From behind the counter at the Irving Blue Canoe in New Hampshire, where I buy my papers every morning, the cashier looked through the glass at my ride du jour.
"I've always wanted an Avalon," she said. Actually, the car was a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu. But by mistaking it for an upscale Toyota Avalon, the clerk had one-upped the professional auto writers who have said this new Malibu is good enough to compete with Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord.
Granted, we had it in top-of-the-line LTZ form, but even for the fully loaded version, the price was still just over $27,000.
I loved the Saturn Aura, with which this car shares genes, and I think the Ford Five Hundred has been underestimated by critics, myself included. But that said, this Malibu, in all its forms, is the best American sedan I've seen as far as being ready to go head-to-head with Asian autos.
Let's unwrap it from the inside, where I can hear the voice of General Motors Corp. executive Bob Lutz telling me that the problem with American cars is that too much is spent on needless interior appointments (like lower door sills that are "only there to be kicked"), and not enough on what is important. That would be the tactile, the obviously visual, and the "personality" that a vehicle's interior can convey.
In this Malibu, two-toned leathers, a multihued dash with bisecting wood band, and a cockpit feel that is reminiscent of a 1950s Corvette, tell us that Lutz had his way. It is a superb GM interior. Aside from the leather, it boasts soft-touch and textured surfaces, and careful crafting, such as the "wood" trim that arcs up from the center control pod, sweeps out along the dash to thin ends at the backs of the front doors.
This car isn't ready to romp with the Chrysler Hemi sedans or the BMW 5 Series or the new Lexus IS 4 and its 416 horsepower. But at this price, that's not what it's made to do. Will it run with, or ahead of, Camrys and Accords and even Avalons? It is right there, that's for sure.
And bold as its design may be - with a short front, long and sculpted side windows, distinct hipline front to rear, and a chopped rear deck - it can also be purchased in a rather subtle form.
It comes in three trim levels, starting at around $20,000: a base LS, an LT, and our LTZ. Significantly, all feature standard head curtain airbags, front-seat thorax bags, ABS, and traction control. GM's Stabilitrak is an option only on the LS.
As for engine choices, the LS has an Ecotec 2.4-liter powerplant and four-speed automatic transmission, good for 169 horsepower and likely to get about 25 miles per gallon. There is also a four-cylinder hybrid system available.
The LT can be had with the same engine or with a 3.6-liter V-6 featuring a six-speed automatic/manual and 252 horsepower. Plenty for most folks, it's also the engine in the high-end LTZ. In an age of fuel parsimony, GM says about 70 percent of the Malibus expects to sell will have four-cylinder engines.
Onroad performance felt a bit heavy and there was definite torque steer (pull to the right) from the front-wheel-drive system. But that heaviness will please many American buyers, and a car that feels "substantial" is not necessarily a negative.
The handling was solid, and the optional "manual" shift paddles on the steering wheel were a pleasant surprise for a car in this price range. The front seats are encompassing and comfortable; only the middle passenger in the rear will suffer.
This is the Chevrolet that should have been built years ago, but like our federal government, there are many layers of the onion to be peeled before a plan becomes reality at a giant American automotive company.
Thankfully, the Lutz peeler has been put to good use.
Base price/as tested: $26,346/$27,245 Fuel economy: 20.3 miles per gallon in Globe testing (regular fuel) Annual fuel cost: $1,940 (at $3.03 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)
THE EARLY LINE
Chevrolet needs this car to break away from its "fleet" car we rent at airports and become, once again, a desirable model.
Drivetrain: Front-wheel-drive Seating: 5 Horsepower: 252 Torque: 251 lb.-ft. Overall length: 191.8 inches Wheelbase: 112.3 inches Height: 57.1 inches Width: 70.3 inches Curb weight: 3,649 pounds
Nice touch: The defined levels, layers, and textures of the dashboard. It's what we see, what we touch, and it should be superb. It is. Annoyance: There seems a big leap - about $6,000, including a bigger engine - between the superb interior of this version and serviceable interiors of lesser models.
Royal Ford can be reached at email@example.com.
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