2008 Chevrolet Malibu Review
If you watch television, you have seen the commercials for the new Chevrolet Malibu. If you spend time on the Internet, you have seen the ads for the new Malibu. And if you are an automotive writer, you have probably been invited by General Motors to drive the new Malibu. GM is making a big bet on the redesigned Malibu and they are focused on making certain that everyone who might want to know about Chevrolet’s new mid-size mass-market sedan gets a chance to hear about it. They are spending some serious coin to market the new Malibu.
Why is GM so intent getting the word out about the new Chevrolet Malibu? There’s the money, of course. There is a lot of money to be made in the mid-size segment because there are a lot of sales in this segment. Chevrolet has a fair amount of that action, moved a lot of the previous Malibus in this segment, but most of the volume goes to the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, the twin Godzillas of the American car market, with the Nissan Altima in there punching a bit as well.
But, there is something bigger at work here for GM. They believe that they have built a game-changer in the new Malibu, a car that will make people who buy GM cars proud of their choice instead of having to defend it in some circles, and more importantly, will convince a sizable number of people who would not consider buying a car from GM that they really ought to take a good long look at the new iron from Chevrolet. To say that this hoped-for outcome is important to GM doesn’t begin to cover it.
Now, some of you might be saying to yourself that you’ve already seen this movie, a la last year’s launch of the Saturn Aura, a very good car that was widely praised by most in the automotive press, but inexplicably remains unknown to most of the American public. GM is disappointed with the sales performance of the Aura and is trying to figure out how to get more people to notice that the Saturn is actually a pretty good car. GM would probably respond that this is different because, 1) Chevrolet has tremendous national coverage in terms of its retail dealers, 2) a bigger brand, and, 3) the Malibu will be available with a four-cylinder engine, which is what both the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord do the most business with in their respective retail sales.
I flew to Memphis, Tennessee last week at GM’s invitation, and at their expense, in order to conduct a laying-on of hands, and a mashing of the right foot, on the new 2008 Malibu. I was able to drive every powertrain version of the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu last week and I am now ready to relate all the results of that effort to you.
First of all, the sheet metal – I like the exterior, even though my personal preference would have been something more daring. It’s not a knockout, but, it’s clean with crisp lines, and compared to the Camry and the Accord sedans, it looks so much better to these eyes. And compared to the previous Malibu, which was as plain as anything else sold, it is like comparing Jessica Simpson to Marge Simpson.
The interior is massively improved in design, execution and materials. I had my doubts about the twin-cockpit treatment when I first heard about it, intended to evoke the 60’s era Chevrolet Corvettes, but it works. The levels of fit and finish look high, no gaps, nice shut lines where things open and shut, and it’s a pleasing coherent design theme. Everything looks like it all belongs together; even in the lower trim levels. The quality of the materials used is much improved – certainly the equal of the Camry, better than the Altima, I think, and not as good as the Accord, but close. There is, of course, a considerable amount of comfort and convenience options available in the new Malibu, as is the case with almost every car sold these days.
Let’s talk about driving the car.
First of all, if you’ve driven the Saturn Aura XR with the 24-valve, 252 HP 3.6 liter mated to the six-speed automatic transmission, or the Pontiac G6 with the same engine/transmission combination, which both also happen to be on the same vehicle platform, then the Malibu LTZ will seem awfully familiar. It is an excellent drivetrain and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it because it’s been reviewed and analyzed by everyone and anyone, including us. There is one difference, though, and it’s a good one – NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) levels seem to be improved over the 2007 models of those cars, which is never a bad thing. Overall, it is a very good ride, and as we noted in our , mechanically it is the equal of anything else in the segment. That, combined with the Malibu’s good looks inside and out, should ensure that the Chevrolet version of this platform gets the consideration among buyers in the segment that it deserves. If you would like to know what the 3.6 liter Malibu will drive like, click on the link to our review of the Saturn Aura XR two sentences back.
The forthcoming Malibu Hybrid is the mechanical twin of the Saturn Aura Green Line Hybrid and therefore you can expect an extremely similar experience. We have not reviewed the Saturn Aura Green Line Hybrid, but the car has garnered somewhat tepid reviews in the automotive press.
That brings us to the main reason I went to Memphis, the four-cylinder Malibu, and more specifically, the Malibu four-cylinder paired with the six-speed automatic transmission, which will not be on sale until early 2008 calendar year. This offering in the Malibu, available only in the LTZ trim level, will mark the first time that General Motors will make a four-cylinder engine available with an automatic transmission that has more than four gears. GM’s marketing data forecasts that roughly 70% of all Malibu buyers will want the four-cylinder engine, so Chevrolet made sure the Malibu would be available with the four-banger, and available further with both a four-speed and a six-speed automatic.
