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Although the vehicle design is described as being like a “blue three-button suit that never goes out of style,” General Motors hopes that the ‘04 Malibu (shown here at the LT trim level) will go into plenty of driveways, as the vehicle is meant to help the manufacturer regain its portion of the important mid-size car market.

If you want to build a better car, you start here, with the structure. More than 65% of the Malibu underbody is built with high-strength steel.

Platform flexibility is evident when the five-door Malibu Maxx “extended sedan” is compared with the conventional sedan. Maxx has a wheelbase of 112.3 in. and an overall length of 187.8 in. The sedan has a wheel base of 106.3 in. and an overall length of 188.3 in. The consequence of this is that while the sedan has an EPA passenger volume of 101.4 ft3, the Maxx has a more-spacious 106 ft3.

Why Malibu Matters

Do you get the sense that vehicle manufacturers have forgotten the midsize car category in their rush to design and build trucks? GM has long focused on the pickups and SUVs (for good rea$on). With the Chevy Malibu, it is working on what is still an important segment.

The growth at General Motors of late has been in large part the consequence of the boom in light trucks. The GMT 800 truck platform, which has spawned multitudinous variants, includes the Chevy Silverado. Another vehicle lineup that’s been helpful to the General are its midsize sport utes, including the Chevy TrailBlazer. (And it is worth a glancing note that it is the same architectural base that’s being used for the Chevy SSR.) What do these vehicles have in common? Well, for one thing, they’re not cars.

One could make the argument that GM is trying to get back into passenger car relevance through the Cadillac Division. Notably, there are the CTS and the XLR. Of course, the real star in Caddy’s firmament is the Escalade (GMT 800-borne), and the rising star is the crossover ute, the SRX. So even Cadillac is showing its strength in things that aren’t cars.

Perhaps the better argument could be made that the General’s passenger car offensive will be mounted with the 2004 Chevy Malibu, a car that could make cars matter more at Chevrolet. The five-passenger midsize sedan is designed and engineered to take on the major midsize players—Toyota Camry and Honda Accord—as well as the new breed, represented by the likes of the Mazda6 and the Hyundai Sonata.

OK. You’re thinking, “C’mon: Malibu in the same sentence as Camry and Accord? You’ve been spending too much time in Vermont or something. Get real.” Well, oddly enough, it is interesting to note that the Malibu which the ‘04 will be replacing has actually been in first place in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey for the past two years. While it is in a different category than the Camry and Accord, Gene Stefanyshyn, Vehicle Line Executive for Midsize Cars, proudly notes that if you make a comparison of the number of reported problems with the Malibu and compare it with the numbers for the Toyota and the Honda, the Chevy scores higher.

Once, GM excelled at making cars like the new Malibu. It is a quintessentially American car, at least in the context of the sort of pragmatic, do-your-job-and-do it-well way that things were done before the chrome-bits-giving-way-to-plastic-fascias temporality became the norm. Before substance gave way to nonsense.

Finding Leverage. But the way they’re doing it is not the way that it had been done because America (remember: most of those Camrys and Accords hail from Kentucky and Ohio, not Nagoya or Suzuka) and the world are different places. The basis of a solid vehicle like the Malibu was formed through leveraging GM’s global engineering resources in a sensible way. That is while a car the size of the Malibu (wheelbase: 106.3 in.; length: 188.3 in.; width: 69.9 in.; height: 57.5 in.) may make it comparatively bigger on European roads, Europeans do drive cars of those general proportions. So GM wisely put engineers together from both the U.S. and Europe and developed the “Epsilon platform.” That serves as the basis for the Opel Vectra (four body styles), the Saab 9-3 (two body styles), the Malibu (the sedan and the forthcoming five-door Maxx), and the next-generation Pontiac Grand Am (rumored to be renamed the “G6,” and which is also rumored to be coming as a sedan, coupe, and convertible). All of which means that when you’re doing something with that sort of breadth—Stefanyshyn says that by mid-2006, GM plans to be selling on the order of 1.2-million to 1.4-million Epsilon-based products—you’re going to do it right. And one aspect of doing it right is doing it so that it is appropriate for the task at hand. Horses for courses. The platform is engineered so that it can create vehicles with a mass of up to 4,000 lb., a wheelbase ranging from 105.3 to 112.3 in.; front-wheel and all-wheel drive; and a windshield pillar that can move a range of four inches.

The plan for the Malibu has it that it will be selling on the order of 250,000 to 260,000 units in North America. Realize that despite all of the attention to trucks and utes, the midsize market is still the single biggest vehicle category. Sure, even Toyota and Honda have truck strategies nowadays, but arguably the Camry and the Accord make that possible. And GM is not blind to that one single bit.

And so there is the Malibu.

Structurally Sound. One of the more interesting aspects of the vehicle is something that most people will never see: The fundamental structure. For example, if you were to peel away the plastic (a foam-backed thermoplastic olefin, TPO) from the instrument panel, you’d discover a one-piece magnesium casting. The purpose is to not only reduce weight (as compared with the conventional steel structure), but also to provide strength for crash protection. It is worth noting that magnesium beams of its type are found in GM vehicles that carry the Cadillac badge; as compared to steel, magnesium is immensely more expensive.

Even some of the steels used for the Malibu’s structure are atypical for entry-level midsize vehicles—or even non-entry level cars. Like the high-strength boron-steel intrusion beams that are in the door panels and the extensive use of high-strength, dual-phase steel used for approximately two-thirds of the underbody. There are laser-welded blanks employed for things like the body-side inner and the B-pillar reinforcement. The engine cradle (for both the Ecotec 2.2-liter I4 and the 3500 3.5-liter V6) is a full-perimeter hydroformed component. And there is an extensive use of sound-deadening material to make the cabin a quieter place.

None of this is inexpensive. And when asked about how a business case for the use of these premium materials could be made for the modestly priced car—realize that for a loaded Malibu LT (the highest of the three trim levels) with the V6—with loaded including such things as side-curtain airbags; the industry’s first factory-installed remote starter; ABS; traction control; power adjustable pedals; cruise control; six-speaker, six-disc audio; OnStar, and XM Radio—the MSRP is just $25,575—Stefanyshyn responds that they are counting on people actually recognizing the value that they’re getting and that they’ll be more interested in buying a desirable vehicle than in looking for a deal. You don’t have to discount something that people want to buy.

Although the Malibu is not a stylistic tour de force—and even the five-door Maxx to follow doesn’t break new ground in anything but the overall architecture with it being a midsize with a hatch (the clever aspect of the Maxx is found in the rear seat, which can move nearly seven inches back and forth under a skylight in the roof; a 60/40 seat that can, like the front passenger seat, be folded down so that there’s 128.8 ft3 of EPA interior volume for plenty of stuff)—it is certainly a class leader with regard to some of the amenities it provides. Like electric power steering, which is certainly a huge benefit when maneuvering at low speeds. French stitching on the seat seams. An HVAC system with special louvers in the center stack that are meant to provide the backseat passengers with climatic relief.

The workers at the GM Fairfax Assembly Plant have proven that they can make a competitive car (and given that GM North America president Gary Cowger started his GM career in that plant, they’re probably particularly sensitive to doing a good job). Clearly the Malibu is engineered and outfitted with first-rate materials and amenities. Will the Epsilon strategy work? Only the market will tell.