In 2001 my rapidly growing family outgrew the Pontiac Sunfire coupe that had served us faithfully and reliably for 6 years. We had a GMC Jimmy that was about to be replaced by a minivan, and it was time to trade the second car in for a 4 door sedan that could easily shuttle a baby and a toddler, both in car seats, for quick trips around town without having to use the minivan. The Malibu was the only choice, and here’s why.
After a few years cutting my teeth working on the GM J-car program, I was “moved up” to a new, secret program that was finally (eye roll…) going to give GM a fully competitive, world class midsize car. The introduction of the groundbreaking 1992 Toyota Camry (above) shocked GM’s car division to its core. How could a midsize, mid priced car be so advanced, so refined, so quiet, so smooth, and so perfect? It was clear that GM had serious Camry-envy, and Chevrolet, floundering in this segment with the uncompetitive Corsica and Lumina, simply had to have one.
So I was assigned to the “P90” program when it was still on the drawing board, and it quickly became apparent that the company was going to try to build a Camry from the GM parts bin. The basis would be the old L-car Corsica, which itself is a descendent of the 1970’s era X-car Citation. A lot of effort went into modernizing this platform, with a new independent rear suspension replacing the twist axle, and a stiff full perimeter cradle replaced the two outrigger suspension supports for better handling.
The interior was a decided break from the misery of prior GM offerings, with soft pleasing shapes, nice trim, and a lot of attention to ergonomics. Again, the Camry led the way, with every detail benchmarked against that car. The result was the most advanced and refined X-car descendent ever, but it was clear from the beginning that it still was going to be no match for the Camry and Accord. The Camry had superior ride and noise isolation, and it drove like a junior Lexus. The Accord still had that Honda magic, a combination of engaging driver dynamics and an eager and responsive engine.
The P90 attempted to straddle the middle ground between these cars but ended up getting lost in a sea of mediocrity. There’s a limit on what can be done with the GM parts catalog and the rampant cost cutting that was everywhere at the time. So GM unofficially resigned itself to being “good enough”, which is to say if you can’t be best in class, at least don’t offend. And that extended to the styling, which was a very conservative near clone of the Camry. The P90 platform would go on to birth more interesting cars later, the sleek Pontiac G6 and Olds Alero. But with the Malibu, Chevrolet played it safe.
Nevertheless, Chevrolet had high hopes for the new Malibu to revive its fortunes in the huge (at that time) midsize car market. So imagine their dismay when Oldsmobile, approaching its 100th anniversary without a new product to show off, became a P90 program hanger-on and christened their version with one of its most storied names, Cutlass. But unlike Chevrolet, Oldsmobile just didn’t seem to care about their new car. They put in minimal effort to differentiate a Cutlass from a Malibu, only giving the car a reworked grill, taillights, wheels, and a reshaped instrument panel. That’s it.
No unique engine, no unique suspension tuning. In profile the Malibu and Cutlass looked identical and they drove identically. And there was virtually no advertising for their new Cutlass, surprising considering it was Oldsmobile’s centennial year. But by 1997 Oldsmobile was already on life support, desperately throwing rebadged product like Bravadas and Silhouettes against the wall in the hopes that something would stick. Therefore on a shoestring budget Olds’ new Malibu-clone was unfortunately tasked to carry the Cutlass torch into the sunset, the last Oldsmobile to bear that hallowed name.
The P90 launch date approached and our team of young engineers was assembled to shuttle an all-white fleet of preproduction cars from the Oklahoma City factory to GM’s Milford, MI proving grounds. We would take a circuitous route through the Deep South, into the Great Smoky Mountains through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and up into Michigan, wringing the cars out thoroughly looking for early quality issues.
In those pre-cellphone days, we made a surprise stop at my parents’ house in Columbus, white Malibus and Cutlasses filling the quiet residential street and attracting all sorts of curious stares from neighbors. We caught Mom making dinner while Dad relaxed in his underwear after a day at work. After the initial shock of seeing their son with dozens of strangers barging into their house, they recovered nicely and Dad handed out a bunch of chocolate to our team. He worked for Nestle and had access to unlimited Nestle Crunch and Butterfinger bars.
