2005 Chevrolet Malibu LS

Revolutionary break through in GM standard. Still few ticks behind mainstream mid-class imports.

Background
This midsize sedan was acquired as a rental vehicle with ~14,000 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for four days. We drove approximately ~1,500 miles. We traveled from the Bay Area to Las Vega via the dull I-5 to I-15 thru the middle of the Mojave Desert in the 120 deg heat. We en-routed Los Angeles to encounter lovely traffic. The entire trip in the Malibu was with 2 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 33.4 mpg.

Introduction
Chevrolet introduced the totally redesigned Malibu in 2004 to get a piece of the midsize sedan segment that has been dominated by Honda Accords, Nissan Altimas, and Toyota Camrys for the past decade. This 2005 model carries no changes since its recent introduction. Beneath the uninspiring exterior, hidden GM’s new European-designed Epsilon global platform. This Epsilon platform can also be found in the new Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. Independent MacPherson struts with stabilizer bar support the front corners – the control arms are made out of forged aluminum. The rear is supported by independent four-link suspension with stabilizer bar – struts are twin-tube gas shocks. Under the hood is a 3.5L 12valves overhead valve (OHV), push rod V6, mounted transversely, driving the front wheel via a 4 speed automatic transmission with overdrive. The transmission has GM’s Electronic Range Selector where it allows the driver manually select his/her preferred gear via the selector button on the shift knob. The engine pumps out 200hp@5400rpm, and 220Ib-ft of torque@3200rpm. Traction is provided by a set of P205/65R15 tires. The tester came with Bridgestone B450. Stopping power is generated by front and rear disc brakes, with ABS and traction control. Malibu is built in GM’s retooled plant in Fairfax, Kansas, the retooling was to accommodate the Epsilon platform for the US market and it cost GM over $700 millions.

Impression
Our first concern is the steering setup. It is an area needs improvement upon, and it reminds me on how an American car from the early 90s drives like. The electric powered rack and pinion is lack of on center and road feel. On the freeway, it is over boosted in power, no sure if the steering components have more freeplay than imports or not, the Malibu wanders around the lane. Constant steering correction is needed to maintain a proper line of travel, and the lack of on center and road feel only amplified this problem. During cornering at higher speed or at the freeway on ramps, the steering wheel will no doubt be squeezed by the driver’s sweaty palms tightly to avoid collision with the guardrail. However, the system provides ample assistance at parking lot speed that allows the drive to park the car with one hand, while the other holding a coffee mug. The turning circle is slightly wider than the driver’s expectation – at 38 feet. The steering setup doesn’t work well with the Epsilon chassis, but the electric power steering is to mainly improve fuel efficiency since there is the hydraulic pump is not driven by the engine.

The chassis and suspension setup is where Malibu really shines in its class. The suspension setup is surprisingly firm for an American car. The floating on water feel is non-existing in the Malibu. The suspension set up provides good communication between the driver and the road. The ones who used to ride in a “floating on water” type of car might think the ride is too stiff, but for car enthusiasts, we found the setup is nicely supportive, with an edge of sporty feel to it. If one would close his or her eyes and focus on how the car is rode. They might think they are riding in a European sedan. At corners, despite the car weighing 3,300Ibs, body roll is acceptably minimal, and handling is quite neutral even with its 63% front weight bias. There is a slight understeering when traction control kicks in when the car approaches its unexpectedly high limit, however the Bridgestone B450 tires becomes the limiting factor of the corning fun. GM has done a good job on not diluting too much of the chassis’s European characteristic. However, the ride tends to be jerky at larger bumps, but 85% of the time, it is nice and nimble. The road noise coming from the suspension is minimal; the sound that intrudes into the cabin is the thumps that a car enthusiast will love to hear – “ a very solid feel. The firmness is between a Honda Accord and a Nissan Altima SE.

The engine provides good power. The pushrod 12-valver has a pleasant low to mid range output. A quick smack on the throttle will produce satisfying tire squealing off-the-line acceleration. There are noticeable amount of torque steer when push hard until the traction control kicks in seamlessly to soften this common front wheel drive trait. The rather large 3.5L displacement offers outstanding gas mileage. The engine seems to be fairly smooth and quiet – credit to the powertrain’s full isolated hydroformed engine cradle and generously used sound deadening materials. Engine isn’t as free revving as its foreign competitors and seems to run out of breath. Power tends to fade off when the tachometer passes 4,500rpm with the transmission upshift at approximately 6,000rpm. The drive-by-wire throttle tuning isn’t the most ideal; it often seemed like there is a lag from the response of the driver’s throttle input before the rpm will climb; especially at throttle tip-in. The lag in throttle response caused disconnected feel between the driver’s input and the engine, in which diluted some of the driving excitement that the chassis is willing to offer.

In speaking of driving excitement, the transmission further diluted the fun by having long gear ratios and the gears are too far part from one gear to another. The top gear of this 4 speed automatic transmission has ultra long gear ratio. RPM is barely at 2,000rpm at 70mph. This attribute will no doubt improve gas mileage, but it caused a greater disconnected feel between the driver and the vehicle. The long gear ratio is also hard to maintain desire speed when going uphill and downhill. At an incline at freeway speed, it takes awhile for the engine to pick up speed due to the long gear ratio, and often requires pushing down the throttle significantly or to kickdown to 3rd gear to maintain desire speed. At a slight decline, unlike most cars when the driver can release the throttle the car will tends to slow down due to engine and drivetrain friction. But with the Malibu’s long gear ratio, there isn’t enough resistance to slow down. The car will gain momentum, so often a slight braking is needed to avoid speeding. If a 5 speed automatic transmission is an option, we would highly recommend it. Shifting is unnoticeable when under light throttle driving. It tends to jerk slightly under heavy accelerations, worse when kickdown or use manual shifting to shift to lower gear when the car is pushed hard. The GM’s “hydro-matic” transmission has a cool “wheehe” sound when it shifts at higher rpm, but “cool” is a subjective thing. Some might think it sounds like a truck, some might think it’s sporty.

