Malibu, Ca - General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Div. has an all-new platform for its 1997 Malibu, and executives and engineers attending the new Malibu's press launch here believe the car perhaps represents Chevrolet's first legitimate chance at snagging not only a significant portion of traditional midsize buyers - but also the elusive import-biased customers the U.S.'s Big Three automakers covet.

The reasons for Chevy's optimism? First, the Malibu's driving dynamics come convincingly close to those of midsize import cars. Evaluation driving here with the '97 Malibu shows the new midsizer to be the subjective equal of long-established import darlings like Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Accord. The new Malibu steers with precision and brakes with the authority of most imports.

Equally important, Chevrolet executives intimate the Malibu will offer greater size and more power for less money than imports. In most dimensions, the '97 Malibu is markedly larger than midsize imports like the Accord and domestic rivals from Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. Bottom line: the Malibu is much larger than compact midsizers like Ford's Contour and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Altima, rivals "full" midsizers like Ford's Taurus - Malibu's 107-in. (272-cm) wheelbase is just 1.5 ins. (4 cm) shy of the Taurus - yet likely will be priced at least $1,000 less than even the compacts.

Moreover, Malibu's engine range, although not a model of high-tech refinement, does a credible job in this mainstream sedan. The car is offered in two trim levels. base and LS; base models are powered by the 2.4L Twin Cam I-4, LS models by the 3.1L OHV V-6. At 150 hp, the 2.4L Twin Cam is more powerful than nearly all of the segment's 4-cyl. engines, while the Malibu LS and its 3.1L V-6 will be available at a price point well south of what competitors ask for V-6 models.

Although Chevrolet does not release final pricing at the advance press preview here - the car hits showrooms this month - "ballpark" figures provided by the company suggest a well-equipped Malibu LS with a V-6 will be priced just under $19,000, meaning a base model, 4-cyl. Accord costs more. You've gotta believe Chevy's working a well-baited hook in being able to pitch a V-6 model for less dough than everybody else's 4-cyl. wheezers.

Malibu's new P90 platform is shared with the 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass and ostensibly replaces Chevy's Corsica and Beretta, cars the Bowtie crew would prefer not be mentioned even on the same day, much less in the same breath, with Malibu.

The chassis features independent suspension at each corner. The arrangement employs struts at the front and a three-link (two transverse and one longitudinal link) rear axle. All Malibus have anti-roll bars fitted at both ends. In just one of Malibu's unexpected suprises, 15-in. wheels and tires are standard - and all this kit, while not exactly special, imbues the Malibu with genuinely entertaining handling.

The 2.4L Twin Cam engine is a derivation of the well-known Quad 4, redesigned with an integral balance shaft to dampen the old Quad's harshness. As in GM's J-cars, the Twin Cam develops 150 hp at 5,600 rpm and 155 ft.-lbs. (210 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm.

Only one transmission is fitted: the fine-shifting, low maintenance 4T40-E 4-speed electronically controlled automatic.

Malibus equipped with they 2.4L engine are energetic and responsive, the only drawback being a somewhat high degree of noise at full throttle and a power peak a bit too high for acute low-rpm acceleration. The aged 3.1L V-6 seems perfectly at home in the new car.

Chevrolet decided from input at consumer clinics to equip all Malibus to a high standard, even base vehicles. Standard equipment for the base Malibu includes 4-wheel antilock brakes (drums at the rear), 15-in. tires, air conditioning, dual airbags, automatic transmission and tilt steering column. The up-market LS includes upgraded trim and interior materials, cruise control and various other power assists.

Quality of early pilot Malibus appears to be on par with many imports. They're built in Wilmington, DE and Oklahoma City, OK.

To the credit of GM designers, the interior of the new Malibu is unexpectedly friendly and tasteful. Materials are mostly of a high-quality appearance and feel, the gauges are well-placed, and switches and ancillary controls provide quality feel.

Yeah, Malibu's sheetmetal's not going to inspire any Keatsian odes, but in the richer colors (buyers should avoid the Fleet Special White) and from the proper angles the car nonetheless appears substantial and well-proportioned - although it holds little regard for the aesthetic direction seen in Malibus of past eras.

But most of the press left Malibu disposed to liking the Malibu embarrassingly more than we cloyed press-boondogglers believed was discreet. This is the sort of car on which GM used to fall hopelessly short with set-your-watch regularity. No longer. Developing pleasurable volume sellers has once again become GM's forte: taking hardware that doesn't stretch the envelope, yet solid, competitive - and Yes! - now import-rivaling transportation.