Malibu makes a comeback

Friday, November 14, 2003

srobertson

Mention 1964 and some folks think of the New York World's Fair. For others it was the struggle for equality and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. 1964 was the year of the Yankee/Cardinals World Series Game, the Beatles' invasion and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

But for me, 1964 marked the introduction of an exciting new car from Detroit -- the Chevy Malibu. It looked different from anything else on the road. Its front and rear ends were squared off, it had unique taillights, dual headlights and a big, powerful 283 cubic-inch V8 engine. But it would be five years before I would own my own '64 Malibu.

In the 1960s we didn't know what unibody construction was. Cars were built on a frame, just like trucks, and they were pushed around by their rear wheels. Aerodynamics had to do with airplanes, not cars. Air conditioning was a novelty that didn't work very well, and few cars had power steering or power windows. We didn't care much about gas mileage, so designers didn't give a flip about weight. My V8 Malibu, with manual steering and an automatic transmission got about 15 miles per gallon on the highway, and maybe 8 or 10 around town. Ouch!

Initial impression

The stylish 2004 Malibu LT sedan I picked up from Brennecke Chevrolet for this report bears no resemblance to the original '64 Malibu. In fact, if you were to pull all the badges off the new Malibu, you would be hard pressed to figure out what it is. It sure doesn't look like your father's Chevy! It looks more like something that came from one of those exclusive import dealers in St. Louis. In fact, the Malibu rides on the same platform as the snazzy Saab 9-3, which is one of the better-handling front-wheel-drive sedans on the market. The Malibu now features a chrome bar across the front grille, tying it together with the Chevy truck design that has become popular.

Slide in, grab the door handle, and you'll be impressed as the door swings shut with refrigerator door-type security and smoothness. Next, notice the fabric you're sitting on. It's Ultra Lux fabric, a microtech sueded fabric that has a leatherlike feel and appearance. It lends a fashionable, upscale feeling to the interior, is very comfortable to sit on and is easily cleaned with soapy water.

The interior has many thoughtful touches that will endear you such as air conditioning vents that are aimed with little wheels beneath each vent, storage pockets for maps in the doors, hand grips on the ceiling for the rear seat passengers, dual lighted vanity mirrors, pull-out extenders on the sun visors, flip-down front passenger seatbacks for carrying long items, a 12-volt outlet in the center arm rest and a fold-down rear seat that expands trunk room. All five passengers are protected by an optional set of front and rear head curtain airbags.

Driving the Malibu

If the '64 and the '04 Malibus have anything in common, it is that they are both fun to drive. Both have the power to squeal their tires as they accelerate you from zero to 60 quicker that you can say, "Sorry officer, I didn't realize I was still in the city limits."

But that's where the similarity ends. Push the original Malibu up to 70 miles per hour and the wind noise sounded like the tornado that went through Jackson. In the new Malibu you'll be serenely sailing up the interstate enjoying your six speaker, six CD sound system while the cruise control and electric power steering system take care of the drudgery.

Try to negotiate a curvy, bumpy road in the crude '64 Malibu and you could easily end up in the weeds. The new Malibu, with four-wheel independent suspension, anti-lock brakes and anti-skid control, can handle the same road at twice the speed while you sip a cappuccino and chat on your cell phone (not recommended). It also has twice as many transmission gears as the original one -- four compared to two, and with 200 horsepower pulling around a lighter, more sophisticated platform, the 2004 V6 Malibu is light years ahead of my old, clunky V8 Malibu.

Forty years of progress has brought not only improvements in performance but great leaps in comfort and safety. Today's Malibu LT has a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, power adjustable pedals, power moon roof and other creature comforts never dreamed of in 1964, such as a remote starting system that lets you pre-cool or warm your car from up to 200 feet away and a tilting/telescoping steering wheel.

Chevy's goal was to offer car buyers who have strayed to the imports a well-equipped, value-priced American alternative. I think they have succeeded. Counting the available rebate, $23,000 will put a fully equipped 2004 Malibu in your driveway. And when you consider its enviable gas mileage of 23 city and 32 highway miles, you could drive your new Malibu all the way to Malibu, Calif., and back for only $171 in fuel cost. Welcome back, Malibu!

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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