Vintage Road & Track Review: 1978 Chevrolet Malibu (F41 Sport Suspension) – Leaner And More Functional; An Enjoyable Driver’s Car

Back in September 1977, R&T had an early glimpse of GM’s new downsized A-bodies by briefly testing a 1978 Pontiac LeMans. That article focused mostly on the background and engineering behind the new models, with little road testing time. A proper review of the new platform remained pending. It came in April of ’78, with a road test of the new Malibu coupe. “Good News” was the catchphrase behind the model’s launch. As R&T was to find out, there was truth to those words.

At this point in time, GM’s execution still achieved most of the intentions behind its plans. The new downsized B-bodies had arrived in 1977, and were well received by pundits and buyers. Now the downsized A-Bodies were arriving for 1978, ready to replace the previous Colonnades. Much had changed in the world since the outgoing platform appeared back in 1973; new emissions and safety regulations, an energy crisis, inflation, and a new national speed limit. It was a much-changed landscape, and the new vehicles were part of GM’s plans to adapt and succeed.

In that earlier 1977 issue, R&T had also tested Ford’s new Fox platform. Of the two downsizing efforts, R&T considered Ford’s more modern and forward-thinking. A feeling that permeates the Malibu’s review. “Fans of American cars will be pleased to know that despite the trimming and weight reduction, the Malibu is still very much a product of Detroit and, more specifically, is unmistakably a GM car.”

Still, the reduced A-bodies not only met GM’s objectives, they were warmly received and welcomed. Exterior dimensions had been reduced without loss of interior space, and actually had more head and leg room. The resulting models were about 700 lb. lighter, while still meeting structural integrity expectations. Finally, ride and handling were either the equal, or an improvement over the outgoing models.

Styling for the new A-bodies was sober and rational, with a bit of flair taken from Cadillac’s ‘sheer look.’ Of the corporate siblings, the new Malibu had the cleanest styling, with careful attention to detailing. Depending on trim and accessories, the Malibu could be a crisp and attractive object or a plain generic one. A topic that came up for discussion within R&T’s staff, with opinions divided on the matter.

Mechanically speaking, R&T optioned the Malibu in accordance with the needs of an enthusiast publication. The coupe arrived with Chevrolet’s 305 CID V-8, a Turbo Hydra-Matic, and the F41 Sport Suspension. The latter a favorite of enthusiast circles; it improved on the standard suspension by adding stiffened springs and shocks, a larger anti-roll bar up front, and added an anti-roll bar at the rear.

On testing, the 305 was the “typical low-revving, quiet and smooth American V-8 engine.” In 49-state trim, it developed 108 145 bhp at 3800 rpm, with 245 lb-ft torque at 2400 rpm. For California, the numbers dropped to 101 135 bhp at 3800 rpm, and 240 lb-ft at 2000 rpm. Straight-line acceleration was 0-60 in 11.4 secs. Rather adequate for the times.

As usual, the F41 Sport Suspension got praise; “for $38 the Malibu buyer can convert the standard soft and mushy Detroit ride… to a slightly stiffer ride with much improved cornering capability and road feedback.” Thus, the F41-equipped Malibu cornered flatly, offering controllable understeer. Steering was light and quick, if lacking in road feel. Only the brakes came for criticism.

There were remnants of the malaise ’70s on the Malibu, however. It stalled on cold starts and it exhibited a light-throttle lean surge between 55-60 mph. Also, while the interior got positive marks for its rational and clean layout, there were signs of GM’s cost-cutting present throughout.

Not that the Malibu was cheap. R&T’s well-optioned test car came at $8100; the result of options like electric windows and locks, wire wheel covers, A/C, two-tone paint, and more. It all added $3,000 over the base price.

At that cost, imports like the Volvo 244 and the Toyota Cressida were attractive options as well, and yet “… none of them can match the Malibu’s acceleration performance, automatic transmission or availability of parts and service throughout the U.S.”

All things considered, the new Malibu was a lighter car, with a roomier interior, adequate performance, and with the Sport Suspension, a car that could provide “many miles of pleasurable driving.”

Much was to change in the near future for GM, but the arrival of the downsized A-bodies was, for the most part, good news indeed.

Further reading:

Classic Curbside Classic: 1979 Chevrolet Malibu Coupe – Good News, Mostly

Vintage Review: 1978 Chevrolet Malibu Classic – Car And Driver Goes Crazy For F41

Cohort Pic(k) Of The Day: 1981 Malibu Classic Coupe – Paolo Martin Sends His Regards