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2004 Sedan Buyer's Guide
by Martha Hindes

Chevrolet Malibu
Chevy Malibu sedan

Malibu. The name brings visions of California beaches, pounding surf and an unending parade of glossy-skinned glitterati relishing their taste of the sun.

The great thing about a familiar name can be its long-term repute. Take the auto named for that trend-setting venue and you have the Malibu that graced millions of garages during its heyday a few decades ago.

Now Chevy builds on this name recognition with a brand new, front-wheel-drive, midsize sedan crafted on a new foundation and tweeked with an added sport hatch version. This "uncluttered" '04 design replaces a somewhat average previous rendition, reborn in the late '90s after a significant absence from vehicle showrooms.

Priced at about $18,000 and $20,600 for base and LS models respectively, the new Malibu fills the niche below the pricier Impala sedan, but options such as sliding sunroof, leather seating, antilock brakes and rear spoiler could push the cost higher. Standard are speed sensitive electric power steering with variable assist and driver's info center, while heated front seats and GM's OnStar system remain options. For those who despise cold, snowy mornings, a factory-installed remote starter accessible for 200 feet is available on all models, an industry first says Chevy.

The sportier, upscale Maxx -- in reality a functional hatchback -- has a longer wheelbase, plus multiple level rear cargo tray for hauling odd-shaped items depending on where it's positioned. (Think flats of spring flowers.) It adds XM satellite radio and a DVD-based rear-seat entertainment system with infrared headphones.

The front-drive, five-passenger base sedan is powered by a 145 horsepower, 2.2 liter DOHC four-banger. LS, LT and Maxx models have the new GM 3500, 3.5 liter 200 HP V-6. Although this Malibu is U.S.-built on GM's new, international "Epsilon" platform also used for the European Saab 9-3, it seems more tailored to American tastes. Call it a seasoned newcomer with a comfy, family-oriented ride.