Our Great White Fleet also made a point to pull in unannounced to small town Chevrolet dealers along the way. We would run the cars through the local car wash, park the Oldsmobiles out of sight, and then parade the Malibus in front of the dealership. The salespeople poured out of the showroom for their first close up look at the new car they were going to sell in a few months. They gave it a unanimous thumbs-up, excited that they were going to finally have a car to compete head to head with the Camry.
The Malibu went on to be reasonably successful for Chevrolet, selling over 200,000 per year in its first few years of production, although a lot of them probably went to rental fleets. It didn’t move the needle on Chevrolet’s market share, nor did it topple the Camry and Accord as kings of the midsize segment. It didn’t have any major flaws, but also didn’t give Honda and Toyota buyers any compelling reason to switch from their current sedans. It was a solid B-student in a field of valedictorians, with reasonable power, acceptable fuel economy, roomy and comfortable interior, and safe, predictable handling. Looked upon by many as the spiritual successor to the A-body Chevy Celebrity and Olds Ciera, the ’97 Malibu and Cutlass were the personification of “good enough.”
Fast forward 4 years and I’m ready for a midsize family car to transport two little kiddies around and get me to work and business school at night. For 5 years I had worked long hours on the new Malibu program so despite just being “good enough” and not “best in class”, it was still my baby. So I signed the papers for a brown LS model and drove it for 3 uneventful years. It did the job well and got me and the family to the places we needed to be without fuss, and didn’t give us any trouble. During that time, our Malibu evolved from being an anonymous transportation appliance to a trusted family workhorse.
One of a car’s greatest and most solemn responsibilities is to bring a newborn baby and mother home from the hospital for the first time, safely and comfortably. In our family, that honor went to the Malibu when our 2nd child was born. And when we moved overseas a few years later for an assignment in China, the Malibu sold quickly. Buyers recognized it for what it was, a safe choice. The Malibu’s mission in life was to play it safe, and it did that very well.
I remember the absolutely massive ad campaign around the ’97 Malibu. The return of a dormant, hallowed Chevrolet model name, replacing the sad-sack Corsica, world-beater to tackle the Camry and Accord. This was the height of GM’s Procter & Gamble marketing-first years. Begrudgingly dragging their design teams into near-competitiveness, while limiting them to the parts bin, then having the famously powerful accounting department cost cut everything, before finally allowing marketing to oversell internally-handicapped mediocre products.
The lasting impression of this program I think for most will be the Classic fleet-only years, lower intake busting 3100s, and rear wheel arch rust holes. Cutlass Cieras without the longevity or character. A disposable first car for the kid, a J.D.Byrider special, an “oh, I had one of those from Avis in 2002 on a great trip to wherever and forgot they existed.”
I find the single strongest emotion the 97-04 Malibu/Cutlass/Classic elicits from me is pity.
In a way, I think these were a Deadlier Sin than some of their predecessors, or at least were Deadly Sinful for a different reason. As this article demonstrates, GM knew the predicament they were in and understood the opposition — and decided to bunt. Not on some niche segment they didn’t understand or really care about, but on the heart of the mainstream American family sedan market Chevrolet used to more or less own. That’s pretty bad.
The X-body Citation was a worse car, but it was a different proposition: It was a pretty intelligent design that would probably have been a knockout hit if it had been executed better. It didn’t even need to be perfect; if it had been good enough, things might have gone quite differently.
I was pretty dismayed when these cars came out. They had no tempting features at all. The Chrysler “cloud cars” were flawed, but they were attractive and they had a great chassis. There was no reason to even look at the P90 unless it was cheap, cheap, cheap.
