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MALIBU....and San Jose and San Francisco and....

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I needed to go to San Jose and San Francisco a couple of Saturdays ago, so I thought I would avail myself of the best weekend rates I could find. And then, on Sunday, I would make my way up to Lake Tahoe as summer winds down. I found a great rate for a compact and, naturally, when you get to the counter, they try to sell you the upgrade into a bigger car. I was told $5 for each day and that one of my choices would be a Malibu. I said "sign me up." For $10, I could take an extended test drive and I wouldn't be pressured into buying.

The Malibu has grown on me and, even initially, I liked its overall packaging and styling, but didn't love it. I'll speak to the styling issues a little later.

First, let me talk about the interior comforts. Most everything in the cabin looks good, feels great and is nicely finished. The dashboard makes perfect sense and the blue illumination (which Chevy evidently inherited from Olds) is really soothing. The gauges are just the ones you need and strategically placed in a nice cluster. The only thing I don't like is the retro pseudo-metallic wrapping of the inside of the gauge bezels. Stalks and controls are easy to operate. The steering wheel is a nicer design than that in the base-level Impala or Monte. I don't know if you all agree with me, but the leather wrapped wheel makes for a nicer driving experience. This one was an LS with the urethane wheel. The center stack is also put together in an aesthetically pleasing and ergonomically logical way. The climate control is very workable, as is the sound system. (This one also had the remote audio controls which I've grown to like). Kudos for the console shift that does not interfere with operating controls in the center stack. Also, the top of dashboard storage compartment, "roll-top" console bin, cupholders and two-level center storage area/armrest make the car even easier to live with. Lastly, the two symmetrical sweeping curves in the cowl in front of driver and passenger alike heighten the overall appeal of the dashboard.

The seating is excellent. The bolsters are neither too flat nor too intrusive, and the shape of the seats can keep one comfortable for an extended period of time (ahem...I'm referring to the less than optimal seating in the '04-'08 Grand Prix, which took a step backward). I only wish that the seating was upholstered in a nicer cloth. It seems that, nowadays, the cloth seats in most cars are either mousefur or the stuff that backpacks are made of.

The driving experience is a big "thumbs up." The 2.4 liter DOHC 4 is well-suited to the car. One does not need to option up to the V6, in my opinion. I was able to pull out from a light abruptly, merge from on-ramps and climb prolonged steep freeway grades effortlessly. The first thing I noticed is the nicely calibrated shifts, and that we need not "dog" the proven 4 speed automatic transaxle. In years before, the 1-2 shift in 2.2 and 2.4 four cylinder GM fare always felt slushy and uncertain. Not in this car. The shifts are smooth and identifiable. The engine is quiet at higher speeds and even in the mid-range pass. However, on a hasty departure from the intersection, it is, as they say, "grainy." The handling sits in a really nice spot on the continuum. Probably not as slalom like as that of the Grand Prix, but definitely not as isolated as that of the LaCrosse. (I don't mind isolated when we're talking Buick). Maybe it was more like what the now-gone and much-missed Intrigue felt like from the helm. Steering response is always smooth and quick. I lifted the hood to see if it was hydraulic steering. I couldn't see a fluid reservoir for power steering fluid. It felt like hydraulic steering but, in reality, I think it was EPS. If so, what a commendable improvement over the EPS in the previous-gen Malibu.

Overall, I like the styling. However, I like more glass and a "slabbier" shape (read '86 Park Avenue or '06 Cadillac SRX). The new grille works well, though I wish the slats were equally spaced and that the bottom lip of the upper slat aligned with the inset for the headlamps. I'm not a photoshop guru, so anyone is welcome to help me out here. Other Chevy products sporting this theme have made the upper and lower grilles more or less symmetrical. The rear panel looks great. It has good definition with the crease at its edges and the lamps are both functional and properly proportioned. In fact, the Malibu looks downright good going down the highway. My ONLY real complaints are the belt line and the thickness of the rear pillar. It's amazing what minor adjustments could do for visibility. In this case, the beltline could have been .5 to 1 inch lower without compromising the car's styling statement. The thick rear pillar impedes visibility. I immediately tried to remove the rear headrests which I find annoying and was not able to easily do that, so I left them in their place. Therefore, it was a little more work to switch lanes in crowded San Francisco traffic. I've had the same complaint of the Camry.

Speaking of the Camry, it needs to go and hide. With the exception of a little more engine noise when pushed a little hard, the Malibu, in my mind, is superior in every way....in the way it looks, in its cabin configuration, in the way it rides, and in the way it handles. Last year, while in Montreal for 8 days, I had a LaCrosse (in the same color as the one I ultimately bought) for a 7-day rental, and then a Camry for the 8th day. I was instantly lamenting the absence of the LaCrosse....to myself and in my head. The Camry was a completely uninspiring driving experience while the Malibu seems to have more of a purpose in life, not to mention being more fun to drive.

I am happy with my recent purchase of a LaCrosse, but if the W-platform which has served me so well hadn't been available, I would seriously consider this car. With the exception of a little bit of engine coarseness under a heavy foot from a stoplight and the rear pillar/headrest issue, this car has a lot of talent. It's definitely a step in the right direction for Chevy and GM, and I hope its long-term results for its owners are just as promising.

Edited by trinacriabob
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sounds good. you figure up mileage?

Thanks for reminding me. I didn't. However, it was about 75% to 80% freeway and the remainder included demanding SF traffic and Sierra mountain roads but it SEEMED like 29 to 30 mpg.

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