Quick Test: 2008 Chevy Malibu LTZ

This is far and away the most American midsize sedan you can buy. Letter-writers relax, we haven't bothered to track down the provenance of every last bit and piece; we're talking personality here. Everything about Chevy's new Malibu is big and bold. It's an unabashed Yankee Doodle Dandy, from its broad smiling face and blingy chrome wheels to the brightwork ringing the windows. The brash styling continues inside with multiple choices of high-contrast interior colors and more chrome trim. It's a refreshing distraction from all the bland-mobiles rolling out of so many Asian-owned factories.

Such brash styling gives the Malibu a larger-than-life countenance. When parked near its chief rivals, the Malibu looks larger than most, but dimensionally it's among the smallest -- only the Nissan Altima and Kia Optima cast smaller shadows. Sit in the Malibu and it feels large, but in fact, at 112.5 cu ft, only the VW Passat has a smaller EPA combined interior and trunk volume. Driving the Malibu LTZ 2.4L heightens the illusion of largeness, though not in a particularly flattering way.

2008 Chevy Malibu

The Ecotec 2.4L four-cylinder engine features variable valve timing and puts out a right respectable 169 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque. And to make the most of that power and torque, the 2008 Malibu LTZ is fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission, a rarity in the segment (only the Volkswagen Passat and forthcoming Mazda6 offer six speeds). Lesser 2.4L Malibu models make do with four-speeds, but as production ramps up, the six will proliferate throughout the lineup. Not surprisingly, the Malibu offers the broadest gear ratio spread in the segment, which portends sprightly acceleration. Countering that expectation, however, is a fairly hefty curb weight of 3503 lb -- that's 165 lb heavier than the largest-in-class Hyundai Sonata. With the hammer down, the extra cogs help the Malibu overcome its 8.4 percent weight-to-power deficit, accelerating to 60 mph in just 8.7 sec and crossing the quarter-mile mark in 16.7 sec at 84.3 mph.

But how often is your foot on the floor? After all, if you need jack-rabbit acceleration you'll pop for the 252-hp, 3.6L V-6 Malibu. Driven more normally, the transmission is programmed to maximize fuel economy by shifting up to the highest practical gear as quickly as possible. It pays off on the EPA dynamometers with ratings of 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway (among chief rivals with automatic transmissions, only the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima top Malibu's combined thrift), but out in the real world this strategy gives the car a slightly lethargic demeanor. The driver has to either work the handy manual shift paddles on the steering wheel a lot or prod the gas pedal deep to force frequent downshifts, all of which makes the car seem more lethargic than the numbers suggest. And driven the way magazine testers do, those frequent downshifts reduced the Malibu's test mileage to just 21.5 mpg.

The other slightly unflattering larger-than-life aspect of this Malibu LTZ is its sticker price, which starts at $25,920. That kind seems slightly ambitious for this Chevy -- unless you can negotiate a big, fat, discount at the dealer, which is likely.

2008 Chevy Malibu 2008 Chevy Malibu

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