BURLINGTON, VT — General Motors Corp. takes dead aim at the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord with its all-new '04 Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan, due in most dealer showrooms in October.

The auto maker ultimately hopes to sell 200,000 annually, with a mix likely to be 50% mid-level LS model, followed by the base at 30% and the upper-level LT at 20%.

The new Malibu has a few lines that give it European flavor, but it still suffers overall from the same blandness that plagues its Asian rivals. That really isn't considered a weakness in this segment. “Most midsize sedan buyers keep their vehicle six to seven years,” Gene Stefanyshyn, vehicle line executive-Midsize Cars, says at a media-driving event here. “They want the styling to still fit in.”

The new Malibu is the first out of the North American chute to be built on GM's global Epsilon platform, shared by two of GM's European marques, the new Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3. The auto maker expects to add six to seven more products built on the platform for the North American market over the next three years.

Malibu is critical to GM's goal to make the company a leader in midsize cars and is referred to here as the “heart and soul of the Chevrolet car portfolio.”

The sedan, along with the upcoming 5-door Malibu Maxx “alternative extended sedan,” are expected to play a significant role in what Chevrolet General Manager Brent Dewar refers to as Chevy's “noble objective” of selling 3 million vehicles annually by 2005, and the new Malibu reflects that.

Chevrolet has lavished attention on every aspect of the vehicle, which has virtually nothing in common with the model it succeeds, save the name — and even that was an issue of great debate. In the end, established brand recognition won out, insiders here say.

The older model has been renamed the Chevy Classic. It will be built in Lansing, MI, and sold strictly as a fleet vehicle. The new Malibu production began in August at GM's Fairfax, KS, plant, where the auto maker spent six months and $500 million preparing to build the midsize sedan.

Unlike GM's prior attempts to find synergies with European counterparts, the Epsilon platform was developed by a team of American, German and Swedish engineers with the goal of building individual brands tailored to specific markets. GM's production goal for Epsilon is 1.2 million-1.4 million vehicles annually.

GM says Epsilon is a big improvement for all the brands involved, but it appears the new Malibu has gained the most in performance, quality and value.

Not only does the Epsilon architecture allow world-class driving dynamics, says Dewar, but it also brings an upscale Euro feel to the cockpit, which among its many features includes remote vehicle start — a first for the segment — and the first midsize-sedan application in North America of Delphi Corp.'s electric power steering.

The cabin of our fully equipped LT model, which, with all available options, is priced at $25,575, was impressive, with a fit and finish you'd expect to find in a more upscale marque. Heated leather seats, a Delphi driver-information center integrated into the radio display with 16-character text lines, and XM Radio were the first clues that this was not the Malibu of old.

The tilt and telescoping steering wheel and adjustable pedals, not usually found in the segment, have a special importance to Stefanyshyn, who tells Ward's 53% of Malibu buyers are women, and that the various adjustments are to keep them a safe distance from the airbag. That's something he's heard his own mother complain about.

Malibu also boasts noise-isolation engine mounting and other noise-reduction applications that made the car noticeably quieter both on our highway and 2-lane blacktop drive. Additionally, there are dozens of safety/security features, such as the safety cage occupant compartment, dual-stage airbags, roof-rail airbag system and seatbelt pretensioners.

A nifty fold-flat passenger seat and high-output halogen bulbs are found on all models, but only the LT and the Maxx get 4-wheel disc brakes.

The standard sedan is equipped with GM's Ecotec 145-hp 2.2L 4-cyl. DOHC engine, while up-level sedans and the Maxx come with a 200-hp 3.5L V-6. A Hydra-matic 4T45-E 4-speed automatic transmission is standard. Our LT's V-6 proved fully capable of handling all that the Green Mountains had to throw at it.

A GM executive declines to provide details, but tells Ward's a third engine will be added to the mix, and it is not a V-6. The auto maker said in June that it will offer an SS edition.

The LT's stiff body construction gave our Malibu a solid, luxury-car feel. The high-strength steel used in 65% of underbody components and independent front suspension, along with the MacPhearson struts and 4-link independent rear suspension, allowed for comfortable cornering on the narrow and twisty roads here.

The electronic power steer provided crisp, firm handling on the highway, while allowing a lighter touch at slower speeds. The LT's brakes were impressively responsive.

Malibu brags several unique features, including GM's first full-vehicle application of its LAN Serial Data Electric Architecture, which connects system modules and allows information to travel at 50 times the speed of past systems.

Additionally, there is a first-in-segment optional Visteon Corp. DVD flip-up color display mounted to the rear center console in the Maxx only; and optional OnStar, with Advanced Automatic Crash Notification.

Pricing starts at $18,995 for the base sedan, $20,995 for the LS and $23,495 for the LT. The Maxx, which arrives in Chevrolet dealerships in December, will base at $22,225 for the LS model. All prices include a $625 destination charge.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu LT

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan

Engine: 3.5L (3,488 cc) OHV V-6, iron block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 200 hp @ 5,400 rpm

Torque: 220 lb.-ft. (298 Nm) @ 3,200 rpm

Compression ratio: 9.8:1

Bore × Stroke (mm): 94 × 84

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 106.3 ins. (270 cm)

Overall length: 188.3 ins. (478 cm)

Overall width: 69.9 ins. (178 cm)

Overall height: 57.5 ins. (146 cm)

Curb weight: 3,315 lbs. (1,504 kg)

Market competition: Ford Taurus; Honda Accord; Nissan Altima; Toyota Camry