At this point I must be candid and tell you that my expectations of the four-cylinder Ecotec engine were not high, no matter which transmission it was paired with in the new Malibu. The 2.4 liter, 16-valve, 169 HP inline four has never been high on my list of four-cylinder powerplants. And since I assumed that the six-speed automatic would take some work to be calibrated to the four-cylinder properly, I thought that there might be some teething problems and the result could very well be a thrumming over-matched engine paired with a six-speed transmission that was constantly hunting for the right gear.
I drove both the Malibu LT2 with the four-speed auto, and the future Malibu LTZ with the six-speed auto, and just like the six-cylinder model, it will also be possible to use the six-speed in manual mode through paddle shifts on the steering wheel.
The route we (I and the rest of the writers GM invited) drove meandered through the area around Memphis, through rolling country in Tennessee, and then down to Mississippi, where we were deep in the country on a variety of road surfaces. When I say “deep in the country”, I mean it was cotton and catfish territory. It is a region of the country I am familiar with and one that I am enamored of, so the day passed in a pleasant manner. The new Malibu handles and brakes well, no matter which engine is up front.
I was hard on those four-cylinder Malibus, running at high revs, low revs, and everything in between. I was trying to lug the four-cylinders out, looking for the dead spots, any complaints from the engine or the transmission, the tip-in points, and the places where the 160lbs/ft of torque was mismatched with either transmission. I spent much more time with the six-speed automatic because I thought, as I stated above, that the calibration to six-speed would be problematic. The four-cylinder has been married to the four-speed automatic in the GM line for awhile, so that was not my primary concern.
Both of the four-cylinders ran very well with their different automatic transmissions – there seems to have been some tweaking of the Ecotec engine in the Malibu. The GM engineers really did some good work on calibrating the six-speed automatic transmission to the Ecotec engine, and even in the pre-production model I drove, which was more or less a well-finished mule, everything worked as it should. The only complaints I had were the complaints you have with any mass-market four-cylinder; the torque you don’t have at 1300 rpms in fifth gear, or the fact that the engine gets a little breathless at high revs. The GM four-pot cannot comfortably go up as high in the revs as its Japanese competition; its not as good as the those engines in smoothness, but 99% of the driving population never visits that part of the horsepower and torque curve anyway. I have spent a lot of seat time in the four-cylinder versions of the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the Nissan Altima, and I enjoyed driving the six-speed Malibu more than either the Camry or the Altima. In my opinion, it was not as good a ride as the Honda Accord four-cylinder with the five-speed auto, but I think that’s the benchmark in this segment. The Malibu four-cylinder with the six-speed was very, very close to the Accord in driving pleasure.
After I add it all up, that is, exterior styling, interior design and materials, quality of fit and finish, handling, motive power, etc. of the four-cylinder models of the other cars at the same price point, if I’m a buyer in this segment, I think I’m buying the six-speed automatic of the Malibu when it comes out. I think the Honda is a better car mechanically and in fit and finish, but only marginally, and the looks of the Honda do nothing for me.
Of course, I realize that there a lot of people that will tell you that most people that buy four-cylinder cars spend a lot of time in bumper-to-bumper traffic and therefore have no need for the six-speed automatic, and that is a salient point, but I beg to differ. If you don’t need those extra one or two speeds in the automatic transmission in slow traffic, no one makes you use them, and when you can use them (long-legged highway cruising), its very nice to have same, both for fuel economy and to lessen noise and vibration.
Now, is GM going to be able sell the Chevrolet Malibu to Americans used to a steady diet of Japanese small cars, or will the Malibu suffer the same anonymity as the entirely worthy Saturn Aura? You might theorize that Chevrolet will have even more trouble moving the Malibu four-cylinder models since the reputation of the Japanese is even stronger in that area. That certainly doesn’t bode well for the Malibu if that’s supposed to be 70% of their volume.
Yeah, well, I don’t know how GM’s market efforts with the Chevrolet Malibu are going to work out, but after the aforementioned laying on of hands and the mashing of the right foot vis-à-vis the vastly improved Malibu last week, I can say without reservation that any serious shopper in the mid-size car segment needs to make one of their stops at a Chevrolet dealership. If they don’t they’re only cheating themselves out of another great choice in the segment. GM, and Chevrolet, have produced a competitor worth reckoning with in the 2008 Malibu.
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