There is no option for a navigation system with an LCD. Instead, the Malibu comes with OnStar, and includes one year of its Directions and Connections service. To use OnStar for navigation, you have to call the OnStar operator and ask for directions to your destination. In areas where OnStar has a good connection, these directions are sent to the car shown on the radio display in a turn-by-turn format. When the car is in a low-bandwidth area, the OnStar operator will read out the turn-by-turn directions, and leave you with a recording of them. If you are out of cell phone reach, navigation is unavailable. Directions and Connections includes the hands-free calling service, although you have to purchase prepaid minutes. If you have a Verizon account, you can share your minutes between car and cell phone.
We've become very familiar with the GM interface used on the stereo of the Malibu. This blue electro-fluorescent display uses a tab structure to make navigating MP3 CDs and satellite radio easy. With MP3 CDs, the system shows ID3 tag information, such as artist and album. For XM satellite radio, another audio option in the Malibu, you can choose to display the artist, track title, or station name. The satellite radio interface is also easy to use because you can navigate by station category. The system has an extensive preset capability, letting you save six sheets of six presets that can have a mix of AM, FM, and satellite stations. There is also an auxiliary audio input in the face plate, but no integrated iPod option.
On paper, the audio system sounds pretty good. The LTZ trimmed Malibu gets an eight speaker system, including two subwoofers, powered by a 210-watt amp. This system is optional on the lesser trims. Although this audio system produces decent sound, it isn't exceptional. The bass was strong, but not car-shaking, while the highs and mids only had average clarity. It beats a four-speaker system, but didn't blow us away.
Under the hood
Chevy offers two engine choices in the 2008 Malibu LTZ, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Ecotec and a 3.6-liter V-6. We had the smaller engine. What we didn't expect to see in this car were paddle shifters on the steering wheel. These paddles hint at a bigger surprise in the Malibu, a six-speed automatic transmission. To use the manual shifting capabilities of the automatic, you have to put the shifter into the M position, one down from Drive. We were impressed that the transmission held the gears we selected right up to redline. However, the manual shifts are a little sluggish, with a gap between the time you make a shift and feel it.
With an output of 169 horsepower at 6,400rpm and 160 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500rpm, the engine performs as we would expect a four-cylinder moving this sizable of a car around to do. There is no dramatic acceleration, but it gets the job done. In combination with its transmission, it offers reasonable power for passing or climbing hills. Rather than power, the point of this engine is fuel economy. The EPA gives it 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. In our city and mountain driving, we saw an average just under 20 mpg. On the freeway our average climbed up above 22 mpg, and over more time would go higher. For emissions, the Malibu gets the minimal LEV II rating from California's Air Resources Board.
We weren't impressed with the Malibu's handling. As with many cars designed for commuting and shopping trips, the steering isn't particularly responsive. At high speeds on the freeway, we felt that the road surface had a tendency to guide the tires, forcing us to make frequent corrections. However, on a winding mountain road we had no trouble keeping it lined up through the corners. The suspension does offer a fairly comfortable ride, with good damping.
Our test car was the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, going for a base price of $26,345. Our only optional feature was the Rear Power package, which includes a 110-volt AC outlet in back, for $250. Along with its $650 destination charge, our total was $27,245.
Overall, we found the driving experience relatively characterless, and fuel economy didn't prove a saving grace. The only highlight in the performance tech was the six-speed automatic transmission. For cabin tech, we like the functionality of the stereo interface, although it's not particularly pretty. The car as a whole is pretty good looking, and the interior is comfortable enough. For our tech-oriented ratings, the Malibu scores a little above average.