2000 Chevrolet Malibu Review
By Chris Haak
The phone rang one afternoon.
“I got you a Malibu to drive.”
“Oh, OK. What year? Is it the current generation, a 2008 through 2010?”
“Well, actually, it’s a 2000.”
Digging into my mental database of model-year changes, I thought, “Uh-oh. The previous generation Malibu ran from 2004 through 2007. That means that this one is the original N-car Malibu, produced from the 1997 through 2003 model years.” A quick Google images search confirmed that my memory was accurate.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a 2001 Malibu. It was a white 2000 Malibu LS with 124,000 miles on the clock. The first thing I noticed when I opened the door was that the power window and lock controls were flopping around loosely in the door. The window control buttons are also the old-fashioned style that are on a rocker that make you push for both down and up actions rather than modern ones that more intuitively have you pull up for up and push down for down (plus, the modern type are safer because a child can’t accidentally close the window on themselves by leaning on the button).
The dashboard is semi-padded but with very little give to any kind of shove. It also has Fisher Price-like plastic shapes around the discrete radio, HVAC, and cassette deck (!) sections. The radio is the same unit that had been used in the GM trucks prior to them getting XM-capable units, and has giant buttons, but a very random placement for all secondary controls. (For example, I had no idea how to change a preset setting. Holding the button down didn’t do the trick and I couldn’t find an old-school “set” button). Perhaps the radio’s operation would have been easier if its backlight still worked. Though I didn’t need to use air conditioning on a cool night, the awkward-looking A-pillar placement of the outside vents probably does help passenger comfort.
The seats are covered in a mouse fur-like velour that hold occupants in place well enough, but offer very little in the way of support or bolstering. during my time with the car, I survived two hour-long drive without back pain, so I suppose that’s an accomplishment. I was surprised to find a power driver’s seat (but manual recline feature on that same seat).
After getting myself situated behind the wheel, I put the key into the dash-mounted ignition switch – and couldn’t turn the key. I pulled the key out, turned it 180 degrees, and tried again. I’m used to just engaging the starter in newer cars and releasing the key, allowing the engine to turn over until the car starts. Doing that in the old Malibu means two engine revolutions, an engine that didn’t start, and a dash full of idiot lights. Eventually, I (re)mastered the procedure and the the 3.1 liter 60 degree V6 sprung to life. I shifted the car into gear with the awkwardly-long T-handled gearshift and set off for home. Throttle tip-in was very aggressive; knowing that a new Malibu makes similar horsepower from its base 2.4 liter four cylinder, the non-linear throttle gave up the goods too early in the pedal’s travel.
After a few minutes on the road, I wanted to change lanes, and per my normal behavior, I signaled my intent. Only nothing happened when hitting the signal stalk. I tried signaling the opposite way – same thing. At least the hazard flashers worked, so they were my backup plan in lieu of signals. Fortunately, after about 10 minutes on the road, the turn signals decided to work again. I turned up the old fashioned FM radio and headed for the turnpike.
On the turnpike, I found the car’s tracking to be atrocious. Most cars are able to maintain a steady path without any steering corrections needed. This particular Malibu, at least, did not have that ability. When the car strayed slightly from straight ahead, I’d make a minor steering correction, and the car would stray too far in the opposite direction, so I’d have to re-correct in the counter-direction again. I repeated this for 32 miles, with the cruise control set to a rock-steady 72 miles per hour. The little 170 horsepower V6 spun at a fairly calm 2,000 RPMs at this speed, which probably makes for decent highway fuel economy. (The EPA rates it at 18 city/27 highway under the new scheme. The car’s original window sticker showed a likely-optimistic 20/30 score with the V6 and four-speed automatic).
After exiting the highway, I headed onto a high-speed two lane back road. It’s unusual for me to feel uncomfortable with ANY car at speeds just above the speed limit, but the old ‘Bu killed nearly all of my confidence in its handling capabilities to the point that I didn’t feel safe keeping up with a full-size crew cab, short bed pickup. I actually had the sensation that the car’s back tires had no grip on the road. I can’t ever remember driving a car that had so much understeer. It felt like the back half of the car reacted to steering inputs only after a few seconds of delay. The brake pedal was hard and had a very short travel. I’m not sure if it has ABS, but it does have rear drum brakes and 14 inch wheels.
On a positive note, the powertrain isn’t bad for a small-ish car with old technology. The 3.1 liter V6 has decent power (170 horsepower) and great torque (190 lb-ft), and the old-tech four-speed automatic was able to downshift quickly when called upon. The super-tall fourth gear and very low first gear means there’s quite a gap for second and third to fill; consequently, power drops off during rapid acceleration as the engine leaves its powerband after a shift.
The best thing about a ten year old Chevy Malibu, however, was when I returned the car and resumed my fortunate life of late-model cars and new press loaners. But hey, it made for a decent car review on a lovely April Fool’s Day. We at Autosavant are always looking for a good story to tell.
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