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The Chevrolet Malibu was launched to compete with mid-size imports such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The Malibu emphasizes civilized road manners, quality construction, and buttoned-down practicality wrapped in innocuous if not anonymous styling.
The driving performance of the Malibu exceeded our expectations. We were surprised by the acceleration performance from the V6 and delighted by the crispness of handling on winding roads. It feels firmer than the Camry, but softer than the Accord, a good balance, in other words.
Malibu's solid structure is based on GM's newly developed Epsilon platform used by a couple of highly successful European sedans. Along with its compliant suspension, this gives the Malibu a smooth, comfortable ride, yet allows for spirited driving. This is no mush-mobile. At the same time, steering effort is light at low speeds, making the Malibu easy to maneuver in crowded parking lots and other tight parking situations.
The cabin offers roomy accommodations for four passengers, five if one of them is sufficiently slender to squeeze into the rear middle seat. The seats are comfortable and the controls are logical and easy to use. Malibu is quiet underway, and it offers a wide range of engine choices. No question, this is a highly competent sedan that's practical and easy to live with.
The Malibu has something the imports don't: the Maxx. The Maxx is a long-wheelbase variant, whose extended roofline and rear cargo hatch suggest a sporty wagon. While Malibu seems destined to disappear into a crowd, Maxx looks just as determined to stand out and be noticed.
For 2006, the Malibu SS models receive a new, 240-hp, 3.9-liter V6 coupled to a sport-shift automatic. Performance in these is even peppier yet, adding to the Malibu's overall promising lineup.
Starting at just over $17,000 and topping out around $27,000 fully optioned, the Malibu is extremely competitive with the prices of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, which can approach $30,000 with options.
A bumpy, winding road quickly showed us the Chevrolet Malibu handles well. Chevrolet engineers deliberately tuned the Malibu's ride and handling to fall between Accord firmness and Camry and Sonata softness. We think it was exactly the right decision. The Opel structure provides a quiet and comfortable ride yet allows spirited driving. The chassis is well controlled. The SS models feature a stiffer suspension, which transmits some harshness into the cabin.
The electronically controlled steering is reasonably responsive, having overcome the spongy on-center feel and directional uncertainty in the technology's early years. Like all variable-assist systems, it provides the driver with more assistance at low speeds for parking maneuvers, with less power assistance at highway speeds for better steering feel. The SS comes with fatter tires that make for quicker and more precise turn in.
GM's 2.2-liter, dual overhead cam, four-cylinder Ecotec engine serves as the base engine. Saddled with a car weighing more than 3000 pounds, its 144 horsepower delivers what's best described as casual acceleration. However, it does achieve an EPA-estimated 24/34 miles per gallon city/highway fuel economy rating.
The 3.5-liter V6 delivers 200 horsepower while achieving 23/32 mpg in the sedan and 22/30 in the Maxx. We were pleased with its overall balance and smoothness, but wished for a bit more oomph for demanding maneuvers at highway speeds.
The new 3.9-liter V6 that comes on the SS is a welcome upgrade. It's decently up to date, with variable valve timing and the like. It's quick off the line, thanks to the low engine speed at which its torque peaks, and its healthy measure of horsepower handles freeway on-ramps and high-speed passes with relative ease. There's a taste of front-wheel-drive syndrome (torque steer), where the steering wheel pulls this way and that during hard acceleration, but we've experienced more in cars costing more. Fuel economy takes a hit, dropping to 18/26 mpg city/highway, but it seems worth it for the improved performance. An SS-exclusive feature we found disappointing was the sport-shift mechanism on the transmission. This consisted of a small, rocker switch on the side of the top of the shift knob, hardly an intuitive approach. Seeing as how the gear selection is all done electronically anyway, why not a secondary slot in the shift gate where a driver can actually move the lever to select a gear? On the upside, the system did hold the chosen gear all the way up to the engine speed limiter and against every effort to force a downshift.
Models with the four-cylinder engine come with front disc and rear drum brakes. V6 models get four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and traction control. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking, while traction control slows a spinning wheel as needed to restore grip. Technology aside, the firmness of the brake pedal impressed us and inspired confidence, as did the couple of times we felt the ABS step in to hasten our deceleration on wet roads. Along these lines, we're disappointed not to see any form of electronic stability control offered on the Malibu.
The Chevrolet Malibu has a solid driving personality, a nice ride, a quiet, and a comfortable cabin. The Malibu Maxx is an attractive alternative with its liftgate, adjustable rear seating and some of the versatility of a small SUV, all in a package no larger than a mid-size sedan. And the new, more powerful V6 in the SS is a welcome addition.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Northern California.
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