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With the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ, Chevrolet makes its strongest bid yet to unseat the Toyota Camry as America's most popular car. For cabin quality, the Malibu LTZ equals the Camry and even the Honda Accord. The Malibu features the most modern powertrain we've yet seen from Chevrolet, although the handling feels wobbly, especially at freeway speeds. The head unit in the Malibu LTZ is GM-standard, it has a decent interface for playing MP3 CDs and a standard auxiliary input. The cabin electronics are rounded out with OnStar's various services, including hands-free-calling and turn-by-turn directions.
Test the tech: Can you hear me now?
In general, we prefer installed features such as Bluetooth cell phone integration and map-based navigation systems over the on-call systems offered by OnStar. But as we had OnStar service set up in the Malibu, we put OnStar's hands-free calling service to the test. We ran a number of tests based on how strong of a cell signal we were getting on our own AT&T network Samsung phone. We attempted to make phone calls through OnStar when our cell phone signal showed no bars, when it showed a moderate signal, and when it showed a full signal.
For our first, full signal strength call, we were cruising down the freeway in an urban area. We pushed the phone button on the mirror bezel and said "phone" when OnStar's voice command prompted us. We then spoke the number we wanted to call, using the area code, as the OnStar service advised us. Here are our first two criticisms of the service. We would rather use a steering wheel button than have to reach up to the mirror to initiate our call. While there is a button on the steering wheel that shows a person speaking, it merely mutes the stereo. Second, we don't know the phone numbers of most of the people we call, as they are stored in our cell phone. It would be nice if there was some sort of address book with OnStar.
But the voice recognition system understood the number we told it to call and pretty soon we were talking to a colleague back in the office. The call quality was very good, as we would expect for a full strength signal. Likewise, when we received a call in the car with a full strength signal, we found it very easy to hear the audio. The caller ID of the phone we called reported our number as being in the 313 area code. Our third problem with OnStar is that it assigns a separate phone number for the car--people who call you won't know if you happen to be driving, and will probably just end up calling your cell phone.
For our second test, we found an area where our cell phone showed a moderate signal, ranging from two to three bars. We placed a call with OnStar and it came through with very good quality. Finally, we moved just off a one bar area to a spot where our cell phone showed no bars. Again, we stopped and placed a call through OnStar. The call went through and the quality was still good, although we heard a little bit of interference. This test showed that the car works as a stronger transceiver than the cell phone. We finished up this test by driving to an area out of the range of any cell tower. As we expected, we couldn't get any signal with our cell phone or through OnStar.
In the cabin
As the highest trim level, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ's cabin gets a luxury treatment that feels as if it is trying just a little too hard. Our test car came with two-tone beige-and-brown leather seats and dashboard, the dashboard also accented with a faux wood strip circling the cabin area. These excesses aside, the quality of the switchgear and materials feels good.
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.