I’m feeling very similar about the new Accord. It’s the embodiment of “who cares?” There have been many flawed cars that had ambition. Even the unloved box Malibu that followed this based on the Epsilon platform had quite a bit of awkward charm. It wasn’t competitive at all, but the faux suede seats, first-ever remote start, and loveably ugly Maxx version, along with the Epsilon’s intrinsically decent driving dynamics (finger light electric power steering notwithstanding) and entirely decent short-lived High Value V6 made it feel like many people tried but misfired. The insight of the author’s involvement in the N-Body Malibu seems to verify that there was little passion involved due to internal limitations. The new Accord says to me that Honda acknowledges and embraces that gas sedans are a dead end, and they’ve engineered a car not as a final love letter to many generations of Accords with charm and elegant engineering, but instead a reminder that you could have paid them another $5-10k for a CR-V or Pilot. The really baffling part of the Accord story is that they have binned the long history of Accords being mildly engaging family sedans and repositioned it as a compliance-engineered replacement for the recently-deceased large sedan category. But I digress.
I absolutely do not want to minimize the certainly hard work put in on the Malibu project by many talented individuals, including the author. But the very neat story about his involvement in its development is the point of the story, with his ownership of an example of the model he helped to develop relegated to the last 2 paragraphs, and summed up by “it was fine, and brought my child home from the hospital.” Even he seems to find the car simply a charmless transportation device he once got some utility from. Which is an atypical stance in the COAL series, with most writers finding many things to love about some of the most unloved cars ever made.
The interesting thing about the Malibu Maxx was that it had a substantially longer wheelbase than the sedan.
The original 2004-2007 Malibu sedan had a 106.3-inch wheelbase. This was still larger than the European Epsilon cars (Opel/Vauxhall Vectra, Saab 9-3/Cadillac BLS), which had a wheelbase of 102.6 inches. However, the Malibu Maxx had a 112.3-inch wheelbase, all of which went to the rear doors.
The Pontiac G6 sedan already had the 112.3-inch wheelbase, and when the Malibu was redesigned for 2008, still on the Epsilon platform, it too got the 112.3-inch wheelbase. Ditto the Saturn Aura, which was essentially a Malibu with a different side-DLO shape and different set of front/rear fascias.
As for the new Accord, I think it’s just that Honda is a volume automaker–and not one that relies on fleet sales, either. The take rates for the enthusiast versions of the Accord (2.0T, 6MT, Coupe) were minuscule, so it makes sense that they eliminated them. Frankly, the market for mainstream midsize sedans is disappearing, and the few people that want them are prioritizing space combined with a seamless and economical experience. So it’s better for Honda to put less emphasis on performance and more on fuel-economy and hybridization. I’m just glad the Accord lives another day, when most of its segment is dying off (the Sonata being a recently announced casualty).
Also, Honda still puts tons of enthusiast love toward the Civic, which is pushing midsize these days in all the ways that matter, and to its Integra cousin.
Large, popularly priced sedans are essentially dead. The mid-size sedans aren’t faring well, either. Combine that shift, along with a push for electrification, and it’s amazing that Honda even bothered to update the Accord.
That is very depressing. I suppose the current Civic is bigger and more capable than the older Accords that people liked, although the 1.5T/CVT combination is not appetizing, and the new hatchback is very unfortunate-looking.
What surprises me is how close this looks to the first two generations of Nissan Primera sedan. Obviously the Chevy is bigger but otherwise so similar.
The Malibu may have been only “good enough” but you told it’s story far better than that and I really enjoyed it.
More like matched the 1992 Taurus than the 1992 Camry.
This is a maddening story on so many levels. Not the COAL, as it is a really enjoyable read. I love the view from the inside that you are able to provide, and it reinforces my belief that GM was a company made of highly talented and motivated people at the granular level, but who were imprisoned under an upper management and a bunch of internal systems that guaranteed a car that was completely undistinguished and joyless – a car that you bought because you were from a Chevrolet family, or needed a decent vehicle for a fleet.
The saving grace is that these were pretty good at what they did – provide basic transportation that was pretty reliable. The Chrysler cloud cars and the Ford Contour were so much more engaging but were also flawed in significant ways and did not often survive a long, hard life. Honda and Toyota, of course, sold bazillions of Camrys and Accords to people who raved about them and bought many more of them.
