(first posted 6/19/2014) “The car you knew America could build”, GM’s patriotic TV ads proudly proclaimed upon the Malibu’s release in 1997. Perhaps a more transparent slogan would have been “Does it look enough like a Camry that you’ll actually buy one?”
They say confidence is quiet while insecurities are loud, and few things scream “I wish I was imported from Japan” louder than the Malibu’s amber rear turn signals. Every aspect of the car, from the inside to the outside – right down to the generic-looking plastic wheel covers, reeks of Toyota envy.
It doesn’t take much more than a glance to figure out that GM engineers used the 1992-1996 Camry as heavy inspiration when penning the design. Note the word “inspiration” rather than “benchmark,” because, as GM would eventually realize, the Camry’s mass-market appeal went far deeper than its inoffensive skin.
It’s easy for automotive writers to simply call this Malibu bland. But it’s the underlying cynicism behind the blandness that makes this car so interesting. GM’s share of the family sedan market had been plummeting for well over a decade at this point, with almost all of their lost sales going to superior products from Honda, Toyota, and Ford. The W-body didn’t save the day like Roger Smith had planned, with two generations of cheap and lackluster Luminas hardly winning any customers back. What was the ailing manufacturer to do?
The General’s solution was nothing short of desperate and in one word, lazy. By 1996, the archaic L-body Corsica had long passed its sell-by date. With the resulting gap in the line-up between the Lumina and the Cavalier too large to ignore, GM saw an opportunity. Although touted in advertisements as an “all-new” Malibu, Chevrolet’s finest product planners plopped this nondescript, mid-size shell onto the nearly-identical N-body platform – a platform which underpinned such pinnacles of engineering excellence as the Pontiac Grand Am – shoehorned the ancient, parts-bin 3100 V6 into the engine bay, and left the office for a round of golf.
The resulting creation wasn’t a bad car in the same way that the Citation and Vega were “bad cars”. It was just so thoroughly mediocre and phoned-in that it became painfully clear how much the parent company didn’t care. When new, the car had no particular redeeming qualities compared to just about anything else. Ride and handling were average. The Camry was more comfortable, while the Accord was sportier; both were built better and had vastly nicer interiors. Ford’s Taurus and Contour, while not without flaws, had more sophisticated suspensions and at least offered more modern optional engines. The Malibu was just, well… there. It simply existed, innocuously, perpetually overlooked by just about everyone. About the only thing it had going for it was its price, and even that was offset by practically non-existent resale values.
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, home to two GM assembly plants–one of which built this very Malibu–along with no fewer than six Chevrolet retailers (in contrast to just one Toyota store), people actually bought these, making them a local best-seller throughout their run. The city’s streets continue to be littered with their N-body-derived mediocrity to this day. Outside of their hometown, however, these cars had one and only one natural habitat: airport rental lots.
Does anyone else remember those Enterprise commercials from about 1999, featuring an anonymous, tarp-covered sedan navigating a winding road with the announcer softly proclaiming “Enterprise, We’ll Pick You Up?” I do, and I especially remember the beige Malibu below that logo-covered tarp, cementing in my young mind the proper place these cars occupied in the social hierarchy that is the automotive world. If you rented a sedan up until about 2006, it was hard not to get one these as a “free upgrade” from a Kia after disembarking an airplane anywhere in the United States.
Truthfully, the biggest problem with this generation of Malibu was not how cheap it was, not how mediocre it was, and not even how bland it was. GM simply let it wither on the vine for so long that it eventually became an all-purpose fleet car; the 21st century equivalent to the Cutlass Ciera, but somehow less endearing. The generic sedan was so ridiculously popular with corporate fleets that GM continued building it exclusively for them in 2004 and 2005, badged as “Chevrolet Classic,” two years after the much-improved Epsilon Malibu had replaced it in public showrooms.
Much like the lifecycle of its Corsica predecessor, what had been an average, cheap car in 1997 had become thoroughly horrible by 2005. The car was improved (marginally) in its final years, with the modern and efficient Ecotec 4-cylinder replacing the boat-anchor pushrod V6, but at that point, it didn’t matter. The Honda Accord alone had passed through no fewer than three generations during the same time period, and it had arguably been a better car to begin with.
The story of the Malibu isn’t all doom and gloom, though. The truly-new 2004 Epsilon platform vastly stepped up the model’s game in the market, and the sharply-styled, well-suspended 2008 model was the first Malibu in modern times to even come close to the word ‘desirable’. The current 2014 model is still based upon that Epsilon platform, albeit updated heavily, and while its sales and the overall reputation still fall short of the Camry, the car is at least a contender in the mid-size segment today.
Still, for car-crazy Millennials who came of age when the N-bodies were being churned out, disconnecting “cheap wannabe” from the name “Malibu” is an ongoing struggle. Hopefully someday those amber rear turn signals will be nothing more than a distant childhood memory.