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2004 Chevrolet Malibu

     After dominating the North American market for family sedans only to see Japan steal it like a masked bandit, General Motors is trying to recover from lackluster sales in America thanks to a string of bland products.
     I know, I know. You’ve heard it before — probably more times than you care to count — but it looks like an American company finally found the right formula for beating the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. It’s just the new Chevrolet Malibu, but listen up. This could be a sign of big things to come.
     GM’s plan for beating the Japanese is simple but effective. First, it developed a fantastic platform called “Epsilon” to build eight different cars sold around the world. It’s already used in Europe on the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra, and the new Malibu is its first use in an American brand. It feels remarkably solid and almost — I know this sounds blasphemous — like a Mercedes or BMW.
     Second, Chevrolet had to pack the new Malibu full of nice features at a price that undercuts its Japanese competitors. It easily blows away the competition in the number of features for the money.
     Third, quality had to improve. While the 2003 Malibu topped the J.D. Power and Associates survey for initial quality, Accord and Camry buyers still perceive the Japanese brands as lasting longer. Engineers had to make sure there were no rattles, no squeaks, and no flimsy plastic bits on the new Malibu that could send potential buyers running.
     Finally — and this is probably the Malibu’s only weakness — it had to look good.
     While the new model isn’t as bland as its ho-hum predecessor, its styling just isn’t coherent. The Impala-like rear end and European side profile are nice, but the front end needs to lose its giant, tacky chrome strip (it looks great on a Chevy truck but seems out-of-place on a family sedan.) Chevrolet just can’t figure out which direction to take its styling.
     Aside from the odd use of chrome, the new Malibu is one of the best family sedans ever made, and that’s no exaggeration. It has an American look, European feel, and Japanese precision, and there is no objective reason to pay more for the Accord or Camry.
     Consider this: the Cargazing test vehicle came with every gadget imaginable, including satellite radio, heated leather seats, Onstar, a V6 engine, power everything, and a remote control that can start it from afar. That’s pretty impressive — no, VERY impressive — for under $24,000. Factory incentives will make the sales price even lower.
     But it’s the Malibu’s driving feel that really knocks your socks off. Thanks to the extremely rigid Epsilon platform, it feels rock solid over bumps and around corners, and it’s so quiet on the freeway that you could mistake it for a luxury car.
     In the grand American tradition, the Malibu’s suspension is relatively soft, perfect for laid-back cruises around town. While it has a sportier feel than the model it replaces, the handling doesn’t quite match the Accord’s razor-sharp responsiveness, though.
     In the engine department, the Malibu doesn’t disappoint. Its four-cylinder motor is on par with the Japanese offerings, making 145 horsepower, but the 3.5-liter V6 is a real gem. It makes 200 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, much of which is available at low RPMs. With the V6, the Malibu feels like a rocket when the light turns green.

     Inside, the Malibu looks like an upscale European sedan, with a subdued color scheme that makes it feel spacious and classy. There is an overall sense of quality and attention to detail — to be honest, terms not usually associated with Chevy — as firm seat padding and plush materials are used throughout the cabin.
     Rear-seat passengers will like what GM engineers call “turbo blasters,” which are two center vents on the dash that pour a generous amount of heated or cooled air into the back seat. Other vents bring airflow to the passengers’ feet.
     Overall, Chevrolet deserves a mountain of praise for doing what seemed impossible only a few years ago: beating the Japanese at their own game. The Malibu has the ambiance and the features of a much more expensive car, and its rock-hard feel has Toyota and Honda trying to play catch-up.
     If only Chevy could find a look to match, the Malibu would be perfect.

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