Chevrolet's new Malibu sedan, just a year and a half out of the box, has proved to be a worthy competitor to the midsize Japanese sedans Americans love so much. It has also proved itself worthy of the Malibu name, one baby boomers remember
fondly as one of the great Chevy sedans of the '70s. That success comes while most midsize-sedan buyers view American auto manufacturing with a wary eye, being firmly convinced the Japanese have a knack for quality and dependability U.S.
automakers can't match. Anyone who still believes that hasn't taken the time to check out the 1998 Malibu, which is arguably just as good as a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Nissan Altima, but in most cases is less expensive. When imports
began flooding U.S. shores, their biggest selling point was an acceptable vehicle at a low price. But the tables have turned; U.S. automakers have to offer many of their vehicles at prices below the Japanese competitors' to attract buyers. With
the Malibu, at least, that doesn't mean that quality has to suffer. It doesn't, even though the Malibu is $3,058 less expensive than a comparably equipped Camry, $2,340 less than an Accord and $988 less than an Altima. It's the best value in the
midsize sedan class not just because of price but also because of quality, functionality, style and reliability -- the very qualities Americans have looked to imports to find. With a base price of $15,670 plus $525 transportation, the Malibu
offers a list of standard features that wipes out the Japanese competition, beginning with a four-speed automatic transmission. That's an $800 option on Camry, Accord and Altima. All four of those vehicles come with a four-cylinder as the base
engine, and even there, the Malibu matches or exceeds the competition in power. Malibu's 2.4-liter double-overhead-cam engine cranks out 150 horsepower, the same as the Accord and Altima and 17 horsepower ahead of the Camry. For $495, the Malibu
can be upgraded to the 3.1-liter V-6 engine, which has the same horsepower rating but increases torque from 155 foot pounds to 180. Driving the Malibu is a pleasure. Our test car came with the V-6, which I found to be responsive and more than
adequate for passing and freeway merging. On two-lane country roads, the Malibu handled more like a sports coupe than a sedan, with crisp steering response and a minimum of body roll on curves. One of the most impressive features was just how
quiet the passenger compartment was even at freeway speeds. It was just as quiet as most high-dollar luxury cars, and much more quiet than most of its competitors. The Malibu also tops the Japanese competition in passenger and trunk space. It has
a roomier passenger compartment than all of its competitors except the Ford Taurus, and it has the largest trunk in the class: 16 cubic feet. Accord has 13 cubic feet, Altima 14 and Camry 14.1. Four-wheel antilock brakes are standard
on the Malibu, but optional on most competitors, a significant safety advantage. The Malibu comes in two versions: the base model and the LS. Our test vehicle was the base model with a few options, including a preferred-equipment package ($1,100)
that adds power windows and door locks, power outside mirrors, remote keyless entry and cruise control. The list of standard features on the base model is impressive: air-conditioning, passive antitheft system, power steering, tilt wheel, battery
rundown protection, dual front next-generation air bags, front center console with arm rest, AM/FM stereo radio, power trunk release, 15-inch steel wheels, daytime running lamps with automatic lights-on feature, dual breakaway outside mirrors,
stainless-steel exhaust, double-side galvanized-steel body panels (including the roof), platinum-tipped spark plugs, and child-security rear-door locks. Other options on our test car included an in-dash AM/FM/compact-disc stereo ($320), cus
m cloth reclining front bucket seats and split-folding rear seat ($225), and rear- window defogger ($180). Total sticker was $18,615, including transportation. A step up to the LS model, for $18,995, automatically brings the V-6 engine, power
windows/mirrors/door locks, split-folding rear seat, AM/FM/cassette with speed-compensated automatic volume control, six-way power driver's seat, custom cloth seats, cruise control, low-oil warning light, remote keyless entry, fog lights and 15-inch
aluminum wheels. All Chevys come with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty that includes courtesy transportation and 24-hour roadside assistance. EPA fuel economy for our V-6 model is 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway;
for the four-cylinder model, those figures improve to 23 city/32 highway. The fuel tank holds 15 gallons. 1998 CHEVROLET MALIBU SEDAN The Package: Midsize, four-door, five-passenger, four-cylinder or V-6 powered, front-drive sedan.
Highlights: Outstanding value, excellent road handling and performance, impressively built, roomy interior and trunk, nice styling, lots of standard safety features (including antilock brakes). Negatives: No manual transmission available for
sport-driving enthusiasts. Major competitors: Chrysler Cirrus/Plymouth Breeze/Dodge Stratus, Ford Taurus, Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Mazda 626, Mitsubishi Galant. EPA fuel economy: 23 miles
per gallon city, 32 highway (four-cylinder); 20 city/29 highway (V-6). Base price: $15,670 plus $525 transportation. Price as tested: $18,615, including transportation. Rating: A-plus.