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Load in the children and surfboards too

Styling is not the Malibu Maxx’s metier. The exterior has the sort of visually numb, central-planning look one associates with old East German washing machines and diesel-powered typewriters. The car makes “dull” a die-cast collectible.

And yet, in its own ghastly way, it’s revolutionary.

In the Maxx, the back seat is more important than the front seats. By itself, this isn’t unusual. From the time of the first Edwardian brass cars, there has been a class of automobile designed to be chauffeur-driven -- town cars, dual-cowl phaetons and limousines. Europeans continue to refer to very large luxury sedans as limousines, though Americans associate the term with white stretch Lincolns smelling of prom nights gone wrong.

Generally speaking, the more expensive the sedan, the larger and grander the rear compartment, since it is likelier that the owner will in fact sit in back. Luxury carmakers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz are currently locked in backseat brinksmanship to see which can bring the most complete set of amenities to the aft cabin. The top-shelf Lexus LS430, for instance, offers rear seats that recline, and massage, heat and air-condition well-to-do backsides.

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What makes a proper limousine, however, is rear-seat legroom. For years, Jaguar sold two XJ sedans, one regular and one “L” for long wheelbase, with the extra room in the rear foot well. Likewise, the “L” in the current Audi A8L and BMW 750iL indicates the long wheelbase. Since neither Audi nor BMW sells a short wheelbase version of their cars, the designation only underscores the rear-biased cabin orientation.

The Maxx is the first car to bring this kind of backseat rite of privilege to the mid-priced, mid-sized sedan segment. Think of it as a lumpen limousine. The car’s signature feature -- rear seats that slide 7 inches fore and aft -- creates maximum legroom of 41 inches and a whopping 106 cubic feet of overall passenger space, more than many large sedans. The car’s twin-panel sunroof (with retractable sunshade) is situated over the rear seats. Rear seat passengers have their own climate controls and -- in our $26,740 test car -- a flip-up DVD entertainment center, complete with infrared-link headphones, video game jacks, remote control and independent audio selection.

Even the car’s styling -- in which the balance of the car is merely life support for the four huge doors -- reflects an enormous investment in the back seat.

What iron-fisted rulers, what cruel-eyed moguls will be chauffeured back there? Kids.

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It’s not hard to deconstruct the Maxx’s morphology. For one thing, average family size in the United States hovers between four and five. Yet getting two or three kids into other kinds of sedans -- a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, for instance -- can be a trial, especially if you must also wrestle with child safety seats. Many parents who have no particular love of SUVs buy them anyway simply for the convenience of the large and accessible back seats. The Maxx’s rear doors open nearly 90 degrees and the extra cabin space limits the contortions necessary to get the child safety seats in and out (the rear seat has three-position child-seat anchors).

Also, is it too much to suggest that since the average age of first-time parenthood in the U.S. is rising, family car buyers may be a little less limber than their forebears?

There is a little bit of brilliance in the Maxx. The car is a four-door hatchback -- though the folks at GM have a silly phobia about the word, preferring to call the Maxx a “five-door extended sedan” (these people would call a presidential assassination a “mid-term recall initiative”). In any event, the Maxx’s cargo space is ample, accessible and flexible. The 60/40 rear seats fold flat, as does the front passenger seat, the back of which serves as a handy road-going desk if you need one. When the seats are folded flat, the cargo space in the Maxx exceeds that of some mid-size SUVs. The rear space includes an adjustable parcel shelf for multi-tier loading. This panel also doubles as a little picnic table for tailgate parties. The Maxx “lives” big, as they say in architecture.

And it quietly answers a need that GM dare not acknowledge: Increasingly, people are looking for alternatives to SUVs. Never mind the gas mileage or even the growing stigma associated with these vehicles. SUVs are wearisome to drive in the long term. Big and unwieldy in traffic, hard to park and generally less safe than sedans -- a fact that should be paramount in parents’ minds -- SUVs are full of foibles. Their convenience and cargo capacity can easily be matched by other smaller vehicles with smarter packaging. Thus the Maxx.

What’s it like to drive? Did I mention the cool back seats?

A 200-horsepower pushrod V6 powers the Maxx through a four-speed automatic; 220 pound-feet of torque arrives at the front wheels at around 3,200 rpm. The 3.5-liter motor is smooth enough -- and has the goods to merge fearlessly with freeway traffic (0-60 mph is about 8 seconds) -- but the automatic transmission hates to stay in passing gear. If you even breathe off the throttle it kicks into the fuel-saving top gear.

With 16-inch alloy wheels and tires, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and traction control, the Maxx doesn’t embarrass itself in the handling department, and the ride is reasonably supple, but the electric-assist steering feels very odd. At highway speed the steering answers very slowly, causing the driver, naturally, to add more steering angle. Then, suddenly, as if the steering system is waking from a nap, the front wheels turn, requiring a course correction. The whole thing feels fussy and a half-beat behind.

My biggest complaint with the Maxx is about its textures, tactile and aural. The audio and climate system heads are made of this supremely cheap-feeling gray plastic. It’s awful. I can’t explain this choice of materials. It’s not like GM doesn’t have access to good suppliers. The interiors of GM Europe’s cars, with brands such as Opel and Vauxhall, have far better grades of plastics than this.

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Also, our test Maxx’s interior rattled and snickered here and there but most particularly in the glove box area. This was an early production car so it’s quite possible that these fugitive noises will be hunted down as production ramps up. Maybe.

I wanted to like the Maxx -- I admire its packaging and think its anti-chic design something of a badge of honor -- but I am acutely frustrated by its nagging fit-and-finish problems. For all its innovation, the Maxx feels, in some fundamental way, a throwback for GM.

Oh, well. If you wanted peace and quiet you wouldn’t have had kids in the first place, right?

*

2004 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx

Base price: $24,725

Price as tested: $26,740, including $625 freight, XM radio, DVD entertainment center, OnStar

Powertrain: 3.5-liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive

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Horsepower: 200 horsepower at 5,400 rpm

Torque: 220 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm

0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds

Wheelbase: 112.3

Overall length: 187.8 inches

EPA mileage: 22 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway

Competitors: Subaru Impreza wagon, Ford Focus wagon, PT Cruiser

Final thoughts: Kids rule

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.


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