My mother-in-law had one of these. It barely made it to 100,000 miles. Driving it was a thoroughly dismal experience. The steering was the worst I’ve ever experienced (complete with the notorious GM “clunk” every time the wheel was turned). Based on our experience, I’d take my chances with the more polished Ford Contour.
My only experience with the Contour was during a Craigslist search for a used car some time in the early 2010s, I think. Ford Contours were routinely the cheapest used cars being offered, considering their age and segment. When something on CL is routinely significantly cheaper than everything else, it tells me that we are dealing with Bad Ford and not Good Ford.
I’m sure that the Contour’s status as an orphan nameplate didn’t help resale values.
My mother-in-law’s Malibu would have needed some expensive repairs at 100,000 miles just to keep it on the road (and that wouldn’t have covered the HVAC fan switch that no longer worked).
But with many GM vehicles, it seems as though spare parts are just a junkyard away (particularly in rural areas), and the vehicles themselves are often easy to repair. Ford doesn’t always consider ease of repair.
The contour drove really well but it was a coin flip if they were reliable. Ours was a pain in the butt, and I have heard the same of many others but some people I know put 200k miles on them with little trouble.
Pretty much. GM had and has some of the most talented designers and engineers in the industry, but they’ve historically been hamstrung by the company’s inefficient corporate structure, which inflates the cost of doing business and causes the accountants to have to come in and slash budgets on products. Plenty a promising project was foiled by an insufficient budget.
At least these last N-bodies (Malibu, Cutlass, Alero/Grand Am) produced reasonably competitive cars and weren’t the unmitigated disaster that the original GM-10 (W-body) program was.
“…Dad handed out a bunch of chocolate to our team. He worked for Nestle and had access to unlimited Nestle Crunch and Butterfinger bars.”
Kind of hard for me to swallow that those iconic brands aren’t Nestle anymore. Like Opel being GM, Crunch is US Nestle.
I always felt like the most GM problem with this Malibu was how long it hung around, a Classic GM move if there ever was one.
At least Chrysler discovered by then, they could significantly mask inferior quality, and lesser refinement, with great showroom appeal. Great looks, and initial appeal, sell. For several years, at least.
If they were going to deliver a less-than-stellar experience in the long-term, they should have made it more enticing in the showroom. Would have bumped non-fleet sales for a few years. (From a cynical POV, of course.)
I am sure I speak for almost all CC readers when I say that we would love to hear any and all inside GM stories that you care to share. Keep up the good work!
It does look like a Primera its the grille that does it, I see Malibu badges on Daewoo/Holden Cruz cars over here, the badge got recycled. I’d have bought the Camry.
I have always thought of these cars as rental – or fleet – cars. The same thing more or less goes for the current generation Malibu, which I’ve had enjoyable-enough experiences in as a rental, but I don’t think I could be inspired to ever purchase one. I’ve known people in the past who actually went and purchased one of these as an ex-rental car, and this has mystified me. I guess I can understand the economics, but just in terms of choosing a car for long(ish)-term ownership, it seems just so uninteresting.
But this is where of course I need to step back and acknowledge that not everyone wants an “interesting” car (even while allowing that there could be many interpretations of a totally subjective term like “interesting”). And in fact, what is offered up by Hertz, Avis, etc. is not going to be based primarily in most cases on whether the car is interesting. Instead, in an effort to meet a cost point and to be as unoffensive to as many people as possible, I think one often winds up with something like the Malibu. So yeah, I see the case for its existence. It’s just not for me to own one.
Gene, as others have said, keep the insider stories coming. I look forward to more.
Oh, and you pretty much had me at “He worked for Nestle and had access to unlimited Nestle Crunch and Butterfinger bars.” I’ll bet there are some good stories there too!
Not to flog a dead horse, but I had one as rental on a family vacation with young kids. Pulled into the hotel lot from the airport and the power steering became unassisted. The rental company was happy for me to bring it back for a swap. No way. So they agreed to come to the hotel (downtown Vancouver, BC) and I got a GrandAm. Uninspiring, but didn’t require Armstrong parking. Sometime later I had the next gen Malibu as a rental, in Maxx form factor. Nice packaging, though overkill for me on a solo biz trip. The only bad thing I recall about the Maxx was the steering was TOO light and with a V6, the torque steer was noticeable. There are still a few first-gen Malibu’s, mostly Classics which I suspect are ex-rentals, around town.
