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FIRST DRIVE

Don't underestimate the power of the redesigned Chevy Malibu

Updated styling with a European influence helps add to the appeal of the model's latest incarnation.

November 05, 2003|Warren Brown | Washington Post

The thing about underdogs is that you never know when they are going to bite your tail. Thus, the best way to deal with them is to pay attention.

Take the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu. The Malibu first appeared in 1964 as the Chevelle Malibu SS 327. It was popular, but the car had its critics. It was introduced with a 230-horsepower engine, later upgraded to 300 horsepower, in a muscle-car market where 400-horsepower engines ruled the road.

By the time the Malibu ended its first run in 1983, the nameplate had gone through several iterations, ending up as a full-size, rear-wheel-drive sedan bought by working-class families and police departments.

When the car was reintroduced as a front-wheel-drive, mid-size sedan in 1997, automotive journalists wrote it off as a lame attempt by General Motors Corp. to compete with Toyota Motor Corp.'s Camry and Honda Motor Co.'s Accord. Their derision had some merit.

It is hard to imagine a car with an exterior design more bland than that of the average Camry or Accord, but the 1997 Malibu beat those models in stylistic mediocrity. And to that feat it added several recalls, the most recent one last year.

For all of its problems, the Malibu through the years has had loyal owners -- people who swear that its difficulties have been exaggerated at the expense of its virtues. Now, GM plans to use the extensively redesigned 2004 Chevrolet Malibu sedan to prove that claim and to take as many family-sedan sales as possible from Toyota, Honda and other makers of affordable family cars.

Advice to GM/Chevrolet rivals: Watch your tails. This new dog has big teeth and lots of growl.

For one thing, it looks better inside and out with a globally competitive fit and finish. Exterior styling is mostly linear, with subtle curves in the front and rear body panels. The look is conservative but sophisticated.

The interior is simple -- linear, but curved where necessary along the dashboard; well-designed center console; everything ergonomically pleasing. The cabin bespeaks something of European influence. The new Malibu, built on GM's global Epsilon platform, largely was developed by the company's Opel subsidiary in Germany.

The European influence also becomes evident in the 2004 Malibu's overall feel -- tightness of body, sound deadening, ride and handling.

I drove the upscale, 200-horsepower Malibu LT V6. The body was very tight -- as rigid as, if not more so than, current Camrys and Accords. The ride was comfortable. Road noise was diminished. There were no complaints from any of my four picky passengers on several trips. And there was little body sway in curves and around corners in the new model.

There was some downshifting during acceleration, but nothing certifiably unpleasant. It left me wishing for a bit more powerful engine, something along the lines of 225 horsepower. But family and friends scoffed, citing my complaint as proof that I have become a recalcitrant throttle jockey.

As for fuel economy, I averaged 28 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.

The 2004 Malibu is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive sedan that also is available as the hatchback Malibu Maxx. The sedan has three trim levels: the base Malibu, the popularly equipped LS and the upscale LT.

The Malibu's two available engines include GM's standard 145-horsepower, 2.2-liter, in-line four-cylinder Ecotec and an optional 3.5-liter, 200-horsepower V6. Both engines get GM's Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic transmission.

The base price on the tested Malibu LT V6 is $22,870. Dealer invoice is $20,296. The tested model's price is $24,495, including $1,000 in options and a $625 destination charge.

My test car came with GM's optional remote-start feature, which allows you to start the car from a distance of 200 feet. I suppose I could have better understood the value of this option had the weather been bitingly cold or unbearably hot. Remote start allows you to heat or cool the Malibu's interior, without unlocking the car, before entering. But the weather was pleasant during my week in the Malibu LT V6, so that rendered the remote start a useless novelty.

High on my list of Malibu options are the OnStar communications and navigation system and XM Satellite Radio. OnStar, which can provide immediate contact with emergency and road assistance services, makes travel safer. XM Radio (along with its rival, Sirius Satellite Radio) simply makes the trip more enjoyable.

As for the sedan's head-turning quotient: I deliberately parked the Malibu LT V6 next to every new Toyota Camry and Honda Accord I could find. The results aren't scientific. But people looked at the new Malibu first, with approval.

Overall, the Chevy Malibu is an excellent value for the dollar, and a good-feel car at that. Compare it with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and 2004 Mitsubishi Galant.

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