Depending upon the age of the individual in question, the phrase “Chevrolet Malibu” can conjure up vastly divergent images. For anyone born of the Baby Boom generation, the phrase incites memories of fire-breathing Malibu Super Sport muscle cars with SS 396 or SS 454 badging, referring to the hugely powerful big block V8 engines installed in the cars back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
For Millennials however, the phrase “Chevrolet Malibu” generates the visage of a front-drive mid-size family car designed to compete with Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. In between the two extremes resides a steadily diminishing series of automobiles, vividly depicting all of the factors leading to the decline and near death of the American auto industry.
Indifferent styling, poor attention to detail, low quality interiors, gutless engines, floppy handling...
In many ways, researching the history of Chevrolet’s most popular mid-size car is like taking a core sample of Arctic ice. Each successive iteration of the car reveals much about the time is was designed, constructed, marketed, and sold. And while the days of extreme high performance are behind the Malibu for the foreseeable future, the current generation of the car is easily the best Malibu model proffered in recent history.
With a legacy going all the way back to 1964, there have been eight generations of the Malibu sold in the United States. Originally sold as an upper trim line of the Chevrolet Chevelle model line, Malibu has run nearly continuously through that entire period, save a fourteen-year hiatus between the rear-drive early models of 1964 to 1983, and the dawn of the front-drive Malibu in 1997. Production of the model has run uninterrupted since that time, which is where this Malibu retrospective will pick up, with the fifth generation of the Chevrolet, built between 1997 and 2003.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 1997
The re-emergence of the Malibu as a serious contender in the mid-size marketplace was met with considerable fervor by the motoring press of the time. Motor Trend magazine named the 1997 Malibu its Car of The Year, and many other publications lavished praise upon the redesigned model. The bulk of the kudos arose from the improved fit, finish and detailing of its interior—as that is where American cars, most notably General Motors cars actually, had come under considerable criticism.
The 1997 Chevrolet Malibu was offered in two states of trim, a Base model and an LS model. The Base model featured a 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine, which fed some 155 ft.-lbs. of torque through a four-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels. The LS used a 155-horsepower, 3.1-liter V6, which developed 185 ft.-lbs. of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive completed the LS powertrain as well.
The Base model rolled on fifteen-inch steel wheels and featured anti-lock brakes as standard equipment. An anti-theft alarm system, cloth upholstery and front bucket seats, in addition to a remote trunk release and a tilt steering wheel were all included in the base price. Similarly, air conditioning, automatic headlights, daytime running lights, and intermittent windshield wipers could be found on the standard equipment list. An AM/FM radio with four speakers comprised the standard audio system.
Options included alloy wheels, cruise control, a keyless entry system, a rear-window defroster, and a choice of a cassette player, a CD player, or both to augment the audio setup. The optional power package electrified the driver’s seat, windows, door locks, and exterior mirrors.
Standard kit for the 1997 Malibu LS consisted of all the options from the Base model and fog lights. The only choice an LS buyer needed to make was whether to go with the CD player, or the CD/cassette combo for the audio system.
Safety features included the aforementioned ABS, fog lights (for LS models only), driver and front passenger airbags, child-safe door locks, the alarm system, and daytime running lights.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 1998
Leather upholstery was added as an option for Malibu LS. A sunroof was added as an option for both models and the Malibu’s alloy wheels got a redesign.
Output of the V6 was upped to 170 horsepower and 190 ft.-lbs. of torque, other than that, no significant changes were made to the 1999 Malibu.
The four-cylinder engine was dropped for the 2000 model year, making Malibu a V6-only proposition. The front end of the car got a facelift to bring it more inline with Chevrolet’s full-size Impala model. A tail spoiler was offered as an option and a gold kit for the badges (yikes!) was made available as well.
Automatic headlights were decreed standard for Base models, and the cloth upholstery got a new pattern. Map pockets were integrated into the seatbacks for LS trimmed Malibus, while both models got new audio systems. With both cars sharing the same engine, an effort was made to visually differentiate them by rendering the rocker moldings and outside rearview mirror housings in black on the Base model.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2002
CD players made the standard equipment list for both models, as did floor mats. The aluminum wheels got yet another redesign.
For 2003, with a new model about to debut, changes were few. ABS was relegated to the options list for base models and a new seat fabric was prescribed for LS models. Both still ran the 3.1-liter V6. So, for the last year of production of the GEN5 Malibu, the car was configured as follows—fifteen-inch wheels, four-wheel antilock brakes (as an option), a four-wheel independent suspension system, battery rundown protection, a theft deterrent system, a tachometer, air-conditioning, a tilt steering wheel, and a remote trunk release comprised the Base model’s offerings.
