By Keith Burton

Chevrolet is out to prove that it can build a midsize car as good as its Japanese and European competitors. That may sound like a big task with Toyota and Honda regularly clobbering General Motors in midsize auto sales, but with the new Malibu and Malibu Maxx, the company is getting closer.

The 2004 Malibu, and its wagon stablemate, the Malibu Maxx are all new this year. Both cars represent extensive thinking on what the public wants in a midsize car.

Malibu's dynamic performance starts with its foundation - the General Motors Epsilon global architecture. The Malibu and its Malibu Maxx stable-mate are the first North American applications of Epsilon architecture, which also provides the foundation for the new Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. This is a pretty sophisticated foundation for an American sedan and it brings a level of road performance that has long been lacking in GM cars.

The powertrain choices for the Malibus include a standard 145-horsepower, 2.2-liter, dual-overhead-cam Ecotec four-cylinder engine. The LS and LT models of the Malibu and Malibu Maxx feature the new GM 3500 3.5-liter, overhead-valve V-6, with 200 horsepower.

All Malibus come with the smooth-shifting Hydra-Matic 4T45-E four-speed electronic automatic transmission. Combined with the broad torque curve of Malibu's four- and six-cylinder engines, the result is strong performance and best-in-class fuel economy.

"Anyone who has driven the previous version of the Malibu will immediately notice a firmer, quieter, more linear feel in the ride and handling of the 2004 version," said Gene Stefanyshyn, vehicle line executive of the Malibu and Malibu Maxx.

An independent front suspension with MacPherson struts and a four-link independent rear suspension, teamed with a rigid body structure and a fully isolated powertrain cradle help make the ride of the new Malibus smooth, confident and quiet.

Comfort and versatility abound
Every Malibu features a lot of standard equipment with options tailored to allow drivers to customize their driving experience. A power driver's seat height adjuster, tilt/telescoping steering column, power windows, door locks and mirrors are standard on all

Power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals and manual lumbar support are standard on the LS and LT models and are available on the Malibu sedan.

With a 60/40 split/folding rear seat and a fold-flat front passenger seat, the Malibu sedan can be a cargo carrier by day and a refined, comfortable people-hauler by night, or the other way around.

The Malibu and Malibu Maxx will be the first midsize cars to offer an optional factory-installed remote vehicle starter system, allowing the driver to get a head start on heating or cooling the car's interior from a range of about 200 feet. The system will shut down if after a short period of time if the car's computer finds that no one gets into the car.

The Malibu Maxx extended sedan is everything that the Malibu sedan is - and more. From the B-pillar forward, the Malibu Maxx and Malibu sedan are the same. From there back, though, nearly everything about the Malibu Maxx is unique.

The five-door Malibu Maxx rides on a wheelbase that is 6 inches longer than the 2004 Malibu sedan, yet its overall length is a half-inch shorter. The result is an interior that is cavernous for a car its size.

Comfort for rear-seat passengers is enhanced with a heating/air conditioning system designed for their needs. In addition to airflow to the feet, two vents on the center of the dash - dubbed "turbo blasters" by Chevy engineers - are designed to pour generous amounts of heated or cooled air directly into the back seat.

The headliner console in the LS and LT models has reading lights for front and rear passengers and offers the Homelink system for programming garage door openers and other electronic home-based functions.

Four levels of radio offerings are available on the Malibu and Malibu Maxx, starting with the base model's AM/FM stereo and CD player, to an uplevel radio with an in-dash, six-CD changer, six speakers, automatic volume and tone controls and XM Satellite Radio (U.S. only) compatibility. A rear-seat DVD system and a rear-seat DVD/audio system also are available with the Malibu Maxx.

All Malibu models will be equipped with electric power steering  with variable assist for low- and high-speed steering maneuvers and power brakes. Other standard features include a driver information center, with the unfortunate acronym DIC, (we are not making that up) integrated into the radio display that enables personalization of electrical features and provides more than 15 warning messages, including low key fob battery life. Finally a fob battery sensor!  Options include heated front seats and the OnStar in-vehicle safety and security system

All in all, its a nice car and should be a good seller for GM. We look forward to a complete road test in the future.

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