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Chevrolet has completely redesigned its highly successful Malibu for the 2004 model year. The only thing that carries over from the old Malibu is the name. Every screw, nut and bolt is new on the 2004 Malibu. Test drives of several variations of the 2004 Malibu demonstrated that Chevy's new sedan stacks up well against the Japanese competition in driving dynamics and price.
The driving performance of the Malibu exceeded our expectations. Steering and handling are softer than the Honda Accord, but firmer than the Toyota Camry, the right balance for a wide range of buyers. The solid body structure and supple suspension result in a quiet cabin and comfortable ride yet allow spirited driving. We were impressed with the power of the available V6. The cabin offers roomy accommodations for five passengers with comfortable seats and logical controls that are easy to use.
Where the Malibu needs work is in the appearance department. On the outside, the new Malibu is not a raving beauty but it is better looking than the previous model, which sold well despite its plain appearance. The interior is a mix attractive, quality trim used in some areas and cheap plastic in others. If history is any indication, the new Malibu should offer good quality construction, however. The previous Malibu ranked tops in the midsize car class two consecutive years in the J. D. Power Initial Quality Surveys.
Starting at just under $19,000 and topping out at about $25,000, Malibu prices are extremely competitive with prices of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, which can easily top $25,000.
The 2004 Chevy Malibu is not a gorgeous car, but its exterior appearance is vastly improved from its Tupperware-bland predecessor. The new Malibu has more character and class than the 2003 model. It also appears to be more substantive, giving the impression it is a more expensive car than it is. Indeed, it is slightly wider than the model it replaces.
The back end of the Malibu sedan resembles the upright rears of European cars. The European touch should not be a surprise since the Malibu's underbody is shared with its German and Swedish cousins, the Opel Vectra, and the Saab 9-3.
The front features a chrome bar across the full-width of the car, with the familiar Chevy bowtie in gold in the center. The bar along with the headlamp shape are attempts to create a family resemblance with the Chevrolet trucks, which have been so successful in the marketplace. The translation doesn't work as well on smaller cars. It appears as if Chevy designers are still trying to come up with a consistent car and truck styling theme.
The new Malibu is equally substantial inside. With 101 cubic feet of interior space, it is extremely roomy for five passengers. The seats are comfortable. The front seat cleverly folds flat for carrying long objects such as skis.
The rear seat is a 60/40 split folding one. Lots of nooks and crannies are available for storage, including a center console with a roomy bin, four cupholders, a storage tray and a clip pad. It further has requisite power outlets. The interior is conservatively styled but everything is logical and easy to use. Controls on the center dash are conveniently backlit for night driving.
The biggest problem with the interior is its inconsistency. Some interior parts used extremely high quality materials, such as the soft rubber door handles, which reminded us of Volkswagens, the benchmark for interiors. Yet, other parts, such as the plastic surrounding the audio and climate controls, appeared cheap. The ceiling area above the visors was lumpy, the edges of the ceiling fabric where it was supposed to tuck into the trim was ragged, the handle for the lumbar support flimsy and the seat fabric puckered. Our test cars were pre-production models and some of the finer points may be worked out in production. Still, we didn't feel the interior materials and workmanship, in general, measured up to the craftsmanship of a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
A neat feature is the remote starter system, useful for starting the car from inside the house when it's very cold or very hot outside. To start the Malibu, press the lock button on the remote key fob, then press and hold the remote start button for one and one-half seconds. The two-step process is designed to prevent accidental activation. It also ensures the vehicle is locked (it can be unlocked by pushing the lock button again on the key fob) and the anti-theft system engages. The remote start system receives an ever-changing radio frequency code, intended to thwart thieves, from the key fob. The vehicle turn signals flash once and the parking lights turn on when the vehicle engine begins running. To drive away after a remote start, the vehicle's ignition key must be placed in the switch and rotated to the run position. The key lets the anti-theft device know it is the proper one and allows the vehicle to run normally. If the driver doesn't drive off after 10 minutes, the engine shuts off. The car can be re-started with the push of the buttons again. The engine can be stopped by remote by pressing the remote start button on the key fob, engaging the hazard switch on the Malibu's dashboard or turning the ignition key to the off position. GM claims this is the industry's first factory-installed remote start system, which is covered by a car manufacturer's warranty and is tied into the vehicle's anti-theft system.
The driving dynamics of the Malibu exceeded our expectations.
The 2004 Chevy Malibu is built on GM's new global platform it calls Epsilon, a front-wheel-drive architecture developed by a team of American, German and Swedish engineers. The architecture serves as the basis for the highly successful Opel Vectra in Germany, and the Swedish-made Saab 9-3. In the U.S., Epsilon also will be used for the Pontiac Grand Am replacement. Bottom line is the Epsilon platform provides good bones for the Malibu sedan.
Malibu's body structure is rock solid to make it quiet and responsive as well as safe, presumably. Its steering is an electronic system to boost fuel economy, reduce noise and require less maintenance. It provides the driver with assistance at low speeds, such as in parking lots, and less at highway speeds for better feel.
Engineers have deliberately tuned the steering, handling and ride to be smack dab in between the Accord's firmness and the Camry softness. We think it was exactly the right decision. The rock solid body structure provided us with a very quiet and comfortable ride yet still allowed us a relatively spirited driving experience.
Both engines deliver plenty of power as well as good fuel economy within their segments. GM's global Ecotec engine, a 2.2-liter dual overhead cam four cylinder, serves as the base engine. It delivers 145 horsepower and good fuel economy.
GM's newly developed 3.5-liter V6 is the other choice, providing 200 horsepower and decent fuel economy. We were especially impressed with the extra kick the V6 gave us in highway passing maneuvers. The new 3.5-liter V6 offers a big improvement over the previous Malibu's 170-horsepower 3.1-liter V6.
Brakes are front disc and rear drum.
The 2004 Chevrolet Malibu has a rock-solid driving personality, a promising safety outlook, and lots of features at an attractive price. And we expect the Malibu to continue its strong quality track record.
The Chevy Malibu is the second volley in GM's all-out assault on the Japanese carmakers' stronghold on midsize car sales leadership. (The first was the introduction of the redesigned 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix last spring.) GM has announced plans to revamp its entire midsize car line by introducing more than two dozen sedans, coupes, crossovers and convertibles over the next three years.
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