Vintage Review: 1981 Malibu Classic Versus Omega ES2800 – Old School vs. New School


(first posted 8/20/2014)    With Robert’s post about the Toronado and his parents’ Omega fiasco, I couldn’t help but post this comparison between the Omega and another of GM’s downsizing-round-one cars, the ’78-’81 A-body Malibu.  For those with a keen awareness of the era, the results won’t be surprising; for import-happy Perry, whose awareness of these cars is largely second hand, the editors’ conclusions were surprising, though perfectly rational.  But whether you are an A/G-body hold-out, or a front-drive GM partisan, read on for some interesting perspective.


Car and Driver were somewhat generous in the cars they chose to compare, with a 2-bbl 4.4/267 Malibu with F41 suspension facing off against a 2-bbl 2.8 V6 Omega equipped with the ES sport package.  Yes, Olds was moving away from such names as Holiday and Caliente with designations like ES2800, but one look inside and it was obvious the Western European flag badges slapped on the fender meant traditional buyers could be alienated only so much.


Okay, so it is a face-off which includes putting one of the worst Chevy V8s against what would eventually be one of the better V6s to come out of Detroit during that time (but who knew that yet).  In that sense, you might call it less than perfectly valid but otherwise, the cars compare well in terms of capacity and price, starting around $7,000 and optioned out for the test at about $10,000.  In terms of performance, though, the Olds is notably better than the wheezy Chevy, and not just in terms of acceleration.


By both objective and subjective measures, handling was decisively better on the X-body, despite the Chevy’s uprated suspension (with the notable exception of braking).  The Olds’s combination of springs and dampers is praised as “one of the best” around, while the Chevy is considered to be “surly and dull-witted” when pressed.  Both are criticized for sloppy steering and at about 55 miles per hour through the slalom, neither is as especially nimble device (and it should be said that the Olds should have a more decisive lead in that test, since measured time through the cones usually favors front-drivers) and the measurably quieter Chevy is praised as the nicer daily cruiser.


I’ll concede it would’ve been a much more fair test if C&D were to have tested a Chevy with the 305 or (wagon-only) 350, but as the 267 netted only 14 observed mpg (to the 2.8’s 21, a good number given performance testing) a bigger engine might have only underscored the conclusion that the X-body was the way to the future for the average Detroiter.  The more interesting implications, however, pertain to GM’s Deadly Sins (or if you prefer, “Deadly Sins”) in the coming two decades.  Specifically, we remember the initial round of downsized cars with great fondness while disparaging the products which followed.  But as this test shows, despite our personal admiration, cars like the A/G-body were primarily competitive compared to the domestic competition of the 1970s and weren’t going to help GM as a world-class automaker in the coming years (I’m not saying the X-body was the answer, mind you).  Now what would be really interesting is if one of us could find a back-to-back test of a 1987 G-body and a 1988 GM10 coupe, if any magazine was even interested in such comparisons by that point.

Related reading:

Cohort Classic: 1981 Oldsmobile Omega – X Marks The Spot

Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota Camry – Toyota Builds A Better Citation; Forever

Cars Of A Lifetime: 1980 Chevrolet Citation – GM’s Immortal Sin

Curbside Classic: 1983 Chevrolet Malibu – Claustrophobics Best Ride Up-Front