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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.
The OnStar button is on the rear-view mirror bezel.
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.
A tabbed menu structure lets you set the display to show information from XM satellite radio channels.
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.
To work the paddle shifters, you push to upshift and pull to downshift.
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.