MEMPHIS – General Motors Corp. is convinced if it can lure Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima shoppers into its all-new ’08 Chevrolet Malibu, it can change prevailing perceptions about the 33-year-old nameplate and gain valuable ground in the ultra-competitive midsize passenger-car segment.

If that refrain sounds familiar, it should. GM has tried the “people-just-gotta-get-behind-the-wheel” appeal before, including a marketing campaign during the 2003 launch of the ’04 Malibu.

But although the former Malibu was received relatively well by critics, it never really resonated with consumers the way GM hoped. From 2004-2006, the nameplate sold 547,162 units, while Camry accounted for 1.3 million U.S. ales in the period, according to Ward's data.

GM swears it’s different this time, and if the lineup of ’08 Malibu sedans on hand at our media test drive here are any indication, the auto maker is right.

Critics already have spilled plenty of ink doting on the ’08 Malibu’s new interior, but it’s such a triumph that it deserves a few more words, starting with elegant.

Designers focused on upscale materials, such as a rich color pallet, wood accents and well-placed bright work. They even snuck some ambient lighting past the bean counters.

The optional two-tone seating surfaces, a bit of a risk given the vanilla-like design that typifies the segment, looks as smashing as it did when the ’08 model first bowed at January’s North American International auto show in Detroit.

The layout of the interior is spacious, graceful and creative, and there’s ample legroom in both rows. And while the sweeping dash wraps the driver and passenger in a dual cockpit, it also extends forward to provide added visual spaciousness.

A storage bin atop the center stack ranks as a creative addition and side map pockets include additional cupholders. The center console is 2-layered, with the bottom section deep enough for a woman’s handbag, GM claims. Audiophiles will appreciate the available 8-speaker, 210-watt sound system.

But as thoughtful things such as a common 110-volt household outlet for rear passengers, Chevy dealers, as well as buyers, sorely will miss a traditional navigation system.

Instead, GM offers OnStar’s turn-by-turn navigation system, which combines voice prompts with a digital readout. The system probably is safer and a great value since it’s bundled with a $19.95 per-month 1-year OnStar subscription. But it’s not nearly as fun as interacting with DVD-based systems offered by the competition.

As a whole, the Malibu’s cabin breaks dramatically from GM midsize cars of the past and would not be out of place in a more expensive vehicle – even though top-of-the-range LTZ models start at a relatively heady $26,995.

The same can be said of the Malibu’s exterior design, which while more refined manages to remain true to the marque. The upgraded platform pushes the wheels to the corners for a more stable, confident stance. And the sheet metal bears clean, simple lines punctuated by tasteful bright work and a bold new dual-port grille that now typifies Chevrolet vehicles.

The rear profile ends a bit abruptly, but GM considers it a nod to its Corvette stablemate and the brand’s performance heritage. Fit-and-finish is crisp, even with a tricky trapped hood that’s new for ’08.

Of particular note are the racy, dual-chrome exhaust tips and stylish 18-in. aluminum wheels available on LTZ models. The wheels are the largest available in the segment and smack more of Rodeo Drive than family of five.

Side-mounted indicator lamps add a European touch, while tiny stamped Chevy bowties on the interior of the headlamps make for a slightly kitschy but otherwise distinctive design cue.

Altogether, GM designers took relatively few risks with the exterior, but given Malibu’s task for winning sales in volume, they hardly can be faulted for their conservatism.

On the highway, the redesigned Malibu performs a yeoman’s job. GM essentially offers two powertrain choices: a 2.4L 4-cyl. mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission and a 3.6L V-6 with an available 6-speed automatic transmission.

The 4-cyl. doesn’t make the Malibu very light on its feet, but it packs enough power to pass confidently on the hilly highways of northern Mississippi and to accelerate quickly from a dead stop. Although the 4-speed winds the engine on heavy acceleration, shifts are smooth and predictable.

Also, unlike GM’s previous 4-cyls., engine noise doesn’t intrude excessively into the cabin. Indeed, the extra taming of noise, vibration and harshness is evident at both highway speeds and on the aging county roads outside Memphis. The quiet cabin helps add to the sense of a much pricier vehicle segment.

’08 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 3.6L (217 cu. in.) DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 252 hp (188 kW) @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 251 hp (340 Nm) @ 3,200 rpm
Compression ratio 10.2:1
Transmission Hydra-Matic 6T70 6-speed auto w/driver shift control
Wheelbase 112.3 ins. (285.2 cm)
Overall length 191.8 ins. (487.2 cm)
Overall width 70.3 ins. (178.5 cm)
Overall height 57.1 ins. (145.1 cm)
Curb weight 3,649 lbs. (1,655 kg)
Base price $26,995
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 17/26 mpg (10.7/7.8 L/100 km)
Market competition Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima
Pros Cons
Stunning interior Modest exterior
Whisper-quiet cabin No DVD navigation
Mild hybrid version Emphasis on “mild”

Starting next spring, GM plans to offer a 2.4L mill with an all-new 6-speed automatic, a setup exclusive to Malibu in the segment. Several mules are offered on the media test drive here, and while the extra gears help quiet the 4-cyl., there is a noticeable “bump” during slight deceleration.

GM engineers promise to smooth out the blip as they continue to tweak the transmission’s calibrations, noting they expect to set new levels of harmony between drivability and fuel economy in the segment.

No such problems with the V-6 and 6-speed transmission, which work well together. A combination that first appeared on the award-winning Saturn Aura, the powertrain moves the Malibu down the road with unfettered ease.

Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters come standard with the setup and also perform well, as evidenced by a fair bit of rubber left on the road at select intersections.

GM for the first time is offering a mild hybrid powertrain option on the Malibu. The belt-alternator-starter (BAS) system on a test car here operates with split-second efficiency, while bumping up fuel economy to 24/32 mpg (9.8/7.4 L/100 km) city/highway.

That’s roughly a 2 mpg (0.8 km/L) gain over the conventional 2.4L mill mated to the 4-speed automatic.

As an $1,800 option, the BAS system is eligible for a $1,300 federal tax credit in the U.S., which brings the cost down to $500. However, the credit expires after GM sells 60,000 units. So perhaps the real value of a hybrid badge on the new Malibu is how fashionably green it colors GM and its buyers.

Clearly, the new Malibu’s ride and handling benefits from more robust underpinnings. The car’s 4-wheel independent suspension gets a McPherson strut design up front and a multi-link setup in the rear, a combination GM engineers say is tuned to strike the right balance between comfort and connectivity.

The wheelbase measures 3 ins. (8 cm) longer than the previous model, which also contributes to a more agreeable ride.

Steering is on-center and well weighted. Drivers likely will find the electronically assisted system that appears with 4-cyl. offerings pleasantly surprising. A remarkably responsive, hydraulically assisted system only comes with V-6 models.

GM removed the previous model’s rear drum brakes in favor of discs all around, which greatly improve stopping power. The list of standard safety options is long, but stability control on base models is optional. Nevertheless, the auto maker anticipates a 5-star U.S. governmental crash rating.

The ’08 Chevy Malibu ranks as an awfully good ride. And while the exterior design is refreshing, it remains fairly conservative and leaves the interior, with its upscale materials and refined acoustics, as perhaps the car’s greatest achievement.

GM is right. Things really are different this time.

jamend@wardsauto.com