What I'm Driving At

It was here. Then it was gone. Now it's back. After a 14-year hiatus, Chevrolet has resurrected the hallowed Malibu nameplate and slapped it on an all-new, midsize, five-passenger sedan. And they're betting the bank that this car will be the next world-beater. Any baby boomer worth his or her diaper pins will remember growing up with the Malibu of yore. In the go-go, Beach Boy days before the gas crunch, the Malibu was an icon on Route 66 -- and every other highway in the U.S. It was a rear-drive, sporty, upscale rendition of the Chevrolet Chevelle, and its no-nonsense, boxy styling belied the sometimes profligate performance potential that lurked underhood -- especially in SS SuperSport trim.Although today's "risorgimento" version of the Malibu pales in any kind of sporty comparison with its Golden Era predecessor, its arrival -- indeed, its very reason for being -- is something of a coup for Chevrolet. That's because the '97 Malibu is not an updated version of what the Malibu once "was"; rather, it's a direct reflection of what the Baby Boomer mind-set now "is."Here's what I'm driving at: Close your eyes and see if you remember, from back in the '60s, the way artists used to draw automobiles in architect's renderings of new shopping centers or in "National Geographic" features about the distant near future of the 1990s. Now open your eyes -- and if you happen to be standing in a Chevy showroom at the moment, you'll see those renderings made real in the form of the new Malibu. What gives? Well, with apologies to Pogo, we have seen the future and it are us. It's as if Chevy has known all along what our materialist, consumerist selves would want "after" we learned the meaning of a dollar and replaced our parents (much to their delight) as heads of households. We may pine for the once fun days when rear-drive V8 Fairlanes, Chevelles, 'Cudas, and Javelins squared off where the rubber meets the road; but today -- in the real world, where the "checkbook" meets the road -- we're preoccupied with the sensible front-drive Camrys, Accords, Altimas, and Mystiques that promise the most for the least.Into this post-adolescent world of modern mores, the Malibu has confidently arrived as a brave new contender. Equipped with either a 150-horsepower twin-cam four-cylinder engine or an upscale 155-horsepower pushrod V6, the Chevy out-powers such significant rivals as the Ford Contour, the Toyota Camry, and the Chrysler Cirrus. At Chevy's recent press introduction in San Antonio, the Texas Hill Country topography favored the V6, with its 20-percent-greater torque output (and consequently improved hill-climbing ability). Back in Middle Tennessee, however, a test model with the 2.4-liter four-banger passed itself off as a convincing V6 impersonator; with its twin overhead-cam design, it's certainly a much more elegant and more efficient powerplant, and it'll save you the $390 optional cost of the V6. It's just a bit noisy, though, as if to prove it's working hard on your behalf.The powertrain isn't the only -- or even the main -- story with the Malibu, however. The car's interpretation of form and function is the battleground on which it will fight for Boomers' hearts and minds and wallets. In the words of Chevy spokesman John Hughes, the Malibu is being targeted at middle-income families, who are characterized by marketing research as smart shoppers. What does this mean exactly? Well, technically, says Hughes, it refers to car buyers who do a lot of homework; that is, they like to educate themselves vis-a-vis the competition. That's fine, of course; but since buying a new car is the most expensive purchase most people ever make without a lawyer, who "wouldn't" shop smart? What Chevy really means by smart shoppers is patient shoppers, people amenable to a thorough sales pitch. And what Chevy thinks it needs to explain is how the Malibu's compact exterior dimensions - relative to its chief rivals - can enclose a roomier, 5-passenger interior. We're gonna have to educate 'em, says Hughes, that this is a big car in a smaller package. And the best way to kick off a showroom palaver, of course, is to flatter your students on their obvious intelligence. In this instance, it's a lesson worth listening to: The Malibu favors head and leg room by providing longer and taller exterior dimensions than its chief rivals, but it's also narrower, with a relatively short wheelbase. In real-world terms, Chevy has sized the Malibu with adequate wiggle-room for a car full of adults. But its athletic stance, in combination with four-wheel independent suspension, retains just enough sportiness to indulge aging Boomers' nostalgia for their race-about heydays. I won't say it's perfect: The car is roomier than it is plush, and with respect to interior controls and conveniences, some will call Spartan what others describe as neat and tidy. But the Malibu features a respectable menu that allows you to order the basic "prix fixe" in the $16,000 range, or to add intelligently bundled options "a la carte" all the way up to a maximum of just $19,000 or so for the upscale Malibu LS with all the trimmings.Chevrolet wants the public to acclaim its new Malibu the car you always knew America could build. (Which perhaps begs the uncharitable question: So why did they wait so long?) Midsize sedans represent a knock-down, drag-out sales category, meaning that Chevy has some hard work ahead if it wants to displace entrenched preferences for imports such as Camry and Accord. Even so, the Malibu is sized right and priced low, and depending on what smarts some shoppers apply to their analyses, it may even sneak up on Ford's best-selling but larger Taurus. And that would be quite a coup for this "sartor resartus" of Baby Boomer icons, the Malibu.

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