A family member had a V6 Malibu Maxx that I drove frequently, and I concur. The steering was too light and it had torque-steer for days.
Still, it was more comfortable than the car that replaced it, a 2010 Accord Sedan. Something about the driver’s seat in the eighth-gen Accord–probably the aggressive lumbar–has my back screaming in agony within 15 minutes of driving one.
These were good fleet cars. They were the start of decent reliable domestic cars, the later Malibu’s and Ford Fusions were finally a decent product but that’s all history now as the people had moved on and they weren’t coming back.
gm kept fumbling the ball and that was the game. They sold off money making divisions. They shut down money making products because they didn’t want to spend money.
Bus, heavy truck, EMD, Detroit Diesel, Allison transmission, all gone. Medium duty truck, resurrected but the damage was done. Full size vans, chugging along clinging to an old market. Cars almost gone.
Agreed. GM and Ford’s midsize sedans probably achieved the best combination of design, competitiveness and reliability between 2008-2012-ish.
The 2008-2012 Malibu had swagger that was unmatched by other midsize sedans–including, even, its Saturn Aura sibling–and the long wheelbase made the not-quite-full-size Impala seem almost redundant.
Those cars also coincided with a lull for their Japanese competition. The 2008-2012 Accord was plasticky, bloated and awkward-looking, the 2012-2014 Camry felt insultingly cut-rate, and the 2007-2012 Altima–while packed with features–marked a sharp decline for Nissan quality.
Likewise, the 2010-2012 Fusion, technically a heavy facelift, took everything that was good about its donor Mazda6 platform and enhanced it. It also had some firsts for the segment, like blind-spot monitoring, Bluetooth music streaming, and genuinely intuitive voice commands.
After that, both companies lost the plot. The 2013 Fusion was modern and European, but was hamstrung by inherent engineering flaws outside of perhaps the base 2.5 Duratec version. And the 2013 Malibu was crippled because GM decided to put it on the same short-wheelbase setup as the Insignia/Regal, in order to make it appeal to international markets where Chevy was traditionally weak.
The 2007 and up Altima also had the Jatco CVT that did not last. While I still see 2005-6 “pre-CVT” versions still kicking around town.
Just lazy I guess. Seems all that commercial stuff required too much effort. I am glad they got back into medium duty trucks, albeit with help from Navistar. GM was always good at those vehicles and I hear this latest effort is successful.
I remember the ad campaign for these cars when they first came out. “The car you knew GM could build.” They even advertised it as ‘good enough.’ Which was a shame, because it was a much better car than its predecessors and they probably could have gotten people to believe that if they had pushed the idea.
On a trip years ago, I rented a car from National; at the airport I was given a Malibu. As a transportation device it worked well but there was absolutely nothing about the car that stood out, it was so generic it should have had a barcode instead of a name. “Good enough” had become institutionalized at GM.
It always bugged me that the “taillights” on the trunk lid were just reflectors on these.
It was a reskinned N/L body, made to look like a Geo Prizm. However, many old ones were still kicking around in the 2010’s, as ‘cockroaches of the road.’
Cockroaches™️ Of the Road
I had a 2001 Malibu as a rental car on a business trip once. I can remember, back then, there was a big OHC vs pushrod debate in many car forums. Well, every car I’d had, up through 1999, had been a pushrod. But in the fall of ’99, I got a new 2000 Intrepid with the 2.7 DOHC. I actually didn’t see what the big deal was, but I was coming off of an ’89 Gran Fury that had been a police car, so it had the torquey 175 hp 318-4bbl, and more aggressive gearing than the typical civilian M-body.
To me, those cars felt about the same, performance wise, but considering the Intrepid’s engine was a bit more than half the displacement, it was still impressive. And a LOT more economical!