The 4 wheel disc brakes on the Malibu offered good solid pedal feel. We noticed no fading. Under emergency braking, the Malibu seems to require slightly longer braking distance than one would expect – a set of better or a size wider tire should be beneficial. The braking is straight and stable with obvious amount of nose dive. ABS’ involvement in heavy braking is smooth and offers assurance. During daily driving, the brakes are adequate.

The equipped features in this LS line up provide sufficient amenities for a long journey road trip. The built-in driver information center (DIC) in the center console that shares the same display window with the radio is a nice feature. DIC provides general vehicle information such as: average fuel mileage and speed, outside temperature, trip odometers, remaining fuel range, and oil life. The DIC also allows the drive to customize various setups on the vehicle’s interior functions. The same display window also provides warning messages. Air condition cools down the roomy interior efficiently. The interior presents with ample storage area. Noise isolation is excellent. Wind noise is almost non existent, road noises are nicely muffled. Engine note is a bit harsh at higher rpm. The stock 6 speakers sound system sounds good quality for a stock setup. We had hard time on finding the appropriate driving position despite the power adjustable pedal, tilt/telescoping steering column. We also found the shifter being too close to the driver. The Malibu also provides good visibility around the car and we didn’t notice any blind spot but wish for slightly bigger side mirrors. Switchgears are very self explanatory, and intuitive – extremely user friendly and simple to use. The interior is spacious. The 60/40 split-folding rear seat allows the expansion of the generous 15 cubic feet trunk.

The car is nicely built. It maybe not in the same par as German brands, and about a few ticks shy from Malibu’s Japanese competitors. The Malibu’s workmanship has been noticeably improved from the previous and other GM products. There is a pleasant solid “chunk” sound when you close the doors, similar to the ones emit from a BMW or Mercedes. The buttons on the center console at the radio and DIC are nicely done – no more “ToysRus” plastic feel. However, the dash, and steering wheel are very plastic. For a car selling for $23k, cost saving is obvious from the dash material usage. The exhaust system is another place where you will notice where GM cut’s down the cost. The muffler is like a $19.99 Miadas special, the hangers are already rusty in our test car. Recline of the seat is manually adjusted, but the sliding, and tilting control is electrical. Does it really cost that much more to have an electronic recline function? The lifter for recline adjustment is the most barbaric feature in the car. One would require to lift the lifter 6″ to make the recline adjustment. And it feels just so vague that one might question each time the adjustment is made on rather or not the seat is locked in that recline angle. Power fore-aft adjustment & manual rake adjustment. “Common industry norm” but the manual adjustment sucked, so driver will desperately wanted a power rake adjustment option.

GM should have paid more attention to the details when it comes to design. Just a great chassis and European suspension setup doesn’t not guarantee a big sales volume. The areas of concern: 1) the HVAC vents on the dash aren’t very practical. It requires the usage of two very different knobs to adjust the vent position vertically and horizontally. It becomes a challenge in the dark to adjust them. The range of horizontal adjustment doesn’t provide sufficient angle to divert ventilation. 2) The 3.5L engine has only 200hp, and 220Ib-ft of torque? 3) Better tires will improve fun factor.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 7
Comment: Above average off the line acceleration, and passing power.

Drivetrain: 7
Comment: Smooth, with proper engine note. Not as free revving as import V6s. Ultra long gear ratio, and delayed throttle response depleted the fun factor.

Handling & Cornering: 7.5
Comment: Suspension and chassis has confident and crisp handling. Steering feel and feedback depleted some of the confidence.

Brake Feel: 7.5
Comment: No compliant, gets the job done, no surprises either.

Ride Characteristic: 8
Comment: Very European like; firm and quiet.

Interior Comfort: 7
Comment: Front seats are a bit flat. Sore backside might occur in a long trip.

Workmanship: 7.5
Comment: Very well put together car in GM standard. Rattle free. Dash, and steering wheel material is a very plastic like.

Functionality: 7.5
Comment: User friendly.

Technology: 7.5
Comment: No fancy electronics. DIC is surprising simple to use and informative. Fairly advance chassis in a mass production American car.

Afterthoughts
If Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry are Malibu’s rival, this new Malibu still needs some more improvement before its rival fans will start paying attention to a Chevy. The mid size segment is a very competitive and diverse segment. GM indeed needed to pay more attention on detail when building their cars. The chassis, suspension and workmanship has proven GM can put something together correctly, but the driving dynamics mainly the steering, and throttle response can definitely improve upon for the Malibu. In a more global view on GM, the consistent recalls on its vehicles don’t do the company any good in building its reputation. The image of Chevy is bit SUV, and truck like; notice Chevy sells more SUVs and trucks than cars. For a $23,000MSRP price tag, there are plenty of cars out there that are far more refine than the Malibu – Mazda 6, and Nissan Altima 3.5L SE falls in the same price range with more refined driving dynamic and feature the same amenities as the Malibu. Like most domestic manufactures, manufacture incentive comes in generously and often enough to allow those cars roll off the dealer lot. We applause on GM’s commitment on the keeping some of the European characteristics from the Epsilon platform, suspension tuning, and obvious improvement on workmanship, it is a revolutionary change for GM. Compare to the mainstream import mid size cars, the Malibu is still not quite there yet! END