First look: 2008 Chevrolet Malibu

Over the weekend, General Motors invited Leftlane to sample its all-new Chevrolet Malibu at an event in Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to just driving the new car, we were also given the opportunity to speak with several GM officials who worked on the Malibu project and a chance to drive some of the Malibu's competitors.

For 2008, Chevrolet completely redesigned the Malibu with the segment-leading Toyota Camry in mind. Thankfully that didn't mean just copying Toyota's design but was more an effort to mimic the Camry's quality and reliability and also its general dimensions.

According to the Malibu's head designer, the car was intended to seem like a $40,000 vehicle. While we wouldn't go quite that far, the new Malibu is a handsome design and is a definite improvement over the previous-generation car. The exterior is highlighted by a long hood and short deck lid, as well as a high belt line. Thick C-pillars make the car look planted and does give it the air of a more expensive vehicle. The front fascia of the new Malibu is bold and, like it or not, GM officials say it will be the new face of all Chevrolet vehicles. One neat touch on the front of the Malibu is an inboard hood, eliminating gaps leading into the headlights or grille and was inspired by the Corvette -- ditto for the Malibu's circular taillight setup. Short front and rear overhangs complete the Malibu's new look.

The Malibu's interior is impressive and offers a very unique twin-cockpit design taken from early Corvettes. The car's two-tone interior treatment in separated by either a wood or aluminum trim piece and travels along the front doors and dash. The center stack works well -- both in function and design -- and flows nicely into the center console. The gauge package is clear and easy to read and is better than one would expect in a mid-sized GM vehicle. Front seats are comfortable -- and even offer some side bolstering -- and the standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel makes it easy to find your ideal driving position. Storage is ample and includes rubber linings -- a feature designed to keep vibrations to a minimum. Overall fit and finish is excellent and is one of the best in this segment.

While the Malibu's interior might be the best in a mid-sized car ever to leave Detroit, it's still not quite perfect. The material used on the upper part of the dash is nice and has a soft touch, but on the under sided of the dash, along the center console and for about three-quarters of the center stack, GM decided to use a much cheaper and harder plastic. Not to say that it looks terrible -- although the hard plastics could show scratches over time -- just not as nice as it could be.

Several features also seemed to be glaringly absent from the Malibu's feature list. Although other cars in this class offer them, you can't get a Malibu with a GPS navigation screen -- although OnStar is standard for one year on all models -- Bluetooth connectivity or dual climate control. GM didn't have a clear answer to why these features aren't available, although one answer we heard was that the Epsilon platform made packaging an issue.

But after spending some time in the Malibu's competitors, there is no question that the Malibu differentiates itself with style. While other cars in this segment tend to be a bit boring, the Malibu brings some attitude without being over the top.

GM will for sure sell more than the 90,000 Malibus it sold last year, although the Camry's mark of 400,000 is probably out of reach. GM officials failed to comment on a sales target but we suspect its somewhere in the 150,000 range. GM has seemed to have learned its lesson with inventory control and plans to build only enough Malibus to meet demand. Initial demand has been strong and the Malibu is already sold out for the rest of this calendar year. Rental fleet sales will also be controlled -- not equaling more than 20% of total sales -- and will include up-level models instead of the typical base models.

We were able to sample three versions of the Malibu while in Memphis -- the LS, LTZ and a prototype four-cylinder six-speed car -- so check back for driving impressions of each car.