torque. The 2.4-liter Ecotec DOHC with four-speed automatic transmission is rated at 22-city/30-highway mpg under more realistic 2008 EPA measurements; the V6 is rated at 17/26, both on regular gasoline.

    Exiting the freeway, we crept up on another Malibu and agreed that it appears very European in dimension, stance, and design. Specifically, it has great proportions between rear window glass, deck and trunk volume, and the bumper height. The feeling is of balance, unlike some competitors with a thin rear window or ultra-heavy bumpers.

    Exterior design emphasizes a very taught side envelope that pulls tightly to the fender flares and along a single crisply folded character line reaching from headlight to tail lamp. In front you’ll see the new face of Chevrolet with its single metallic cross bar and bowtie badge. What you’ll notice on second, or third glance are the LTZ-specific fog lamps, Corvette-cue high hood line, and a minute Chevy logo on the shields of front headlamps. It is an exterior that displays simplicity and elegance beyond its entry-level price.

    As Jim and I settled into our seats we agreed they felt, in this base model, very comfortable with long cushions under the hips and legs, and good support through the lumbar region. Side bolsters came into play later, as the roads began to curve, and they offered plenty of lateral support. The rear bench seat appears wide and comfortable with a generous amount of legroom, even when front seats were pushed back. Our occasional passengers reported sufficient roominess.

    Malibu has a clearly defined cockpit design for driver and passenger and it feels slightly confining and separating, even for medium sized drivers and passengers. That same quality would make it perfect for keeping dating teens on good behavior. We tried the stereo on a variety of XM channels; it was good, but not audiophile quality. The available 210-Watt system is better.

    Other luxury touches focus on keeping Malibu quiet. The front windscreen is made from acoustic glass, which is two 2 mm-thick sheets of glass bonded with clear acoustic media. Struck, it “thunks” quietly in comparison to a standard windscreen’s sonorous “clank.” Behind the dash and in doors and trunk, multiple layers of sound absorbent reduce noise. It all works together well to produce a very quiet mid-sized car. The only real noise you’ll hear, other than bickering in-laws or tired children is the engine at full acceleration or a bit of tire noise on rough pavement. There is little to no wind noise, even at 70+ mph.

    As the roads became more interesting, I became the driver and got a better sense of the car. There simply were no noises: no buzz, nothing rattled or clunked, the tires were quiet and so was the engine. The four-speed transmission fitted to LS models was quick to react and would, in fact, anticipate necessary downshifts. The body had minimal lean or roll—I noticed none in modestly brisk driving—and understeer was nominal as well.

    What I did notice was the 16” tire package on this vehicle allowed the nose to drift a bit and feel heavy and vague. This may have been attributable to under inflation or one manufacturer’s specific tire sidewall design. Changing to an “identical” Hybrid model with the added weight of a rear mounted battery pack made that imbalance go away. Regardless, I’d strongly suggest investing in any 17” or 18” wheel/tire option available for LS.

    The Hybrid ($22,790) is a “mild” hybrid with a 24.9 kg (54.9 pound) 36-volt battery pack and is not designed to run purely on electricity. Its power system stops the engine at stoplights, and restarts instantly when the brake is released. The hybrid powertrain produces a bit less horsepower 164, and 159 lb-ft of torque than the standard engine, but will use the electric motor to assist in passing and other wide open throttle situations. It automatically recovers kinetic energy—energy normally converted to heat by the brakes—to keep the batteries charged.

    It’s a simple and effective system and, as it would only cost $500 after the tax credit ($1800 option minus $1300 tax credit,) might be a good deal for you. The Hybrid is rated at 24/32 EPA miles per gallon, only 2 mpg more than it’s less expensive gasoline-only sibling. So why buy? Because EPA numbers are for comparison among and between vehicles and don’t accurately predict your driving habits. If you drive mostly in the city, it is likely your fuel economy would be significantly better. We’ll have to wait for some interested party to spend a week in Manhattan, LA, or mid-town Chicago to get more realistic figures.

    I also drove a pre-production four-cylinder LTZ equipped with six-speed transmission, “TAPshift” paddle shifters on the steering wheel, and 18” wheels and tires. This transmission does much better job of keeping the 2.4-liter engine in its prime operating range and when driven hard the “tap” shifters make it much more fun as well as offering more control. This may be the best overall combination, when the six-speed becomes available as an option for LS and LT, and as LTZ’s standard transmission later in production.

