The cars we loved.
When it was announced in 2004 that there would be a fifth generation Malibu built off the new internationally shared Epsilon platform, Chevy diehards had reason for optimism. After all, the previous car was as bland a oversized Corolla clone as you could get, but without its reputation for quality. Sure it was a drastic improvement over the last 78-83 Malibu before it, but it never got enthusiast excited.
The new car had upright styling with a front end that resembled many of Chevrolet’s trucks with a chrome strip running through the grille. The overall look was neither sporty or luxurious in fitting with the Malibu’s role as an Accord/Camry fighter. Most run of the mill Malibu came with either a 144 hp version of GM’s Ecotec inline 4 cylinder or the High Value LX9 V6 with its 217 hp output. The Epsilon based platform, shared with the Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3 offered composed handling and comfort with the promise of higher than before quality. The European link showed in the interior that was nicely detailed with modest materials that gave a more upscale look than previous Malibu. To appease performance fans and to help diminish the Malibu’s reputation as a dowdy family car, Chevrolet offered two versions of sportiness that used the classic SS model designation in hopes of capturing some old glory.
True to the SS formula, the Chevrolet started with a inexpensive car and made it sporty in the form of performance and appearance modifications. Chevy added an enhanced suspension, exhaust, engine tweaks and some interior upgrades distinguishing the SS over standard versions. It even came in two versions; a sedan and 5 door hatchback, the first such configuration of this kind for GM since the Corsica LTZ of the late 80’s.
The SS cars featured an aggressive front end air dam and fog lights. Large 17 in wheels and subtle ground effects made for an attractive look without being showy (aka. Pontiac). SS badges on the doors and a small rear spoiler completed the look while hinting to performance. In SS form, the Malibu used a 3.9 L version of the High Value V6 that produced 240 hp. The other version, the 5 door wagon like hatch was called the Maxx. It potentially had the best looks, but the boxy treatment of it’s roof line made for an awkward profile from some angles. The European Opel Vectra was configured similarly, but with a more sporting tapered curve to its roof line.
SS models were very low key in looks and were positioned somewhere in the low middle of the performance heap when compared to cars like Altima SE-R, Fusion SEL V6 and Honda Accord EX. Being a SS car would imply impressive stoplight to stoplight performance, but It’s 0 to 60 time of 7.8 seconds was a tad bit slower than the competition. In the slalom, it did not fare much better being close to the bottom. Overall it’s ride composure and level of comfort compared well to most of the competition, while undercutting their price.
The SS label implied greater performance than this car provided, leading some to wonder why Chevrolet never just called it LTZ Sport or something other than SS. Chevy never got to the point where they were putting the SS badge on Metros, but the Malibu SS was something of an disappointment to the automotive press.
The fifth generation was really the first world class Malibu, if you could call it that. The attention to detail, especially inside set it apart. At the time of its introduction, most other cars in Chevrolet’s’ line up were still hobbled with dated platforms. When the much improved sixth generation was introduced in 2008, it had no SS counterpart. It was two years into the production cycle of the previous car before there was an SS. If Chevy sticks to that plan, we are about overdue for a new one.