TALIHINA, Okla. -- A narrow strip of asphalt strings for miles along ridges of the rugged Ouachita Mountains which stretch like plowed furrows across the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma.
This scenic highway -- dubbed the Wilhelmina Trail after Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands who visited the area more than a century ago -- follows contours of the lumpy hills over undulating pavement with dips and rises and strings of esses and sweepers.
That's just the venue we seek to sample the enthused spirit of Malibu, Chevrolet's affordable mid-size sedan.
In twists and turns of the Wilhelmina Trail, our Malibu LTZ maintains a stable position with minimal lateral roll, the result of a stiffly braced unibody design with sophisticated independent suspension elements connected at every corner post.
Surging power, lurking below the right foot pedal, proves too much for some of the curve sets and occasionally requires a check through the left pedal, which links to four disc brakes and an on-board computer with anti-lock action as well as electronic vehicle stability management through GM's high-tech StabiliTrak skid controls.
Steering, firm and precise due to a rack and pinion arrangement with speed-sensing variable assistance, seems as attuned as a pricy Euro touring sedan.
And this Malibu shows us in wiggles through right-left-right chicanes on the warped ridgeback road that it can waltz like a sporty machine as reinforced by a forceful V6 engine with variable valve timing (VVT).
Our impression of the enhanced ride and handling traits for the new generational design of Malibu brings to mind a cat-clawed touring car shipped over from Europe, but this mid-size model branded by Chevrolet of General Motors comes together at GM's Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kan.
Obviously, it's time to rethink the historical image of Malibu the car.
The Malibu nameplate originally popped up in Chevy's line more than three decades ago and the Malibu Super Sport as a sporty coupe or sedan derivative of the mid-size Chevelle became a hot commodity, ultimately accounting for millions of car sales until its demise in 1983.
But in 1997 the Malibu badge returned to Chevrolet as Corsica's replacement in the format of a mid-size sedan with four doors and seats for five, two engine options and competitive price tags.
That Malibu became a popular choice for dependable family transportation due to some pleasant driving traits and multiple features for convenience usually found only on a list of optional equipment.
In the Chevy line for 2004, Malibu emerged as an entirely new car cast on GM's Epsilon platform which also underpinned the 9-3 sedan by Sweden's Saab.
It looked sleek and stylish and came with a spacious five-seat cabin which had a fold-flat seatback for the front passenger bucket and a rear split bench for flexibility when arranging passengers and cargo.
Now for 2008 Chevy creates a new iteration of Malibu built on GM's global mid-size platform which forges a strong structure and sets up refined driving dynamics.
Trims for 2008 include the Malibu LS, LT and LTZ.
This latest Malibu mirrors the dressy exterior styling of several mega-bucks German touring sedans, while the fit and finish of body parts -- the precise consistency of seams as body panels merge -- also compares keenly to German cars.
The stylish treatment carries over to the interior design of Malibu, as the cabin looks handsome and deploys deluxe materials to cover dash, doors and seats.
Malibu's unibody platform features a long wheelbase and wide track with world-class chassis dynamics to set up its superior handling traits.
A fully independent suspension features MacPherson struts with aluminum L-shaped control arms up front.
In back, the LS and LT versions tote a four-link arrangement with twin-tube gas shocks, dual-rate coil springs plus a direct-acting stabilizer bar.
Malibu LTZ differs in the rear suspension by adding monotube shocks for tighter wheel control.
Steering is a rack and pinion design with variable assistance and the steering ratio set to
16.4:1. Malibu's driver gets a good feel for the road through this system, which is firm and quick at highway speed yet compliant and easy to work for slow-go in a parking lot.
Brakes include a large disc at every wheel and all linked to an electronic anti-lock brake system (ABS).
Malibu LS and LT also have a traction control system (TCS) with an electronic control module which varies the torque output of the engine to check tire slippage on a slick road.
Malibu LTZ upgrades to the StabiliTrak system.
All three trims of Malibu pack aboard a carload of safety equipment including passive safety systems like frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in front and back rows.
As for powertrains, Malibu LS and LT draw from GM's Ecotec dual-cam 2.4-liter VVT four-pack engine which generates 169 hp at 6400 rpm plus torque of 160 lb-ft at 4500 rpm through GM's electronic automatic 4-speed Hydra-Matic 4T45 transmission.
Malibu LTZ bumps up to GM's new dual-cam 3.6-liter V6 with VVT along with a new 6T70 six-speed automatic and TAPshift manual shifting via paddles on the steering wheel.
The 3.6-liter V6 achieves 252 hp at 6300 rpm with the torque pitched to 251 lb-ft at 3200 rpm.
Malibu's tastefully trimmed passenger compartment provides seats for five and lots of amenities.
Malibu LS stocks standard gear like power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors, cruise control, a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, air conditioning and a sound kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3 and XM Satellite Radio.
For the first time Malibu offers optional two-tone interior trim like Ebony and Brick or Cocoa and Cashmere, or the all-Ebony version combined with wood grain strips on the dash and doors. Malibu LS stocks cloth upholstery, with Malibu LT adding suede-like seats and LTZ showing the two-tone leather surfaces.
Price points look favorable for this new Malibu with the base LS issue promoting a low MSRP of $19,995, while the for a V6-powered LTZ slips under $27,000.