COAL – 2001 Chevy Malibu – It Was Good Enough For Me

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.  

Pre production Malibu and Cutlass in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee

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.

Chevy sales team checking out their new car

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.