Vintage R & T Review: 1997 Chevrolet Malibu – If You Can’t Beat Them…

Here’s a rather disposable car that barely left a memory, for good reason. It escaped the ‘deadly sin’ label when it appeared in our ‘The Truth Hertz’ post years ago. And while the product itself didn’t earn that title then, there were definitely sinful acts during its corporate gestation. In this case: GM’s sinful incapacity towards real commitment. That among others, but let’s explore this one briefly for the time being.

If Japanese companies at times suffered of ‘trying too hard’ (Mazda’s rotary?), American management was only too quick to jump ship when the next shiny profitable-object appeared. Here was Chevrolet, mauled by the Taurus-Camry-Accord triumvirate, admitting it knew nil about the market, and capitulating completely by copying a 1992 Camry. And sort of crudely delivering one 5 years later. To further the injury -as one of our previous COALs tells- the Malibu project received just enough support to get up in the ring against the Camry, though without enough funding to be a true contender. The perfect non-committed committal GM had developed a habit for.

Bill Mitchell, where were you? Buried, luckily. Chuck Jordan despised the thing, Larry Shinoda described it as a ‘melted Camry with karate chops applied on the headlights.’ Internally the car had been customer-clinicked to death (as told by Jordan), and felt like it. Management had definitely crunched those clinic numbers and given the public a product somewhat more competitive than a Corsica. Not that the car itself was bad, but it was clear those clinic metrics were the project’s sole goals: from proportions, layout, ergonomics, to interior volume and performance. Everything on the Malibu felt as if checking boxes.

All done with lesser underpinnings of course, which goes to the heart of the matter on that lack of commitment: I’ll invest on you a bit to play Camry-pretense, but it’s just a flirt you know? Let’s see how it goes before we hook up for good! 

R & T’s review is filled with faint praise, and indeed, the Malibu’s package was a few nods closer to the competition than before. Admittedly, this was the kind of vehicle R & T testers had a hard time assessing; the car was so ‘middle of the road’ that it probably felt as ‘competent’ as any other average sedan sold in the market. Hard terrain for an enthusiast publication to appraise. Checklist completed, a thrilled Chevy launched an extensive campaign for their Taurus-Camry-Accord slayer: The Car You Knew America Could Build. What exactly were you saying there, GM?

Once sales numbers arrived, that sinful lack of commitment appeared in full force. Hard to fight best in class with a half-assed effort it turned out. Sales paling against the competition, the Malibu was left dangling on its own for a long 7 years*; against an ever updated Camry and Accord. The nameplate would survive though, finding along the way different degrees of ‘commitment’ from a rotating roster of managers, while GM shape-shifted/dissolved/contorted itself into whatever it is trying to be today.

Photo from the Cohort by Canadiancatgreen.


(*This generation of Malibu remained yet two more years in production as the Chevy Classic, from 2004-05, as a fleet model only).

Curbside Classic: 2002 Chevy Malibu – The Truth Hertz

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