Malibu, long a revered Chevy name, is back and on a car that takes on competitors such as the Toyota Camry, Dodge Stratus and Honda Accord in one of the hottest-fought segments of the market.

This four-door, front-wheel-drive family car does not dazzle with exotic styling or sporty performance; it succeeds with everyday competence. It replaces the Corsica in Chevy's lineup and was recently chosen as Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year.

The largest group of potential buyers, according to Chevrolet, are practical, value-oriented folks, mostly in their 30s or 40s. That means this is a car for the masses, for people who value functional transportation in a reliable and reasonably priced package.

To that end, our test car had a base price of $15,470, a sticker price of $17,631 with a V6, power windows, dual airbags, power locks, remote keyless entry, anti-lock brakes, AM/FM stereo cassette and power outside mirrors. The lack of a rear window defogger was a puzzling omission for a car of this price.

The upscale Malibu LS starts at $15,995 and has more standard equipment.

Even though the 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Twin Cam engine is standard, our test car was equipped with the optional 3100 V6. This 3.1-liter unit only puts out five more horsepower than the four, 155 versus 150, but it is smoother and has more torque. Consequently, the Malibu feels and performs more like its competitors. I wouldn't be surprised if value-oriented buyers chose the four cylinder, however.

Extended maintenance items include spark plugs that last for 100,000 miles, transmission fluid that never needs changing under normal circumstances and long-life radiator coolant.

The Malibu's styling, which resembles the previous Toyota Camry, can best be described as safe. Given the fact that Chevrolet was starting with a clean sheet of paper I am surprised it didn't take a more radical approach.

Oldsmobile's new Cutlass is a near clone.

Function, not wild styling, will determine how effective the Malibu is. It feels tight and solid, accelerates well and offers a back seat that can hold three people.

The rigid body shell has a built-in safety cage and a chassis cradle that supports the engine and suspension. Acoustical foam blocks are placed inside places such as door frames, rocker panels and the roof to absorb noise and vibration. As the paint is baked the heat causes these blocks to expand.

A one-piece carpet mat also cuts down on sound.

Even the radio antenna has not escaped attention as a cause of noise. Spiral grooves ground into its surface upset airflow and reduce whistling.

On the move there is a commendable lack of wind and road noise. While it doesn't approach the Camry in terms of quiet, it is quite respectable. Much like the Venture minivan, the Malibu feels solid and free from rattles and squeaks.

Sliding behind the wheel reveals a couple of new items. The ignition key switch is on the dash instead of the steering column where it is easier to see, and a cupholder pulls out from the dash just to the left of the steering wheel. Similar to a design pioneered by Mazda, the left-side cupholder is handy when you need it and out of the way when you don't.

The instrument panel contains analog gauges, including a tachometer. Ease of use played a big part in the layout of the interior. The radio is located above the heater because it is used more often, there is a second power outlet for cell phones or CD players and outboard ventilation outlets are mounted high on the door panels. The gearshift lever is tall, but I found its height occasionally bothersome.

Some pieces of the dash have a hard surface that is less inviting than a softer finish.

Standard equipment includes a tilt steering wheel, anti-lock brakes and dual airbags.

While you won't find yourself flinging the Malibu into turns because it grips the road like a sports car it rides smoothly and feels reasonably athletic. Chevy equipped it with a four-wheel independent suspension that uses some aluminum parts as well as aluminum brake calipers that are 20 percent lighter.

The Malibu is geared toward buyers who prefer function and value over flashy styling. Competent, friendly and reasonably priced, it should appeal to a lot of buyers.


The base price of our test car was $15,470. Options of power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, 3.1-liter V6, remote keyless entry, custom cloth seats and AM/FM stereo cassette brought the sticker price to $17,631.


The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: Think of cars as transportation? This front-wheel-drive sedan will haul you and four others without asking for much in return. It is solid, responsive and reasonably spacious. Chevy is on the right track with a car that has the basics down pat.

Counterpoint: This car has a mighty big task in front of it because competition in this segment is formidable. If styling and pizzaz are your hot buttons, the Malibu will not push them.


ENGINE: 3.1-liter, V6


WHEELBASE: 107 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,100 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $15,470


MPG RATING: 20 city, 29 hwy.