Well, when I first got on the highway with that Malibu, and had to stop it, I saw what people were talking about with that pushrod vs OHC thing. The Malibu was probably quicker from 0-60 than my Intrepid, but really seemed to get winded at higher speeds, and situations like when you’d floor it to get into the passing lane to go around slower traffic.
There was nothing really redeeming about the car, but at the same time, nothing really bad about it, either. And it wasn’t a very expensive car, so if you were price conscious, it was probably a decent buy. One thing I did like about it was that, for not being that big of a car, it’s what I’d call a comfy 4 seater. It seemed like it had the legroom of a good midsized car, although not quite the shoulder room. I thought it was more comfortable, actually, than the larger Lumina. And, when the Impala came out, which was larger still, while the front seat seemed like an improvement, the back seat still felt cramped to me. It was like the Malibu was better if you needed room for four big adults, but the Impala was better if you needed three across seating, as long as the passengers were short in stature!
The Malibu probably was competitive when it debuted, for 1997. The only problem is, the competition moved fast.
As for the Cutlass, didn’t Olds get that model, mainly because the Intrigue wasn’t ready yet, and the Cutlass Ciera had to be dropped because it wouldn’t pass stricter 1997 side impact protection standards, or something like that?
Errr…ask Rocky about that.
Any of that driving done at night? These cars had pathetic headlamps. Random streaks and spots of light all over the place.
Oh, those poor, deluded creatures.
I think you’re being too generous and diplomatic; I think it was a C-student (“eh, good enough, who cares…”), a rolling major flaw comprising recursive layers of smaller flaws. Sort of a matryoshka doll of flaws (those Russian nesting ever-smaller-lookalike doll things).
Maybe that might(?) explain the weirdly long/tall shift stick.
I have had assignments on crap projects. It is corrosive to my soul to have to suck it up and keep on doing my job even though there’s nothing I can do to stop the result being embarrassingly mediocre or worse. I guess it works the same whether one is working on a publication or an automobile, and so I empathise. (I’m also reminded of that part in DeLorean’s book “On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors” where he describes a piss-poor choice of Vega engine being handed down from above—he told his team something along the lines of Yes, it sucks, but that’s the way it is. We can’t put a little slip of paper in the glovebox saying ‘please excuse the lousy engine, it wasn’t the one we wanted to use’).
As I recall, the tall gear shifter was for ergonomics. It was designed so that if one rested their arm on the center armrest, then the shifter was at hand height. I thought it looked excessively long too, but it did work ok.
Depending on your perspective, the Malibu was either a B or C student. I grew up in an age of rampant grade inflation, where if you were getting a C you’re basically flunking out of school. Malibu was a little better than that.
I agree with others, hearing some of the behind the scenes story on this car made for a great read. I can’t say that any of it was overly surprising though. I worked at a GM dealership around the time these cars came out. While it may have been “just good enough” for the market, the the P90 was a huge improvement over the L/N bodies that proceeded them. I remember driving one for the first time and thinking, wow, Chevrolet is finally building something half decent in the small FWD segment. Compared to a Corsica or a Lumina, the Malibu was so much better. Then I drove a contemporary Camry and Accord, and I realized, while it was a big improvement for Chevrolet, it was not a real contender against the top tier Japanese competition. The same went for the Alero and the Grand Ams on the P90, they were huge improvements over the predecessors.
In hindsight, I doubt that a clean slate redesign of these would have resulted in much more sales. GM reworking the old cars/platforms seemed to be a common theme in the 90s. I am not sure a clean slate design would have attracted much more cross shoppers. Even this Malibu, with very favorable reviews by the press, seemed to make few conquest sales. They mostly went were sold to GM loyalists. What GM couldn’t see is that had they built a truly good and competitive car, then slowly over time, market share could increase as their reputation builds. Unfortunately, GM has long been afflicted with short sighted decision making that results in maximizing profits now and the future be damned.