    One reason Chevrolet expects praise for the new Malibu is a six-inch longer, 112-inch wheelbase. Longer wheelbases almost universally create a better ride, one less subject to pitching or porpoising. After some brisk driving in the three cars mentioned, I can tell you the car rides much larger than it is, while not feeling bloated. Ride and handling are calibrated to family driving and feel like crisply sprung American cars, not stiff Euro-tuned sport sedans. Saturn will move its brand in that direction. The new Malibu chassis has more low velocity damping, which should minimize low-speed vibration and shake from uneven pavement. Aluminum suspension bits and hydraulic bushings make the car smoother, quieter, and more responsive, something Chevy accurately predicted pre-drive. All four-cylinder engined vehicles will use GM’s electric rack and pinion steering while the V6 will utilize hydraulic steering, which is felt to provide a bit more road feel.

    So far we’ve concentrated on the four-cylinder engines, the engine many will buy for economy in purchase price and in fuel cost saving. What about the V6, the car I most wanted to drive on Tennessee and Mississippi’s back roads, but only drove on freeways and surface streets.

    The V6 powering our LTZ utterly and completely transformed Malibu. With almost an extra 100 horsepower and more importantly almost 100 pound feet more torque, the car comes alive. In some ways the 252 hp 3.6-liter V6 makes Malibu a bit too lively as torque steer appears in the first three gears. Not that the torque steer is extreme—it only happens on wide open throttle and is quickly under control—but it does upset the character of a car that is totally focused on family comfort, not the boy (and girl) racers in the crowd.

    Still, it’s a fun car to drive as if it were a low-cost BMW or Jaguar, tapping the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles to downshift and power out of corners and through all six gears. When driven aggressively the chassis willingly complies. Its suspension, calibrated for family comfort, is not as happy. Nothing bad happens; it just tells you in subtle ways that Malibu is neither of the aforementioned sports sedans. As a member of GM’s Global Mid-Sized platform Malibu uses MacPherson struts front and four-link independent rear suspension. At the rear are dual rate springs and either a 19 mm stabilizer bar (LS-LT) or 20 mm solid stabilizer bar for LTZ to keep the car stable in turns. All models use a direct-acting 22-mm hollow front stabilizer bar. To attain the Zen of sporting-ness would sacrifice comfort and ride compliance. It would abandon the serenity and calm that makes mid-sized family cars appealing. That’s why Chevrolet makes SS models of Cobalt and Impala, as well as Corvette.

    Malibu is a family car and safety is critical. Safety features include four-wheel disc brakes with ABS for all models and Panic Brake Assist (helps apply full braking power in emergencies,) and StabiliTrak stability control, formerly a Cadillac exclusive, on LT and LTZ. Crash protection includes front safety belt pretensioners to take up any slack in the belts, plus head curtain side impact air bags for front and rear outboard passengers, dual stage front air bags, and front thorax (chest and rib area) air bags for side-impact protection. Also, OnStar Automatic Advanced Crash Notification can send accident information and seek appropriate help even when no air bag has been deployed.

    Compared to the top-selling Accord and Camry equipped with similar four-cylinder engines, Malibu LE with automatic is priced at $19,995 placing it between an Accord LX and Camry Standard equipped with 5-speed manual transmissions. That gives Malibu a strong price advantage.

    Malibu’s interior and exterior styling looks good for any price and has refinement and sophistication that surpasses any expectation you might have. Malibu is quiet and offers XM satellite radio (with AUX input for your media player) and OnStar’s Turn-by-Turn navigation system. Options include a 110-volt outlet, rear window shades, and remote start.

    Not an impressive option list, you’re saying? “It’s standard” is the answer to “where is the power steering, power door locks, automatic transmission, etc.” And more goodies are baked into the different model line up, like larger wheels, six-speed transmission and V6 engine on LTZ, or the more powerful 210-Watt stereo on LT and LTZ.

    Malibu for 2008 is a highly sophisticated mid-sized family car with an interior that appears torn from the pages of Elle, Cosmo, or GQ. It bundles desirable features in a manner that should confound its rival manufacturers and delight customers. Malibu brings new levels of style and design to its segment and truly cannot be, as Malibu advertising proclaims, ignored.