COAL: 1997 Chevrolet Malibu – Generic with a Capital G

My first two COAL posts focused on recent “collector” cars and, as I thought about my next post, I started to review old digital pictures from cars past.  It was then that I saw pictures of this car and realized I had completely forgotten I had ever owned it.  Which pretty much explains my experience with the utterly generic 1997 Chevrolet Malibu that served as our family’s second/commuter car during the early 2000’s.

Why write about this car now?  Two reasons – my first post focused on a vehicle that many (myself included) consider one of the pinnacles of GM’s mass market car building – the late 70’s through 90’s B-body full size car.  When introduced, GM was ahead of the curve, showing automakers both domestic and foreign that it could marshal its engineering resources to lead the market.  Twenty years later, GM came out with the Malibu – a car clearly derivative in style, engineering and performance and so thoroughly average that you wouldn’t notice it on a street corner.  The swagger was gone.

My second reason is related to my second post – the rise of Japanese car makers in the 80’s and 90’s that led to market leadership by Honda and Toyota (as well as Nissan and Mazda to a lesser extent) at the expense of the Big Three (formerly Four) American automakers.  It’s not that American automakers couldn’t build competitive family cars.  (For example, the original Ford Taurus was a home run.)  Rather, it’s that the companies setting the goal posts were no longer domestic.  As a result, by 1997, American car manufacturers kept trying to chase the elusive formula for widespread market success.  And that is how you get the Malibu – designed to be inoffensive in the extreme.

This particular Malibu, in a shade of maroon red that still managed to fade into the background, was originally purchased new by my in-laws in Wisconsin.  By 2001, my wife and I had relocated to the Twin Cities and had a toddler son.  Both of us needed to commute by car to work and handle day care pick ups and drop offs.  At the time, we had a 2000 VW Passat wagon (another COAL to come) and needed a second commuter car.  My in-laws sold us their Malibu and bought a Toyota Sienna for the growing cadre of grandchildren.

Now, I need to be clear.  The Malibu was not a bad car.  As has been observed on these pages already, the Malibu was competent for what it was designed to do – carry 4 people in relative comfort at relatively low cost.  Yes, the benchmark probably was the 1992-96 Toyota Camry and, in comparison, the Malibu wasn’t that far off the mark.  Except the interior wasn’t of such high quality, the 3.1 V6 was both old tech and made more noise than power, and the front end had a bad habit of going out of alignment and eating tires.

We owned this car for 5 years and, I have to say, I can’t remember much that I ever did with it that was memorable.  I know we drove our sons in it on occasional trips around town.  I know I took some work related drives across Minnesota with it.  And I know I had to replace the back window when someone came through our neighborhood breaking car windows one evening.  But truly, I can’t think of a single really noteworthy thing that happened involving the car.

Did the car drive well?  Well enough.  I mean, it handled and rode like a car.  Did it get decent mileage?  I never remember being impressed either way.  Did it have enough space?  Again, I don’t recall ever having a problem fitting people in it.  It’s just that the whole five year experience of owning this car was pretty much not memorable.  Mind you, this was during the early years of my sons’ lives, so maybe I was just too sleep deprived to realize it.

All I do remember was that, when I sold it in 2006, the value of the car was about $2500.  After 9 years, it was worth less than half of comparable Camry or Accord. So, while I don’t regret owning the Malibu, I have to say, the whole experience made me kind of sad.  It would be the last modern American car I would ever own for daily driving.  And as it drove away, I couldn’t muster up any emotions.  And thus the Malibu passed from our home and my consciousness until I wrote this.

Much has been written about GM’s (and Ford and Chrysler) deadly sins.  But for many of us who came of age in the “malaise” era, the sins committed weren’t always about building bad cars. Rather, so much of what went wrong during that time were sins of omission like the Malibu – phoned in efforts at competing with better designed vehicles.  Which can be just as deadly in the long term.