"The 2004 Malibu is Chevy's mid-sized, bread and butter car."
Good: easy to drive, plenty of room, optional remote starter.
Bad: nondescript styling, uncertain reliability.

Chevrolet has been trying to make a comeback for as long as we can remember now. Having fallen behind in the early 1970s, it seems as if they've been playing catch up with the Japanese ever since. Well, it appears they've decided to take on a new strategy. They are no longer going to try to match the Japanese. They're going to match the Koreans.

It's not a bad strategy when you think about it. The Japanese have so surpassed everyone else in quality that they're not worth fighting anymore. Instead, do what the Koreans are doing: Get at least reasonably close in terms of quality, offer the same size car at a lower price, and load it up with features that would cost you thousands more on a Japanese car. Make it a value sale. And that's what the Malibu is.

The 2004 Malibu is Chevy's mid-sized, bread and butter car. It's designed to compete in the same category as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Those guys have dependability. Chevy has the creature comforts. By the way, this should not be confused with the Malibu of the 1970s. That was an old, rear-wheel-drive car with a push-rod engine. This is a new, front-wheel-drive car with a push rod engine. But it's got a lot going for it, and is quite a good deal.

There are three trim levels available: the base Malibu, the LS and the upscale LT. There's also a hatchback version, the Malibu Maxx. We drove the LT sedan, which has a base price of about $23,000. Our test car came it around $25,000. For that price, you get a huge number of extras, including: head curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, automatic climate control, power windows, doors, tilt telescoping wheel, leather appointed power seats, adjustable pedals, and, as we'll discuss in detail, a remote vehicle starter.


Driving Experience

The driving experience is surprisingly good. The Malibu is an easy car to drive every day, with good room inside, and a ride tuned more for comfort than for sport. And that's what most people want. The Malibu comes with Chevy's old-style V6 push-rod engine, which provides plenty of power for this car. We found the engine and transmission to be well suited to the car. It accelerated fast enough and shifted smoothly. There's even a manual shift mode.

Our test car did have one, significant rattle somewhere in the steering column or front end. We couldn't determine exactly where it was coming from. Our guess is that it was not mechanically serious. But a loud rattle at 6,000 miles did not strike us as a great omen for build quality. We'll have to see.

The greatest feature on the Malibu, which we used joyously, is the optional remote starter. We got the Malibu at the beginning of a brutal cold spell here in our fair city, so we had ample opportunity to take advantage of this thing. You walk to your front window, you press a couple of buttons on the key fob, and the car starts itself... flashing its lights to confirm that it has started. You don't have to worry about it getting stolen, because Chevy has included security features. The remote start won't work unless the doors are locked first. AND, you can't shift the car out of Park until you actually get in the car and put the key in the ignition. So even someone breaking in wouldn't be able to drive the car anywhere.

The car will run for 10 minutes with one push of the button, hit it twice for 20 minutes. After that, it won't start again remotely until you've put the key in the ignition. Just another precaution to avoid trouble. And here's the best part. The Malibu automatically senses the outside temperature, and turns on either the heater or air conditioner at full blast. So by the time you go out with your key to unlock the car and drive away, it's already toasty. When it was 5 degrees out this winter, we were singing Chevy's praises very loudly, every morning, over this feature. A bit wasteful? Sure. But think of those nice warm feet! (or cool seats in the summer).


Interior

The interior is a nice improvement for Chevrolet. They seem to have stopped trying to do it "our way," and given up and copied the Japanese. The result is a nice, clean looking, airy interior with comfortable seats and room for five. Gone are the tacky looking Detroitisms, and even the switches and controls looked to be of better quality.

A lot of folks will find the size of this car very appealing. Things are nicely laid out. It's interior is certainly competitive with the Japanese cars that lead this field.

You may want to consider skipping the sunroof if you are over six feet tall, since it will impinge a tad on your headroom. Legroom is plentiful in the front and decent even in the back. Trunk room is spacious for a car of this size.


Ergonomics

Chevy has made great progress here. Again, they've conceded that the Japanese ARE onto something by standardizing controls and switches in useful, obvious places. So you'll find the controls right where you expect them to be. Controls are large enough to be used by adults, and that annoying GM cruise control switch on the stalk (the "finger-cutter") has finally been replaced. Chevy comes into the modern age, ergonomically, with this car.


Styling

Styling is fairly nondescript. It says "mid-sized car." It's not ugly, it's not pretty. It's a plain car. But, then again, so is the Camry. And we'd guess that people shopping the Malibu will be more concerned with price and features than loud styling.


Servicing

There's a lot of engine in the engine compartment. It's tight, and servicing is going to be a bit of a challenge. Other than that, servicing should be straightforward, and can be handled by local independent mechanics as well as dealers.


Reliability

The Malibu is built on General Motor's new Epsilon platform, which is shared by the Saab 9-3 and the upcoming Pontiac G6. In other words, this is essentially an all-new car, from the ground up. How reliable will this Malibu be? Who knows.

We do know this, though: GM has had average to slightly-worse-than average reliability over the years. And we have (as yet) no evidence that has changed.


Overall comments

The Malibu is a decent car. Is it a Camry? No. But for $25 Grand, you get a large, powerful, very acceptable car, with a ton of features. It makes the Malibu a tempting buy for someone looking for good value, even if its expected reliability is not up there with the Japanese. And there are many improvements to note here, especially in the interior.

If Chevy had come out with this car ten years ago, we probably would have said, "Wow, Chevy is really keeping up with Toyota!" At this point, however, Toyota has such a lead and such a reputation that it's hard for Chevy to do much to match it. So they're competing on price and features. And doing a pretty good job of it. And oh, that remote starter!


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