- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

If you still need evidence that there is indeed forward thinking going on at General Motors, take a gander at Chevrolet’s Malibu Maxx. Before evaluating details such as the quality of materials used inside the cabin, keep in mind that Chevrolet’s assignment in the GM pecking order is affordable transportation. Even its halo vehicle, the Corvette, is remarkably price competitive in the two-seat sports car arena.

So while Malibu may not have the panache of, say, a Toyota Camry (When have you ever before seen panache and Camry used in the same sentence?), some shortcomings can be forgiven based on its budget price.

What makes Malibu Maxx notable is its very concept. Chevrolet certainly didn’t give birth to the crossover vehicle idea, but in the Maxx it has expanded, twisted and tweaked the notion. Maxx’s very shape sets it apart from other sedans. Not quite a wagon and not quite a hatchback, it resists any attempt to be pigeonholed. Its versatile interior is among the roomiest in its class, and that reclining 60/40 split rear seat with its 7 inches of fore/aft travel is wonderfully innovative. Whether you need to accommodate more cargo or an NBA point guard, the back seat complies.

Receiving a little Saab DNA, the Maxx is built on the Epsilon platform that supports the 9-3. This is a tight architecture and is in large part responsible for Maxx’s solid, but pleasing ride. It handles better than many of its peers. The steering feels a tad sloppy, but otherwise the driving experience is positive. Every Maxx rolls out of the showroom with four-wheel antilock brakes and traction control, and those 16-inch alloy wheels are standard too.

Maxx isn’t simply the sedan with a dollop of rear-end funkiness. It does share some sheetmetal with the sedan, but there are profound differences. Although Maxx has a wheelbase 6 inches longer than the sedan, its overall length is roughly half an inch shorter. Additionally the Maxx has a rear fixed-glass skylight that does much to give its cabin a more open feel.

Despite the availability of a 145-horsepower four-cylinder engine in the sedan’s base model, the only engines offered in the Maxx are V-6s. The new-for-2006 SS uses a 240-horsepower 3.9-liter V-6. The mainstream LT and LTZ have a 3.5-liter V-6 punching out 200 horsepower. Chevrolet has made the right call here. A four-banger in this car would be less than satisfying. While the Maxx’s 3.5-liter V-6 is a few ponies shy of many sedan competitors, its 220 foot-pounds of peak torque is very much in line with segment standard V-6 parameters. A four-speed automatic transmission shuffles engine production to the front wheels. Engine and transmission work exceptionally well together. Off-the-line acceleration is brisk. The EPA credits the Maxx LT with 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the open road — again about par with the fuel economy of sedans in the segment.

Instruments and controls are neatly arranged and the center stack puts the audio system controls where they should be — above the climate system controls. There are plenty of ventilation system outlets and the air conditioning works with ice-house ferocity. Six speakers fill the cabin with sound sourced from AM, FM or a CD player. Plunk down an extra $325 and you can also have the 130-channel XM satellite radio with three months of free service. Other than the $690 side-impact/side curtain air bag option, the $325 spent on XM radio is the most sensible upgrade you can make to the Maxx.

Chevrolet hasn’t made any attempt to disguise the wide use of plastic in the Maxx cabin. It is perhaps the vehicle’s most disappointing element. However with all the standard gear, a little plastic can be dismissed. While an LS version is still available for fleet sales, the LT is the entry-level for retail consumers. Even in its LT trim, the Maxx arrives loaded to the gills with standard features. The power windows/door locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control with steering-wheel-mounted controls, fold-flat passenger seat, driver information center and remote powered outboard mirrors are all standard.

Included on the keyless remote is a remote starter function permitting the Maxx to be started and the cabin to be cooled or heated before entering. The LTZ trim package bumps up creature comforts with leather-faced/heated front bucket seats, automatic climate control and heated mirrors.

A byproduct of the Maxx’s longer wheelbase is the enhanced interior space. No matter how you stretch the tape, five adults can find comfort and happiness even on longer trips. With the rear seat folded down, Maxx can hold 22.8 cubic feet of cargo. The front passenger seatback folds flat, further increasing carrying capacity. If there are drivers out there that the Maxx can’t accommodate, it’s not for lack of adjustments. Every Maxx comes with a telescoping/tilt steering wheel, driver’s-seat power height adjustment and power-adjustable pedals. The interior has been gussied up a bit for 2006, too.

Finding something serious to quibble about in the Malibu Maxx isn’t easy. It’s not perfect, but at its price point, the Maxx delivers sensible, comfortable transportation. Versatility, economy of operation and ballroomlike interior space make it a value in the midsize segment. Base sticker of the LT is $21,590.

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