Road and Track preference for sports cars, import sedans and domestic compacts was all-too obvious, as its founder and publisher John Bond clearly had no truck with large domestic cars. But occasionally a mid-size domestic was allowed into the hallowed ground, including this 1968 Chevelle Malibu coupe. But it was not the SS396 all the other buff books were testing; rather a 327-powered one, backed by the venerable two-speed Powerglide. The result was perhaps surprisingly positive.
The only reason this car was tested is because R&T’s engineering editor went to Palm Springs in it one day with his counterpart from Car Life, R&T’s sister publication. It was the sort of car they tested, not R&T, but spending some time behind the wheel on back country CA Hwy 74, he was rather impressed by its low noise, comfortable ride, good performance and handling. He decided R&T readers should know about this car. “The rest of us (at R&T) were skeptical, but once we’d tried it, we couldn’t help being impressed…it’s not bad at all”. Thus were the R&T editors lured out of their import sports car lair.
The Malibu was well-optioned for the job: 275 hp 327 V8 (5.4 L), Powerglide, front disc brakes, power steering, power brakes, wide wheels and tires, air conditioning, and the $4.75 “handling package”. The total amounted to a pretty heft $4k, but that was the reality of American cars back then: if you wanted a nicely-equipped one, you had to load it up with lots of none-too cheap options.
A key issue is Chevrolet’s continued use of a two-speed automatic: “But when you drive it, you understand how they can get away with it—the 327 is that flexible, quiet and satisfactory.” There you have it; the Chevy small block’s exceptional qualities largely compensated for that missing gear. Low gear was good up to 65 mph; plenty fast for most passing maneuvers, and good for a brisk 9.3 second 0-60 time. It was notably quicker than two of the three 1973 “Euro” GM intermediates whose reviews we posted here recently: The Cutlass Salon (with 5.7 L V8 and three speed automatic) took 11.1 seconds, the 1973 Grand Am with a 400 CID V8 (and three speed automatic) took 10.3 seconds; only the Monte Carlo (with a big 454 V8 and three speed automatic) was all of 0.7 seconds quicker.
Of course the Malibu weighed between 700 and 800 lbs less than those ’73, but then that’s…progress, right?
The Malibu’s ride and handling was “Most outstanding”, thanks to the Chevelle’s suspension design augmented by wide 6″ wheels, F70-14 bias-ply belted “wide oval” tires, and the previously mentioned “handling package”, presumably firmer springs and shocks. The result was “ride and handling about equal to that of an Alfa-Romeo sedan we tested recently” (Giulia Super). The well-controlled rear axle “stayed where it was supposed to and never hopped or juddered on hard starts”. R&T found it “possible to toss it around corners, twitching the front wheels as needed to catch the slide very much as it’s done in the Alfa”.
Somewhat surprisingly and unusual for American cars, the Malibus handling didn’t deteriorate completely on poor road surfaces. And there was a noted lack of rattles on those rough roads. A genuine American “import”. Well, until it came time to stop; the brakes got only a “fair” rating, for the same reason so many other American cars did poorly: rear wheel lockup leading to loss of control, and all due to the lack of of proper front/rear proportioning, most effectively taken care of by a load-sensing proportioning valve as used on many European cars. Improving brakes required more than just slapping discs on the front wheels.
The Malibu’s styling, all new for 1968, came in for some compliments, unlike its instruments, which were of course lacking: “reminiscent of a plastic toy”. And the Malibu’s 11-13 mpg thirst was of course nothing to crow about.
The final words, to R&T’s all-too often sneering readers: ‘Try one before you sneer”.