First of all, let’s take the Corvette out of the picture. After all, the Corvette is to, say, the Chevy Aveo what Aerosmith is to a garage band that’s still in a garage. With that established, let’s make a definitive statement: the 2008 Chevy Malibu is the best-designed, most-well engineered vehicle in the Chevy showroom. In fact, it could be argued that with few exceptions (e.g., the ’08 Cadillac CTS), the Malibu could be the best thing that GM has, period. (Speaking of Corvettes and Cadillac: A few years ago it was thought by some that Corvette would become a Cadillac model, but the closest that came to happening was the development of the Cadillac XLR, which is based on the Corvette platform.)
It is all about consistency and the under-standing that it is necessary to not simply match the competition (the usual suspects, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry) but to try to get ahead of them. Gary Kovacic, vehicle line director for the Malibu, explains that when they went to work on the Malibu three years ago, they didn’t know what Toyota was going to do for the ’07 Camry nor, certainly, Honda for the ’08 Accord. Consequently, they had to do their best in anticipating what the competition would do. He notes that one of the big differences with regard to developing the ’08 Malibu as compared with the previous generation was that they were given the charter by management to work to exceed expectations—expectations of the consumer, expectations related to the competition. To do any less would be to likely surrender sales in the increasingly competitive midsize car market. If you’re not working to be ahead in your development, you will most certainly fall behind.
This is connected, in some ways, with the aforementioned consistency. That is, the Malibu (like its predecessor) is based on the GM global Epsilon platform. This is an architectural underpinning that first debuted on the 2002 Opel Vectra. It has been used, subsequently, for Saabs, a Pontiac, and a Saturn. Each time there was further improvement and refinement; this is not the same as it previously was. In the case of the ’08 Malibu, the version of the Epsilon that it is closest to is the Aura, although Kovacic (who’d worked on the Aura, the Pontiac G6, and the previous Malibu) explains that the tuning for the Malibu is more supple, less European-inspired as is the case with the Aura. (Both cars are made at the Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas; the plant received a $208-million investment in its body shop for the ’08 Malibu.) So by working the platform, they have been able to continuously improve it. So with the Malibu being the last in the line (so far), it benefits from all of the previous learnings.
Shhhh . . .
One of the main goals while developing the Malibu was to reduce NVH. This has been accomplished through a variety of means. First of all, there is the fundamental stiffness of the chassis. According to Kovacic, 60% of the underbody is fabricated with high-strength steel “for maximizing strength and optimizing mass.” He goes on to note, “The body structure is incredibly stiff,” then backs that up by pointing out that the global bending frequency is 26 Hz, which he describes as “luxury-car like.” (One of the aspects of the Malibu—be it from a overall design, engineering or amenity standpoint—that’s repeated by everyone involved with it is that they wanted to develop a vehicle that is “like a $40,000 car for half the price”—the base LS model, equipped with a 169-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing and a four-speed transmission starts at $19,995.) The point of this is that by starting with a stiff structure, the consequent squeaks, rattles, groans, and moans are minimized or eliminated. (It also contributes to better ride and handling.)
Beyond “starting with a foundation that doesn’t twist and move,” Kovacic says that there were “hundreds of things that our design engineers, our development engineers, and our manufacturing engineers did to make this a quieter vehicle.” Among them:
- The use of acoustic, laminated glass for the windshield and front side doors (5.4 mm for the former, 5 mm for the latter)
- 42% thicker side rear door glass compared to previous Malibu
- Full inner door seals and trip-lip door glass sealing
- Use of sound-absorbing material in the console, behind rear seat, under the instrument panel, and under headliner.
- Use of a engine-side acoustic front-of-dash mat
- Liquid-applied sound-damping material for door panels.
One interesting development is the air induction system for the four-cylinder engine*. Not only does it function as the engine cover, but it also incorporates nine sound chambers that doesn’t simply minimize source noise, but produces a smoother, more linear sound for that which remains.
Can’t Forget the ‘Vette.
But what is the most-impressive aspect of the car—which is being marketed as “The Car You Can’t Ignore”—is its exterior design. Tim Kozub, exterior designer, points to a sketch of what he’d imagined the Malibu might be, and then to the physical production car: “As you can see the car hasn’t changed much from the initial sketches.” Which makes him rather pleased. And he should be, as this is a level of detail and design that is uncharacteristic of Chevys except for...yes, that Corvette. Which, in fact, Kozub brings up. He points to the hood. It is what’s known as an “island hood,” meaning that it is captured by the sheet metal of the fenders and the front fascia, not layered on top as is the case with most cars. “We took it from the Corvette.” (Kozub also adds, “It is very difficult to manufacture. Gary Kovacic and his team made it possible. They had to reposition elements in the engine compartment so that they could fit under the fenders.”)
Walking around behind the car, he points to the rear: “It is sheared off, like the ‘Vette. Look at how the lower fascia wraps up to the rocker—that’s a Corvette-like line.” Inside: dual cockpit. Which is something that’s familiar to . . .
*In addition to the 2.4-liter four, there is also a 3.6-liter V6 that is mated to a six-speed transmission. The projection is that about 70% of the Malibus sold will be equipped with the four. That number includes the hybrid version of the car, as well.