CORNWALL, N.Y. -- We carried a heavy load -- linen and appliances for the new house, our eldest daughter's place in this idyllic setting 52 miles north of the frenetic hustle of New York City, five miles north of the occasionally booming guns of the military academy at West Point.
We didn't plan well. That's the editorial "we," herein used to cover my tail. A truck was available for the 300-mile drive from our home -- "Mom and Dad's place" -- in Northern Virginia. But it was a truck with a big V-8 engine, a gas guzzler of the first order.
I vetoed the truck, choosing fuel economy over utility, not the smartest thing to do when carrying capacity was needed. But stupidity sometimes has benefits, in this case the discovery that General Motors has moved quickly to improve its hot-selling Chevrolet Malibu sedan -- now offered as a 2009 model with a four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, and dressed in premium Malibu LTZ trim.
If proof were needed that GM is serious about challenging Toyota's dominance of family sedan sales in the United States, the 2009 Malibu LTZ used on this journey suffices. It's a first-class, affordable, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, mid-size family sedan now equipped with a transmission worthy of the name.
This is major. This is a breakthrough. This is GM behaving in a most un-GM-like manner.
This is the new GM.
The old GM happily would have rested on its laurels from the 2008 Malibu, a car light-years ahead of earlier GM products in terms of design consistency, engineering and overall quality. The 2008 Malibu won the North American Car of the Year award, no small thing for GM and a Chevrolet division long accustomed to being trounced by foreign rivals in such contests.
The old GM would still be polishing its trophy, pleasantly unconcerned that the 2008 Malibu also suffered an aggravating deficit: Its four-cylinder version came with a mileage-limiting, four-speed automatic transmission in a world where five-speed, six-speed, and seven-speed automatics were becoming common.
Transmissions are critical. They determine the efficiency with which power is transferred from the engine to the drive wheels. The more efficient the power transfer, the less fuel is used.
Transmissions with more gears for handling the power transfer generally are considered more efficient than those with fewer. There's also the matter of continuously variable transmissions, those that eschew traditional gearing altogether, but that's another story.
In the matter of traditionally geared transmissions, five speeds are better than four, six are better than five. But GM thinking, long controlled by people who cared more about the bottom line than consumer satisfaction, placed more value on the cheaper four-speed transmissions, assuming most consumers wouldn't care as long as they got a deal.
But Toyota, Honda and other rivals changed that, offering family cars with more sophisticated transmissions and other qualities -- pretty interiors, for example -- at higher prices that consumers still paid. That proved that consumer satisfaction is the best determinant of a company's bottom line.
The 2009 Malibu LTZ with the 2.4-liter, 169-horsepower, in-line, four-cylinder engine mated to a modern six-speed automatic transmission proves GM has learned that important lesson.
It is a fine car, one that won approving nods in this community, where fine cars are common. Fit and finish are impeccable. The interior is one of the best-looking, most comfortable, most ergonomically sensible in the business. And the Malibu runs nicely among the cars and trucks on the New Jersey Turnpike and New York State Thruway, where not many drivers have accepted that slower speeds save fuel.
Are there any remaining deficits with the Malibu? Yes.
"If you had used a truck, you could have brought everything," said my wife, Mary Anne. "Now, you're just going to have to make another trip. That means you're wasting fuel and time. That's stupid, Warren."
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