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Chevrolet Malibu

The commercials called Malibu "the car you knew America could build." One reviewer said it was "the car you knew America would build," because it tries to be all things to all people. We can live with that - after all, the Camry is praised for the exact same thing.

The Malibu competes in the busy family car market, along with the Dodge Stratus, Ford Taurus, and Toyota Camry. The standards have been steadily rising in this branch. The Camry offers high reliability with a comfortable ride and good sound insulation& the Ford Taurus has good handling and a smooth ride, but has had many quality issues& and the 2001 Stratus will offer a large interior with good handling and stronger optional engines, while the current one takes up the low end.

The Malibu's only engine feels moderately strong (170 hp / 190 lb-ft), and makes exciting noises when revved. Unfortunately, it is severely handicapped by a transmission which is geared high for fuel economy, but which refuses to downshift. The Malibu could be almost sporty with the Impala's transmission, because when you downshift manually, the engine has a lot of oomph. Without a quick downshift to third, long hills can be a problem. Unfortunately, there is no "overdrive off" button.

The transmission features a second-gear start for slippery surfaces. This is, in our experience, the least expensive car with that feature. It is also a very smooth shifter, and even handles manual downshifts well.

Handling is good, with reservations: the car feels confident in turns, but the tires squeal too easily. We suggest a quick stop at the Tire Rack for some performance all-season tires to make the most of the Malibu.

Gas mileage is good for this segment, and the Malibu has long-life antifreeze, transmission fluid that does not require replacement, and 100,000 mile tuneup intervals.

The interior is middle of the pack in space, with a fairly large trunk and an interior between the Camry and Intrepid.

All Malibus come with air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, power trunk release, theft deterrent system, and rear seat heat ducts. The LS model adds a split folding rear seat, power driver seat, premium Delco stereo with both CD and cassette player, oil level light, and power windows. Dealers can install an optional inside trunk release handle, a nice safety feature which we hope will become standard on all cars. A child safety package moves the fold-down seat latch to the trunk, and includes lockouts for the windows and trunk.

A tachometer is standard, though you can only order the Malibu with an automatic. Antilock brakes are also standard. 2001 models will not change much& some features will be added, including a delayed cutoff for power windows and other accessories (in other words, they will work after the key is removed).

The CD/cassette stereo (which is standard on LS, optional otherwise) has surprisingly good sound, and includes a clever speed-compensated volume feature. The auto tone control actually works well, but separate bass and treble knobs are also handy. The stereo is easy and convenient to operate.

The windshield wipers would lift up easily from the glass to help with window cleaning, except that the hood is in the way. An interesting and unfortunate design.

Our test car had a squeak and a buzz. We have heard that this is unusual, from people who habitually rent Malibus when they travel. We suspect the squeak was from a bushing that needed to be tightened slightly, not a major issue.

GM's usual "stick everything on the same stalk" quirk is not present& the cruise control is on the steering wheel. The cruise control has two lights, one for the on-off switch and one for when the speed is set. However, it has no cancel button. In addition, the horn hard to activate.

The keys go straight into the dashboard, a design which is both pleasantly retro and more practical than having them go into the steering column. Two accessory plugs are given, one of which is covered by a cigarette lighter& the other, which may be a hazard to those with children, is covered by a hinged cover.

Switches are clearly marked and lit at night. The plain but easy to read instrument panel is attractively and evenly backlit.

The vent fan is very quiet, and high fan speeds do not fill the cabin with noise. Air conditioning is not especially strong. The feel of the vent control buttons could use some work, as well& it was hard to tell when the buttons were pushed in, and the lights were sometimes drowned out by daylight. The car seemed to reset the recirculation switch on its own. There are no dedicated window demisters, but two vents close to the doors serve the same function if aimed properly.

A convenient center console lifts up to reveal another storage space underneath. It's a clever design, though CDs only fit in the lower space. There are also map pockets in the doors and a place for sunglasses and shavers underneath the radio. On the other hand, we could not find a coin tray. There are two primitive cupholders in front, two in back, one of which we tossed coins into.

The Malibu does not stand out in any way. It has unobtrusive styling, good but not exceptional handling, acceleration, and gas mileage, average space, and an average price. Combined with an average repair record and sales incentives, base model Malibus are a good buy, but you may want to consider the Intrepid and Camry if your options push the price of the Malibu near the $20,000 mark. Chevrolet's own Impala is a very attractive option, starting in the same price range as the Malibu LS but offering more space, power, and stuff. The Malibu is likable, but it's in a tough market. If you were considering a Sonata, Accord, or Altima, it's certainly worth a look. But if you have the green, walk across the showroom to its big brother, the Impala.

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