With the LS trim came aluminum wheels, foglights, remote keyless entry, a power driver’s seat, power windows and door locks, cruise control, an up-level stereo system and a trunk cargo net.
The safety suite was comprised of dual airbags, four-wheel antilock brakes (standard on LS, but optional on Base models for 2003) and child-safe rear door locks.
2004 – 2008
If you’re considering a Malibu from 2004 or 2005, it is important to note the GEN5 Malibu continued to be produced for fleet use and rental car companies during those two years, even though the GEN6 car had debuted. In other words, there also exists two completely different versions of the 2004 and 2005 Malibu. Models on the GEN5 platform produced during those years are badged “Malibu Classic”.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2004
For the GEN6 Malibu, GM looked to its German subsidiary Opel for a platform upon which to base the car. That company’s Vectra mid-size sedan was deemed an appropriate fit, so the 2002 Opel Vectra C came to the States (sort of) as a 2004 Malibu. With it, a four-cylinder engine returned to the Malibu lineup. The 145-horsepower, 2.2-liter unit developed 155 ft.-lbs. of torque. Its power flowed to the front wheels of the Base model Malibu through a four-speed automatic transmission.
Speaking of the model nomenclature, GEN6 Malibu debuted in three states of trim, Base, LS and LT. The latter two trim levels used a 200-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine, which developed 220 ft.-lbs. of torque. This engine too, was paired with a four-speed automatic transmission.
The Base model came equipped with fifteen-inch steel wheels, front disc/rear drum brakes, variable intermittent wipers, a rear defogger, cargo tie downs in the trunk, an all-independent suspension system, and a power actuated two-way adjustable driver’s seat—which was also height adjustable. The Base model used cloth upholstery and bucket front seats. It featured electric operation of the door locks, exterior mirrors and windows, with one-touch operation for the windows.
Its front console offered storage, and cupholders could be found for all seating positions, both front and rear. The trunk was capable of being opened by a remote release and the accessories retained power after the engine was shut down. The 2004 Malibu also used electric power steering and the steering wheel both tilted and telescoped. Air conditioning, dual vanity mirrors, an external temperature display, and a four-speaker AM/FM/CD player rounded out the 2004 Base Malibu’s feature set.
The Base model’s safety gear included child seat anchors, daytime running lights, an engine immobilizer, and seatbelt pretensioners. Traction control was also available, as an option.
Opting for the LS model added fifteen-inch alloy wheels to the Base model’s kit along with the V6 engine, manual lumbar support for the driver’s seat, an adjustable pedal set, cruise control, front seatback storage, an illuminated vanity mirror for the driver, and a six-speaker audio system with the then-new Radio data system, which displayed a radio station’s call letters.
To the LS trim’s offerings, choosing an LT Malibu added sixteen-inch alloy wheels, a chrome grille, a rear spoiler, the V6 engine, heated seats for the driver and front passenger, automatic climate control, a six-way power adjustable driver seat, combination leather and cloth upholstery, remote keyless entry, audio and cruise control switches on the steering wheel, leather trim for the shift knob and steering wheel, front and rear floor mats, and dual illuminated vanity mirrors.
Safety upgrades for the LS and LT included ABS, disc brakes all around, traction control, and electronic brakeforce distribution.
A four-door hatchback version of the Malibu, called Malibu Maxx also debuted in 2004, in LS and LT trims. Offering largely the same equipment as the standard Malibu, the Malibu Maxx was basically a station wagon version of the Malibu, aimed at growing families. The Maxx also offered a DVD-based video entertainment system as an option,
All new for 2005, no significant changes were introduced for 2005.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2006
Installing a 240-horsepower V6 engine was deemed to have invigorated the Malibu sufficient to revive the revered SS designation. Further, all Malibu trim nomenclature was adjusted downward—resulting in the discontinuation of the Base designation.
Because of this, the 2006 Malibu LS was outfitted essentially the same as the 2005 Base model and the he ’05 LS became the ’06 LT. To compensate at the top of the lineup, the ’05 LT became known as the ’06 LTZ. This also meant the four-cylinder engine became the standard offering for LS and LT. With all the reshuffling, the 2006 Malibu lineup was configured in four trim levels; LS, LT, LTZ and SS.
The LS model’s package featured air conditioning and a CD player. It also combined a height-adjustable driver seat with a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel; in addition to power windows, mirrors and door locks. A 60/40-split folding rear seat opened up additional cargo capacity. With the model reshuffling, for the first time, the LS and LT Malibu models came with the 2.2-liter cylinder four-cylinder engine.
To all of that, the LT added remote vehicle start, premium cloth seats, map lights, and a cargo net in the trunk. There was adjustable lumbar support for the driver’s seat and an upgraded stereo system.
Bolstering all of the above with a rear spoiler, antilock brakes, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals and side curtain airbags equipped the LTZ.