What a great read and inside perspective! I especially love the classic ’90s film pics with the trademark orange datestamp in the bottom right corner (which has become so “quaint and vintage” now, it has – hilariously – been reincarnated as Snapchat filter used by 19-year-olds who aren’t even old enough to have used cameras with film)
I rarely comment here these days, but I wrote that original article linked at the bottom of this one way back in 2014 (how is that nine years ago?) – and this all but confirms that my 1992 Camry-copycat hypothesis wasn’t just a random armchair analysis, but an actual, tangible benchmark by the people designing this car inside General Motors at the time.
I’ll admit, from the perspective of a small, Midwestern Chevy dealership in late 1996, filled with rows of leftover Corsicas and mediocre Luminas, this clean design was probably a breath of fresh air, and at least looked and felt like a more direct competitor to the Japanese sedans at that time. They would sell easily to the people who had always been buying Chevys and/or had the coveted GM Employee Discount. Now it’s almost twenty years since the final one rolled off the line here in Lansing, and they are nearing mass extinction. Even the 2004-2008 Gen2 Malibus have mostly been junked, although the 2008-2012 models are still trucking along, almost unanimously in terrible condition and driven by third/fourth owners who couldn’t care less about them. It seems that no matter how much GM improved the actual product, the mid-size Chevy could never escape its unusually rapid descent down the used car food chain.
Ironic, too, that all these years later after becoming the darling of fleets, and the nameplate becoming synonymous with the “rental car”, the 2023 Malibu plods along as GM’s last-standing four door sedan, and might even survive a re-design in 2025. The Cutlass Ciera of the 2020s?
I remember those well. I worked for a large public utility on the west coast that had an insatiable appetite for Silverado 2500’s, purchasing them by the hundreds. Naturally dozens of white Malibu’s were acquired too, no doubt part of some sweetheart fleet deal. They served us well and it was very rare that one of those Malibu’s ever required more than routine maintenance. Some stayed around 10 years, a long time for a passenger car in our fleet. That generation of GM mid size car may not have been cutting edge, but it represented sound engineering and good transportation at reasonable cost. It did what it was supposed to do. We had a few contemporary Ford Contour’s in the fleet at the same time, and I can’t say those things about that car.
My wife and I at the time ended up buying a new 1997 (first year) Malibu LS in maroon with a lighter grayish cloth interior. Very nice looking car and a great value. We loved the dash, doors and console layout and the car was (IMO) very well designed. It was not ground breaking in any way, but it seemed to do everything very well and we thought we would like it. Being left handed, I loved the cup holder on the left side of the dash and the higher up pillar mounted air vents.
However, we should have waited one more year. This car certainly had the normal first year teething issues. The cruise control went out in the first month. Took it back and they replaced it. That one went out. Took it back and replaced that one which then worked fine. While there, we had them look at the excessive moisture (actual water) building up in one of the clear headlights. Replaced it with a new one saying the seal was bad, but the new one started doing the same. Also had them look at the drivers side door trim that was pulling away from under the power windows switch like they didn’t cut the soft vinyl trim long enough. Not sure what they did with that, but it was fixed for a few months and started doing it again. By now, the wheel covers (silver with chrome accents) had the chrome beginning to peal in small areas. By now, although we liked the car a lot, these little issues had us feeling not so happy, so I didn’t have them even look at the wheel covers. This was all under one year and by now the snow began to fall. The first snow storm left my wife white knuckled as the tires (not cars fault, but still not good) were terrible in the snow. We had a 1994 Buick Skylark before this which she had totaled out in a snow storm the year before. We both loved that car and so we ended up trading the Malibu in on a nice used 1996 Buick Century Limited and we never looked back.
Without those first year issues, that Malibu would have been an outstanding car.
That says a lot. The Buick Century was so archaic GM. But after 14 years the quality at least wouldn’t suck.
Matt S: Even in it’s last years of that generation (1996), the Century was a really good car and still competitive IMO. We really liked it and ended up ordering a brand new 1999 Century a few years later. As for the Malibu we had, we really did like it too and were disappointed in our early build issues. None of the issues we had were leaving us along the road or safety related so to speak, but more frustrations and disappointments. I think had we waited a year and purchased a 1998, it would have been a much better story. We really liked the way they set up the dash, door panels, seats and console on that car.