The truth is, we're very good at honoring the exemplary but we don't have a critical vocabulary to praise the norm, the median, the unexceptional, as if being average were easy. It's not, believe me. Being utterly worthless and awful is easy. Being a miserable, picket-crossing diddler, a witless, glandless monkey, that's easy. Being Carson Daly is downright effortless.
So when I say the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is a respectable, well-tempered, solidly average car, it's important to remember how high-functioning average is in this class, which includes Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. You could fill the Rose Bowl with all the PhDs behind these cars -- men and women who have sweated blood and suffered micro-strokes to make their quotidian nil-mobiles as sturdy, capable, reliable and good-looking as they are, only to find themselves swamped in a tide of general excellence. When each of your competitors makes a killer car for the money, there is no shame in being average. Average is a glittering triumph.
Indeed, in this segment -- mid-priced, mid-sized four-door, five-passenger front-drive sedan -- average is practically an aesthetic unto itself. The new 'Bu, built on GM's Opel-engineered Epsilon platform (112.3-inch wheelbase) and essentially a mechanical clone of the Saturn Aura, is a fine-drawn and harmonious design, pretty but chastened with Teutonic seriousness, with a C-pillar traced from Audi's design studies. Some of the exacting exterior details -- such as the "trapped" hood fitting inside an opening instead of closing clamshell style over the grille -- give the car a clean and composed look. This, of course, is a major improvement over the previous-generation Malibu, which looked like it was styled on an Etch-a-Sketch by blindfolded barbers.
The point is, whatever quality penmanship the new Malibu represents has been artfully squeezed through a series of rigorously observed segment parameters. The car is roughly as long, wide, high, heavy and powerful as just about everything else in its class. Metrically the car is just about average. Likewise, its source of power -- in LS and LT trim, a 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder with 169 hp -- posts output almost precisely the numerical median of its four-cylinder competition. Top-shelf LTZ cars will get the horsy 3.6-liter, 252-hp V6 buttoned to a six-speed automatic transmission (the same powertrain as in the Saturn Aura XR).
The other flavor of Malibu is its "mild hybrid" variant, which installs a belt-driven starter/alternator unit under the hood so that the car has stop/start function (the engine cuts out when slowing or stopped). The mild hybrid, based on what GM calls the 1LT trim level, adds $1,795 to the LT price and gains about 2 miles per gallon advantage (EPA fuel economy of 24/32 mpg, city/highway, as compared with 22/30 mpg for the LT). If that seems like a big divot to suffer for a marginal uptick in economy, the wise and benevolent federal government comes to the rescue with a $1,300 hybrid tax credit, making your out-of-pocket about $500, or about 142 gallons of gas (see accompanying story).
The only thing truly un-average for the new Malibu is its use -- kind of astonishing, really -- of a four-speed automatic transmission. Every other car in the segment comes with a five- or six-speed transmission, or a continuously variable transmission. Next spring, a six-speed gear-changer will become available with the 2.4-liter car and sold as the 2.4 LTZ.
In the interests of calibrating average-ness, we tested the Malibu in 1LT trim, which will probably represent about three-quarters of the car's sales volume. Our test model penciled out at $21,905, including a power tilt-and-slide sunroof ($800) and a nifty 110-volt AC outlet at the rear of the center console ($150). For that price, you get ABS and stability control (which should always be standard equipment), 17-inch wheels and Hankook tires, three months of XM satellite radio and one year of OnStar.
Slide across the flat-bottom cloth seat and you'll confront an interior composed largely of a densely rubberized and pebbled material and, if the interior is black-on-black, you might feel as if you've slipped into Jacques Cousteau's wetsuit. The design is spare, efficient and casually artful, with a metallic bevel tracing the twin scoops of the cockpit design. A lot of the touch surfaces still feel plastic-y -- the GM-issue window switches and wands -- but that's the price you pay for the price you pay. The Malibu's interior is not as gratifying as the Accord nor as grating as the Mazda6. Somewhere, how to say, in the middle.
Turn the key and you hear the familiar gnash of a GM four-cylinder, though this time attenuated by multiple layers of sound-deadening and double-laminated glass. Cabin noise is a big differentiator for this car and, sure enough, once on the road the car has the rounded quiet of a luxury car.
For the most part, the powertrain twitters along without complaint. If you push it, things get a little raucous and, naturally, in Los Angeles there are times when more passing power is devoutly wished. If engine note is important to you, the Malibu's four-cylinder mill will sound a trifle unrefined. On the other hand, the 3.6-liter V6 in the LTZ -- judging from my time in the Aura XR -- is a big silk torque wrench.
GM's mid-size cars used to have an unpleasant thump-rattle when the suspension decompressed, as it does after bumps. This noisy rebound has been quelled in the Malibu. The ride quality is pretty fair for a car this size/cost/class, and handling -- as much as could be detected through the front-drive 'Bu's electric power steering -- is unremarkable. Pushed through corners, the Malibu's benign and stable understeer and moderate body roll eventually defeat all attempts to go faster. It is what it is, particularly on these hard Hankook tires.
In sum, the volume version of the Malibu is nice-looking, good value for money, free of glaring errors, gas-thrifty, comfortable and competent. Average, and I mean that in a good way. GM is now ably swimming on pace with the competition. It remains to be seen if it can pull ahead.
2008 Chevy Malibu LTBase price: $20,955
Price, as tested: $21,905
Powertrain: 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder with variable-valve timing; four-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 169 at 6,400 rpm
Torque: 160 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm
Curb weight: 3,200 pounds (est.)
0-60 mph: 8 seconds (est.)
Wheelbase: 112.3 inches
Overall length: 191.8 inches
EPA fuel economy: 22 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway; 24/32, city/highway (hybrid)
Final thoughts: What do you call a guy who made C's in med school? Doctor.