In addition to the 240-horsepower/241 ft.-lb., 3.9-liter V6, the SS Malibu was fitted with eighteen-inch alloy wheels, hydraulic steering assist (the others used electric assist), a sport-tuned suspension system with former shocks and springs, more heavily bolstered front seats, and of course, SS badges all over the car.
Malibu Maxx also added the LTZ and SS trim levels.
The external appearance of all Malibu models was updated with new front-end styling and wheel designs. The interiors were treated to some love too, as the instrument panel picked up additional blingage and a new four-spoke steering wheel was incorporated.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2007
Dual-stage airbags, capable of variable inflation in relation to the severity of a crash were added. The OnStar system got turn-by-turn navigation and the base 3.5-liter V6 was reworked to produce 217 horsepower and 217 ft.-lbs. of torque.
As with the previous generation, 2008 fleet and rental models of the Malibu carried over into the new model year on the GEN6 platform, even though the GEN7 model debuted that year for mass-market consumption. Once again, these cars carried the “Malibu Classic” badge to delineate them from the all-new 2008 model.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2008 – 2012
Looking to Germany once again, the GEN7 Malibu shared its underpinnings with the Opel Signum. Other models built on the same platform included the Saturn AURA and the Pontiac G6, both of which fell victim to the reorganization of General Motors. This was the first Malibu model to feel the influence of Bob Lutz, the car guy’s car guy who was brought in to resurrect product as a priority at GM.
Larger, yet sleeker than the model it replaced, the 2008 Malibu was the first Malibu in quite some time, which could genuinely be considered good-looking. The model had standout character, where its GEN5 and GEN6 predecessors shrank more into the background noise of their automotive segment.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2008
The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu was offered in four trim levels: LS, 1LT, 2LT and LTZ.
The LS was poised on sixteen-inch steel wheels, and used keyless entry, full power accessories, air-conditioning and OnStar. Entertainment came courtesy of a six-speaker CD-based audio system, which offered satellite radio and an auxiliary audio input jack as standard equipment.
To all of the above, the Malibu 1LT trim package added seventeen-inch alloy wheels in addition to steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. Adding polished wheels, remote engine start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a power driver’s seat, power-adjustable pedals, and heated front seats made for a 2LT Malibu.
Going full spend with a 2008 Malibu bought silver grille inserts, foglamps, LED taillights, eighteen-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded audio system with a CD changer and eight speakers, leather seating, a power passenger seat, and an LTZ badge on the trunklid.
Initially, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu’s engine choices were between a 169-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder with 160 ft.-lbs. of torque and a 252-horsepower 3.6-liter, V6 capable of 251 ft.-lbs. The four-cylinder engine could be had in any Malibu model save the LTZ. The 2LT was granted use of the V6 as an option. All other models used the four-cylinder engine exclusively, paired with a four-speed automatic transmission feeding the front wheels. The V6 got a six-speed automatic, with a manual shift mode. Later in the first model year, the four-cylinder was mounted in LTZ models as well, but with a six-speed automatic transmission.
Safety kit included ABS, disc brakes, traction control, front-seat side airbags, and side curtain airbags on all trims. LT and LTZ Malibus also got stability control.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: 2009
The four-cylinder engine became the standard offering across the board, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission everywhere except the base LS and 1LT, which continued with the four-speed automatic. Bluetooth found its way into the Malibu and stability control was decreed to be a standard feature. The power adjustable pedals were dropped.
Malibu 1LT was granted usage of the six-speed automatic transmission to accompany the four-cylinder engine—leaving only the LS squeaking by with the four-speed automatic. Power lumbar was added to all trim levels as a standard feature and the 2.4-liter engine was rated to also run on ethanol (E85).
The six-speed finally trickled down to the LS, making that transmission standard for all Malibu models.
With an all-new model on tap for 2013, Malibu went into 2012 relatively unchanged.
Used Chevrolet Malibu: Summary
While a vastly different car than it started out as back in 1964, today’s Malibu is arguably one of the best mid-size cars on the market today. Wholly competitive with its import rivals, the current Chevrolet Malibu is also quite possibly the best mid-size car ever to wear a Chevrolet badge. And while the GEN5 and GEN6 models preceding it don’t quite measure up to its goodness, they do still represent good values on the used market for anyone seeking reliable transportation.
We of course, recommend getting the newest model you can comfortably afford, as Malibu’s safety features and performance gradually improved over time. Recalls have been issued for all three generations, so you’ll do well to research those and have your trusted professional Chevrolet mechanic ensure the prescribed updates were enacted before you buy.
Similarly it’s also a good idea to run a vehicle history report against the VIN of any particular car you're seriously considering purchasing—making sure it hasn’t undergone any untoward traumas over its life span.