The first - and last - Chevrolet I owned was an '82 Chevette.
Maybe it was the bone-rattling ride, or the propensity for breakdowns at the worst possible times - my Chevette once conked out en route to university, with all my worldly possessions inside - but I never bought a General Motors product again.
So, given GM's well-publicized travails, I was prepared to be underwhelmed when I picked up a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu for a week-long test drive. To my surprise, after giving the vehicle a thorough workout with my wife and two young kids, I can say that GM got most things right with the solidly-built, fuel-efficient Malibu.
GM has been criticized - deservedly - for the bland styling of many of its vehicles. But adorned with 17-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, sunroof and chrome-tipped exhaust, my Malibu LT Platinum Edition got a lot of compliments - mostly from my mother, for what that's worth.
"That's a really nice-looking car," she said as we pulled up to the cottage for an extended visit with grandma and grandpa. "Is it a Honda?"
"Nope, a Chevrolet," I said.
"A Chevrolet? Really?"
Let's be clear: The Malibu isn't the sort of vehicle that is going to help you score with the opposite sex, but it is a lot prettier than my old Chevette. It also has a roomy, comfortable interior and a smooth ride. If GM made more cars like the Malibu, it wouldn't be the butt of so many late-night comedian jokes.
ON THE ROAD
The Malibu's suspension hits the sweet spot: It's supple enough to absorb most road bumps but also provides secure handling, with minimal body lean in turns. On the highway, the car is exceptionally quiet, with little road or wind noise.
The quiet cabin allows the premium eight-speaker Bose sound system (a $685 option) to shine. While the kids played with Lego in the back seat, my wife and I tuned the XM Satellite Radio ($230, with the first three months of service free) to the '80s channel for a friendly game of "name the artist". (I kicked her butt, although she did beat me on Duran Duran).
Even with gas prices hovering around a buck a litre, road trips don't have to break the family budget. The six-speed automatic transmission, mated to a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine, provides good fuel economy: The Malibu LT is rated at 5.9 litres/100 km on the highway and 9.4 in the city.
Speaking of savings, my nicely equipped LT test model - with upgraded six-speed transmission, premium stereo, sunroof and other options - has an MSRP of $32,725. But as of this writing, GM is offering a "price adjustment" of nearly $4,000 on this particular model. A base-model Malibu LS retails for $25,345, also before price adjustments. (Incentives vary, so check with your GM dealer or www.gm.ca)
BELLS AND WHISTLES
When carting around a couple of kids, you don't want to be fumbling with knobs and levers. The Malibu's controls are all straightforward, with dials that are large and easy to find, whether you're adjusting the radio, turning on the windshield wipers or using the climate control system, which kept the cabin cool even when the temperature outside soared above 30 C.
The Malibu also features plenty of cup holders and storage bins for things like coins and sunglasses (and stray Lego pieces). If you pack economically, the 428-litre trunk (slightly bigger than a Honda Accord's) is adequate for a family getaway: We crammed four overnight bags, a knapsack, two small coolers and a large box of food into the trunk. There was even room left over for a watermelon.
Another important consideration for families: The Malibu earned five stars - the highest rating - in U.S. government front- and side-impact crash tests.
I found that the Malibu's thick roof pillars compromised visibility, though not seriously. I was also disappointed that the narrow, rear-centre seat had no headrest, exposing the middle passenger to possible neck injuries if the car were rear-ended. The rear seat also lacked a fold-down armrest/console.
For me, the biggest drawback is the Malibu's conservative styling. I'm 46, but I felt more like 66 behind the wheel. If GM wants to connect with a younger car-buying crowd, its designers have to up their game.
Those criticisms aside, the Malibu is a worthy competitor in the family sedan market, with good fuel economy, secure handling and plenty of room for a family of four.
Consumers are noticing: Malibu sales rose by 33 per cent in July from a year-earlier and the Malibu was GM's second-best-selling marque behind only the Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
After a week with this capable, smooth-riding family sedan, I can understand why.
2010 Chevrolet Malibu LT Platinum Edition
Type: Mid-size sedan
Base Price: $27,760; as tested, $32,725
Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/Torque: 170 hp/158 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km):9.4 city/5.9 highway; regular gas or E85