2008 Chevrolet Malibu: Is It a Car You Can't Ignore?
A Waiting Line for a Mid-Size Sedan?
As we dive into our coverage of the 2008 North American International Auto Show, we can take a quick look back at one of the most important 2007 introductions. Chevrolet’s Malibu went on sale in November, after being launched in Detroit last January. And in an unusual turn of events for Chevrolet, they couldn’t build enough Malibus in those early months to meet demand, and it will take a bit of time for the inventory to build up. Perhaps consumers agree that the Malibu is a car you can’t ignore. We’ll see where sales level out as the pipeline fills and the year wears on, but too few is not a problem GM sees often.
Now that we’ve driven it, we can say that Chevrolet has what it takes this time to bring mid-size sedan buyers back to the fold and prove that their quality is firmly on par with the competition.
Late last fall, we had the chance to drive one of Chevy’s high-volume sellers around Memphis, Tennessee, edging south and dipping into Mississippi. We had mostly smooth roads and sweeping curves. Malibu offers two engines, a 146HP 2.4L I4 and a 217HP 3.6L V6. The I4 is also used for the gasoline portion of the mild hybrid equation. Though the non-hybrid I4 launched with a four-speed automatic, it will be mated to a six-speed automatic in summer 2008.
We got a few miles behind the wheel with all four powertrain configurations. Though the extra oomph of the V6 was appreciated, it doesn’t transform the Malibu into a rocketship, nor is it intended to. Given that, our initial recommendation would be to hold out for the I4 mated to the six-speed automatic unless you absolutely must have a V6. Unlike some mid-size competition, Malibu can’t be had with a manual transmission. Mating the I4 to the six-speed gives it more responsive feel at the lower end along with improved fuel economy versus the four-speed automatic, non-hybrid I4. Though Chevrolet offers the hybrid for $23,000, we’d be tempted to give up the extra few mpg the hybrid can gain for the responsiveness found with the six-speed automatic. Excepting a Malibu that spends its life in stop-and-go situations, where the hybrid would bring its greatest advantage.
The Malibu’s ride was smooth and quiet, though we’d like to see the car over some Michigan roads or California canyon switchbacks to see how it handles in more dramatic circumstances. The electric power steering of the I4-equipped cars is lighter but also a little slower and less responsive than the hydraulic system the V6 cars get.
This Malibu’s clean, crisp style; short front overhangs; and wheels in the corners give it a purposeful stance. It wears Chevy’s split grille well. The rear line from the lower fascia and up over the decklid was inspired by the Corvette, and is a pleasing, subtle execution of a family look.
Chevrolet is proud of this Malibu, and put the family bowtie in no fewer than twelve places on the exterior of the vehicle. The first six are easy to spot and expected (grille and rear decklid and all four wheels), but the others are subtle and easy to miss. The jeweled and sculpted headlights hold two, the red rear side marker lights another two, and reverse lights the last two. Attention to detail and a clear dedication to giving the customer a little something special.
The cabin is comfortable and quiet, whether cloth or uplevel leather. Conversation is easy between first and second rows. Front seats are comfortable and supportive, with a little extra side bolster. Controls for heated seats are along the outside corner of each seat, like platformmate Saturn Aura‘s, out of the sightline and a little difficult to get to. But overall improved look and feel and more polished style bring this Malibu upscale from the outgoing car. You can see Aura in the steering wheel, audio controls, HVAC vents, and gearshift lever, but we like those elements in both. Chevrolet held the prior Malibu‘s dash sculpting in front of both driver and passenger into the new Malibu, but executed it in a pleasing and fluid manner. The ability to choose among more interior color combinations, including two-tone, and ambient lighting contributes to the line’s more upscale feel.
Malibu is offered at reasonable prices, though one cost sacrifice was the decision not to offer a map-based navigation system. Malibu only offers OnStar, standard on all but the base LS. OnStar-equipped models get a basic subscription for a year, but you have to step up the monthly payment to get and keep Turn-by-Turn navigation. On the other had, DVD-map-based systems are about $1500 and require owners to buy new maps from time to time. OnStar’s Turn-By-Turn is, over the life of the vehicle (or lease), the more cost-effective option. Still, I far prefer map-based systems. Both maps and OnStar systems give you audible distance warnings before turns, a map shows you how many streets you might pass or that can help visually guide you through tricky interstate exchanges and puts some perspective on the “500 yards to right turn” voice.
We used OnStar Turn-by-Turn to get to our final destination. Aside from the lack of a map, it took five minutes to download directions into the car. We were receiving those directions while moving, so it was disconcerting how long it took to get them. But it is easy to get turn-by-turn directions from OnStar and unwise to program a navigation system while driving. Another nifty bonus was that we didn’t need the full address, just the hotel and city name were enough. Some DVD-based systems also allow you to search by name or by phone number, but with OnStar you’ve got a person to give you the options.
Can Malibu Turn Chevy’s Image Around?
Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord are the best-selling mid-size sedans, and they currently enjoy the perception of being of higher quality compared with domestic products. They remain an easy choice, reliable choice. So now, too, is the Chevrolet Malibu.
Chevrolet’s challenge is convincing buyers not only that the Malibu is as good as Camry and Accord in quality, but that they can apply this quality to future products and the range as a whole. The Malibu builds on the company’s quality gains this decade and an attention to detail Chevy has lacked at times is here crystal clear. To succeed will take more than one lifecycle and even better future products. Malibu, Cheryl Catton, general director of Chevy car marketing says, is relaunching the Chevrolet car lineup. They are off to a great start, but have much to prove.
Whether Malibu really is “The car you can’t ignore” remains to be seen. It isn’t this season, but next year’s marketing and follow-up products that will determine if Malibu succeeds or if it fades into the noise.
Editor’s Note – The Cannibalization Challenge
Now that the new Malibu is on the road we’ll have to watch how it interacts with the larger Impala. Remember, the dorky styled Impala was freshened for 2007 and became a much better car selling over 300,000 units during 2007 (compared with a bit over 125,000 for old and some new Malibu units. In conversations with Chevrolet management, they concede that there may be cannibalization between the new and critically acclaimed Malibu and the older, larger Impala. In any event, both are very competitive and give Chevy the best mid-market car lineup they have had in years.