Chevrolet introduced the Malibu in 1964 as a variation of the Chevelle. From 64 until 83, the Malibu provided stylish, practical transportation for a very reasonable price. In 1998, Chevy revived the Malibu name for an all-new, if rather plain, mid-size sedan. Now for 2004, Chevy has completely revamped the Malibu as part of its new push to recapture car sales from the imports. Well, the new Malibu is still practical, more stylish, and very solid. But will it sell?
Versatility and value is what a successful family sedan is supposed to be all about. But while aiming for value, designers of the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu didn’t skimp on the basics or the details. With rivals like Accord and Camry, they couldn’t afford to.
Malibu is built on GM’s new Epsilon platform, the same one we raved about in the new Saab 9-3. Here the stiff Epsilon frame measures 106.3-inches in wheelbase, about an inch-and-a-half shorter than that of a Honda Accord. Malibu’s slab-sided sheet metal is handsome, if not very distinctive, but the front end shares the bolder look of current Chevy trucks and SUVS.
All enclose a spacious and well-equipped interior, with a super clean, logical layout. The interior trim and fabrics are first rate, with fine grain, low luster plastics that would be at home in the best import brand rivals. Wow. We never said that about a Chevy before. As are safety features, with the addition of optional head-curtain side airbags for both front and rear seats. The front seats are wide, firm with good back support, but a little flat on the bottoms. Power driver’s seat height adjustment and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel are standard. Seat heat is optional, while power adjustable gas and brake pedals are standard with LS and LT trim.
The front passenger seat gets a front-loading seat back, for loads up to eight feet long. Air vents are huge and easily push air to the rear seat. Air conditioning is standard, with automatic climate control available. AM/FM CD audio is also included. A 6-disc changer or XM satellite radio can be added. The new control layout looks fresh and works great. And note the tight, even seams everywhere.
In the rear, there’s plenty of head and leg room for adults, and easy fold 60/40 split seat backs. The trunk measures 15.4 cubic feet, 1.4 larger than a Honda Accord. Moreover, it’s tall, wide, deep, with a low load lip and two side cargo nets. An interesting new feature is an optional remote starter. It allows cold weather warmup from up to 200 feet away. The system has safeguards that keep the car running but parked.
In the base Malibu, the engine that it starts is GM’s 2.2-liter dual-overhead-cam Ecotec 4-cylinder. It expels 145 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque. LS and LT models are powered by a new 3.5-liter pushrod V6 with 200 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Both run their power through a 4-speed automatic transmission.
With the V6 in Drive, the Malibu hits 60 in 8 seconds flat. The quarter mile ends in 16.1 seconds at 89 miles-per-hour. Power builds gradually from idle, to about 5,000 rpm. Noise control is much improved. It’s not overhead-cam smooth, but it’s very impressive. Gear changes are as smooth as they get.
Less smooth is the handling. Suspension is all independent with struts in the front and four-links per side in the rear. Typical of its class, grip is more than adequate, the electric power-assisted steering is low on feedback, and front plow is heavy. This makes for an unexciting, but very safe handling sedan. There was also enough body roll to set off the OnStar system’s roll-over warning, resulting in our driver receiving a call from the OnStar operator in the middle of a slalom test.
In our braking test, stops from 60 averaged a long 141 feet. The pedal felt soft, with noticeable fade. ABS is standard on all but the base car. Chassis stability is, however, quite good, with every stop being straight and stable. More typical daily driving revealed a solid, comfortable ride, even over broken pavement, and above average interior noise control. EPA mileage figures for the new Malibu are 23 city, 32 highway. Our mixed mileage loop delivered a perfectly acceptable 24 miles-per-gallon.
Malibu prices start at $18,995 for the nicely equipped 4-cylinder. That’s midway between a comparably equipped Accord and Camry. Move up to the LS V6, and the price is an extremely competitive $20,995. That’s thousands less than its best rivals. The top-line LT model holds onto Malibu’s V6 advantage at $23,495.
An even more versatile Malibu Maxx 5-door hatchback version with skylights and moveable rear seat bows later in the model year.
So the Chevy Malibu has come a long way since 1964, and against import branded mid-size sedans, this new generation is extremely competitive in every way. Indeed, this is the kind of family car Detroit should always make. Indeed, we think the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu has the high value and versatility that can best be summed up in one word: Sold!
Engine: 3.5-Liter Pushrod V6
Torque: 220 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 8.0 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.1seconds @ 89 MPH
60-0 MPH: 141 Feet
EPA Mileage: 23 MPG City 32 MPG Highway
Motorweek's Mileage Loop: 24 MPG Mixed City/highway