- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

Chevrolet wants to get back into the performance business. It has added an SS (Super Sport) version to the lineups of several models for 2006.

A wildly popular trim package for more than two decades beginning in 1961, it combined with some outrageously powerful V8s to provide Chevrolet with its muscle credentials during a period when it was sales king.

Of course, that was when Chevrolet was building rear-wheel-drive cars and offered V8s in most of its models. While it’s difficult for many traditionalists to get too excited about a performance version of a V6-powered front-wheel-drive car, the Malibu SS and Malibu Maxx SS make the most of the current engine/drive-wheel configuration.

The extra horsepower and torque are quite evident in the SS and more spirited performance makes for more fun regardless of which wheels provide the go.

The Malibu and SS nomenclatures arrived together as part of the offerings for the new mid-size Chevelle in 1964. The real power would come later, but in the beginning the top engine was a 283-cubic-inch V-8 capable of producing 220 horsepower. V-8 output would peak in 1971 when the Malibu SS could be fitted with the 425-horsepower 454-cubic-inch V-8.

Ah, the good old days.

Other SS features in the first Malibus included front bucket seats, vinyl upholstery and a center console.

Although they share a nameplate, the Malibu and Malibu Maxx are different enough to separate them for the purposes of evaluation.

For starters the Maxx has a six-inch longer wheelbase than the sedan, but is about half an inch shorter. They are really two distinct models with a number of features and mechanicals, such as engines and transmissions, in common.

Chevrolet provided a Malibu Maxx SS for testing and it is the focus of this discussion.

The primary reason to pass over the Malibu Maxx LT for the SS is the 40 extra horsepower and 21 additional lb.-ft. of torque delivered by the SS’s 3.9-liter V-6. At 240 horsepower this V-6 betters the output of Toyota Camry’s V-6 and equals that of the V-6 in Honda’s Accord. Power is funneled through a driver-shiftable four-speed automatic transmission.

When in manual shift mode, moving up or down through the gears is accomplished with a pair of buttons on the side of the shift knob.

This V-6 is remarkably responsive. Acceleration is satisfyingly brisk if not breathtaking. It delivers solid performance whether cruising or accelerating to pass. A five-speed automatic would make the powertrain truly world class while increasing the miles-per-gallon performance.

Fuel economy, however, is decent for a V-6 with an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 18 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway.

Both Malibu and Malibu Maxx are built on the same Epsilon platform GM uses for the Saab 9-3. Handling is more of a priority in the SS than other Maxx versions and the suspension has been tuned accordingly. It isn’t Corvette-like in its handling, but is highly predictable in the turns.

A little added handling capability hasn’t compromised ride quality. Most of the inconsistencies encountered by the tires aren’t transferred to the passengers.

The SS rides on 18-inch alloy wheels and rubber. All four are backed by disc brakes monitored by an antilock system. Traction control is part of the standard braking package.

The steering could be a tad more precise. It requires a little more input to produce course alterations than one might expect in a sporty car. A bit of torque steer is evident under hard acceleration.

All in all, though, the driving experience is enjoyable at worst and downright fun when the throttle is mashed.

Despite all the wonderful mayhem occurring under the hood, the Maxx’s interior remains a highlight and continues to outshine its

contemporaries - not so much in terms of quality, but in utility and versatility. Something of a cross between a hatchback and wagon, the Maxx offers remarkable flexibility in what it can haul. With its seven inches of fore/aft travel, the reclining backseat can comfortably accommodate much taller passengers than many other cars in its class.

Its 60/40 split design can be folded down in whole or part to increase cargo capacity. The front passenger seat folds down so even longer items can be stowed. Brightening things up is a fixed skylight with retractable shades located over the backseat.

Clean and uncomplicated, the user-friendly dashboard houses easy-to-find and simple-to-use controls and gauges. Plastic is the primary material

in use here and there has been no attempt to disguise it. The fit and finish on the test Maxx SS was very good. The standard automatic climate control is self-explanatory, as is the six-speaker audio system with CD player.

Also standard are upgraded leather/cloth sport bucket seats with extra bolstering. The lateral support is outstanding. Drivers are assured of finding an ideal driving position thanks to a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, six-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and power-adjustable pedals.

A remote start feature on the keyless remote key fob permits the interior to be heated or cooled before entering.

Offering a full range of standard features such as power windows, cruise control, side-impact/side curtain airbags and rear-seat audio controls with headphones, the Malibu Maxx SS is a bargain at $24,690. For another $325, XM satellite radio with three months service can be added.

Value is Chevrolet’s role among the GM divisions. With the addition of the SS packages, it’s now value with an attitude.

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