2005 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx

Unconventional comfort and versatility

At Detroit's 2003 North American International Auto Show, Chevrolet rolled out a trio of all-new, high-volume and critically important 2004-05 products for the assembled media: the Colorado compact/midsize pickup, the Equinox compact SUV and the Malibu midsize sedan. Most in the audience thought all three looked pretty good.

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Some felt the Malibu, however, didn't look new, sexy, bold or exciting enough to effectively take on the likes of the immensely popular (but blandly styled) midsize market class leaders, Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord. This did not deter the phalanx of intense Japanese (presumably engineers and marketers) who swarmed inside and around all three to check out their accommodations, materials and features. Apparently, the competition was at least as interested as the media that day.

A few months later, we got to know and drive the Malibu and discovered for ourselves how good it really is. And, at that same time, we got our first look at the second new Malibu model, the wagon-back "Maxx," which Chevy prefers to call an "extended sedan." The Malibu 4-door is good in just about every way, but this commodious, flexible and feature-laden 5-door Maxx is even better, and some say better looking.

From the B-pillar (between the front and rear doors) forward, the Malibu Maxx is identical to the sedan. From the rear doors back, it's substantially different. For starters, it rides on a six-inch longer wheelbase-which enables a surprisingly spacious interior for its size-yet is a half-inch shorter overall. Compared to the previous Malibu, a former Motor Trend Car of the Year, both new models are firmer, quieter and more linear in ride and handling. Considering that their global Epsilon architecture is shared with GM's excellent Opel Vectra, Saab 9-3 and Pontiac's soon-to-come G6 sedan, this is not too surprising.

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Standard powertrain is a new 200-hp, 3.5L V-6 driving the front wheels through a smooth 4-speed electronic automatic. It provides strong performance and-surprisingly, since it's an inexpensive cam-in-block design instead of OHC-best-in-class economy. EPA ratings for the V6-powered LT are an impressive 22 mpg City, 30 mpg Highway.

One advantage of the relatively inexpensive engine is that Chevy has loaded the Malibu up with what may be the industry's longest list of useful standard features at such a modest price. Among these on the base LS model are a power height adjuster and manual lumbar support for the driver's seat, tilt/telescoping steering column, a CD-equipped audio system, power windows, door locks and mirrors, a rear skylight with shades and even power adjustable pedals.

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A whole bunch more was standard on our uplevel LT test Malibu Maxx, including automatic air conditioning, a driver information center, anti-lock brakes with traction control, 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, power heated outside mirrors, heated front seats with 6-way power for the driver, leather-covered seats and steering wheel, steering wheel radio controls and a new-for-'05 rear spoiler and rear window wiper/washer. And Malibu is first with a factory-installed remote starter (standard LT, optional LS) that safely and easily starts the engine-and cabin heating or cooling-from a range up to about 200 feet.

The 60/40 split rear seats recline for comfort and adjust nearly seven inches fore/aft, allowing a choice of a limo-like 41 inches of legroom, serious cargo space or any combination in-between. Max passenger space is a generous 106 cubic feet with the rear seats back, while cargo room is 41 cu.-ft. with the rear seats forward and folded down. The standard rear skylight with split retractable shades adds to the spacious, open atmosphere in back, while dual center dash vents (dubbed "turbo blasters" by Malibu engineers) are designed to pour generous amounts of heated or cooled air directly into the back seat.

The cargo area has a standard power outlet and a four-position multi-functional panel that enables two-tier loading or can be positioned as a table for picnics or tailgate parties. Hooks and cargo nets on the side panels help secure smaller items. And the right front seat folds flat to accommodate long items or provide a working surface for the driver.

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The three available levels of audio systems include an uplevel option with six speakers (including two tweeters in the A-pillars), an in-dash 6-CD changer, automatic volume and tone controls and XM Satellite Radio compatibility. Rear-seat audio and DVD entertainment systems with wireless headphones are optional. For crash survivability, there's extensive use of high-strength steel in strategic body areas, plus energy-absorbing crush zones front and rear. Additional safety equipment includes 3-point belts for all occupants, dual-stage front airbags and head curtain side bags with front seat-mounted thorax side-impact bags standard on the LT, available on the LS. The optional OnStar service includes a new Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) system that, even without airbag deployment, provides crash data to 911 centers for fast deployment of appropriate life-saving personnel and equipment.

Our feature-loaded test LT started at $24,495 and added just three options: a $995 rear audio/DVD system, the $695 OnStar security and safety system (including a one-year basic subscription) and the $325 XM Satellite Radio (including a three-month subscription) for a modest (pre-rebate) total of $27,135, including $625 destination charge. One unfortunate result of that otherwise excellent package is the two separate antennae on the forward roof, one for OnStar, the other (off-center) for XM. (www.chevrolet.com)

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