Thursday, July 6, 2006

The folks at Chevrolet call the Malibu Maxx a five passenger “extended sedan,” rather than referring to it as a station wagon (heaven forbid).

Construction consists of a unit-body frame, front engine and front-wheel drive. The Malibu Maxx philosophy was to deliver what most frequent travelers crave — first-class comfort for the price of coach class, provided by a spacious new alternative in the midsize car segment. Malibu Maxx is rated by the EPA as midsize and now comes in four trim levels: LS, LT, LTZ and SS.

The standard engine in the Malibu Maxx is GM’s 3500 3.5-liter V-6 producing 201 horsepower, mated to a four-speed electronic-shift automatic transmission. Torque is rated at 221 foot-pounds. Towing capacity is calculated at up to 1,000 pounds. The Malibu Maxx SS ups the power ante with a new 3.9-liter OHV V-6 that generates 240 horses and 241 foot-pounds of torque.

The five-door Malibu Maxx rides on a wheelbase that is 6 inches longer than the 2004 Malibu sedan, yet its overall length is a half-inch shorter. The result is an interior that is cavernous for a car its size. The Malibu Maxx rides and handles like a sedan while providing the interior versatility of a sport utility in the form of a wagon. Call it a five-door extended sedan or by any other name if you like, the resemblance of the traditional station wagon is still inherent. I’ll give that the design of the Malibu Maxx’s rear profile with the angle of the rear window in the lift gate (constructed of lightweight aluminum for easy operation) — is more reflective of a sedan.

The Malibu Maxx SS takes the performance throne while adding unique interior and exterior appointments, sport-tuned suspensions and 18-inch wheels and tires. Both the Malibu sedan and Malibu Maxx are based on General Motors’ “Epsilon” global architecture, accounting, in part, for the European flair in their ride and handling, though each Epsilon-based vehicle is adapted regionally to meet local conditions and tastes.

The rear seat slides nearly 7 inches fore and aft and is split 60/40 not just in the seat back, but also the seat cushion, to further increase comfort.

The seat backs recline, allowing different-sized rear passengers to tailor their seating position in a way a front-seat passenger can. The Malibu Maxx SS offers 106 cubic feet of passenger space and 41 inches of legroom, even with the seats pushed all the way back.

A standard glass, fixed rear skylight provides a spacious, open atmosphere over the rear seats, reducing the feeling of occupants being cut off from the outside that some back seats create.

The skylight comes with a retractable shade. Comfort for rear-seat passengers is enhanced with a heating/air-conditioning system designed for their needs. In addition to providing airflow to the feet, two vents on the center of the dash — dubbed “turbo blasters” by the car’s engineers — are designed to pour generous amounts of heated or cooled air directly into the back seat.

The cargo area of the Malibu Maxx SS is officially calculated at 22.8 cubic feet — nearly 50 percent larger than other midsize sedans, but the design of the cabin and seats offers even greater flexibility. Rear seats and the front passenger seat fold forward flat, creating a space that can accommodate longer items. The rear seats also are split 60/40, providing flexibility for passengers and cargo.

Also featured in the rear cargo area are a standard power outlet and a multifunctional cargo panel with four positions for two-tier loading. This panel may be positioned as a table for picnics or tailgate parties. Cargo panel hooks help secure smaller items, and nets on each side of the cargo area help to keep items from sliding around.

The Malibu Maxx’s SS design exhibits clean, crisp lines outlining a car that features a space-efficient and aerodynamic exterior.

A new front-end appearance with a dual-port grille with crosshatch pattern and platinum-look surround and a new four-spoke steering wheel contribute to the sporting appeal of the SS. Crystalline-like headlamp lenses and a chrome front bar and gold Chevrolet bowtie highlight the contemporary lines of the extended sedan.

An optional factory-installed remote vehicle starter system, allowing the driver inside the house to start the car outside on cold winter mornings or sweltering summer afternoons.

The system is designed to work from approximately 200 feet. Four levels of radio offerings are available, including: an uplevel ICDX radio with an in-dash, six-CD changer, six speakers (including two tweeters on the A pillar), automatic volume and tone controls, and XM Satellite Radio compatibility. An optional rear DVD entertainment system completes the spacious accommodations. The system is mounted into the rear of the center console and includes a 7-inch flip-up LCD screen, two sets of infrared headphones, video game jacks, remote control and independent audio selection.

Safety features include dual-stage front air bags for both driver and front passenger; three-point safety belts for all occupants; standard safety-belt pretensioners for front-seat passengers; optional head curtain side-impact air bags to help protect front and rear outboard passengers; standard four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with traction control; and a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Top Tethers for CHildren) child-seat attachment system in all rear seating positions.

The test Malibu Maxx was in SS trim with the 3.9-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic, sporting a Laser Blue metallic exterior and a black interior with patterned cloth seating inserts and silver trim.

The base price was set at $24,065 with the XM satellite radio and destination charge bumping the final sticker to $25,015.

Operating with the idea that a comfortable driver is a better driver, engineers also equipped the Malibu Maxx SS to fit the driver like a tailored suit at an “off-the-rack” price. Power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals and a tilt/telescopic steering column are standard. Also standard is a power seat height adjuster.

All Malibu models are equipped with electric power steering (EPS) featuring variable assist for low- and high-speed steering maneuvers and power brakes.

Also standard is a driver information center (DIC) integrated into the radio display that enables personalization of electrical features and provides more than 15 warning messages including low key-fob battery life, the possibility of ice forming on the road and an oil life monitor. Options include heated front seats, OnStar and XM Satellite Radio.

The Malibu Maxx SS is a clean, attractive contemporary vehicle — the real deal in terms of optimum versatility and flexibility. It is a “looker,” responsive and comfortable, with many features included that most competitors don’t offer — at least, not as standard equipment.

Another interesting feature is the thumb-operated button on the automatic gearshift lever that shifts up or down between first and third gears when the lever is placed in the Lo range — a novel idea indeed. The SS model is worthy of the SS designation and a pleasing plus for the Malibu Maxx, proving that wagons (excuse me, extended sedans) are likely to be around for quite awhile.

The Malibu Maxx SS is capable of lighting up the front tires off the line and smokin’ ‘em, for awhile with minimal torque steer.

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