Home » The 2004 Chevrolet Malibu Is The Worst Of 2000s GM Distilled Into One Car: GM Hit Or Miss

The 2004 Chevrolet Malibu Is The Worst Of 2000s GM Distilled Into One Car: GM Hit Or Miss

2004 Chevrolet Malibu Topshot 2
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Misjudging a segment can have funny results. Sometimes, the result is a complete overachiever with disappointing sales like the Volkswagen Phaeton. Sometimes, the result is something with swimming pools full of character even if it isn’t as dialed-in as its competitors, like the Jaguar F-Type. Sometimes, a car’s just ahead of its time and history vindicates it, like the original Acura NSX. Oh, and sometimes you end up with the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu. I bet you wish that you didn’t have to think of this car today. Welcome back to GM Hit Or Miss, where we peel back the layers of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning in an attempt to understand the ultimate question: Why?

2003 Midsize Sedan Composite

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

In 2003, the midsize sedan market was in the middle of an arms race. Nissan was cranking out as many 245-horsepower Altimas as it possibly could, Mazda was showing off gadgetry and handling prowess, the Honda Accord was objectively better than ever before, and the Volkswagen Passat was a full-fat German family sedan with four-, six-, or eight-cylinder power. For the first time since the revolutionary 1992 Toyota Camry, the most popular passenger car segment in America was in the midst of a shakeup, and any determined manufacturer could make huge strides.

2000 Chevrolet Malibu 1

It just so happens that in 2003, the Chevrolet Malibu was ready to be replaced. Based on the N-body platform, it was perfectly in-tune with the needs of the late 1990s, but the new millennium demanded more, and GM recognized this yearning. So, the automotive giant hatched a cunning plan: What would happen if they were to take a Vectra and make it worse?

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2004 Chevrolet Malibu 2

Yes, the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu was the first U.S. marque-branded vehicle on GM’s Epsilon platform, but certainly far from the only car on it. The sixth-generation Malibu has a litany of global relatives including the Opel and Vauxhall Vectra, the Saab 9-3, the Cadillac BLS, the Pontiac G6, the Saturn Aura, and surprisingly enough, the Fiat Chroma. That’s quite impressive when you consider that all of those vehicles are more appealing than the Malibu, a true feat of disgusting mediocrity made possible by pre-bankruptcy GM’s dysfunction.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu 1

The Vauxhall Vectra is a deeply anonymous car, but the Malibu was downright ugly at launch. From the plastichrome schnoz to weird sweeping character lines over the arches that go absolutely nowhere, the sixth-generation Malibu is awkward at every angle. Sure, the car it replaced was almost featureless aside from peanut-shaped headlamps, but I’ll take boring over unsightly any day of the week. However, the Malibu’s exterior styling is nothing compared to its cabin.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu Interior

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This mass of hard, unpleasant, woefully chintzy brain matter grey plastic was what GM decided mid-aughts customers deserved. Look at it: The panel gaps visible from the International Space Station, the pitiful askewness of everything on the door cards, the central air vents looking like a cheap humidifier. Sure, the seats were comfy, but how much does that help when every other interior component is an advertisement for better life choices? Adding insult to injury, the 2004 Malibu has a less-attractive, cheaper-feeling interior than the car it replaced. Seriously, just look at the old fifth-generation N-body Malibu’s cabin.

2000 Chevrolet Malibu Interior

Admittedly, that’s not a phenomenal cabin, but the pillar-mounted air vents are neat, and there’s a nice enough mix of colors, vinyl-clad panels, and acceptable fake wood here that it doesn’t seem terrible. I wouldn’t balk if a fifth-generation Chevrolet Malibu was my rental car in 2002. Plus, it also had reasonably comfy seats.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu V6 Engine

With the horsepower war in the midsize segment raging on, you might expect Chevrolet to have put a particularly strong optional engine in the 2004 Malibu. Although stronger than the standard 145-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, the day-one upgrade was a 3.5-liter 60-degree pushrod V6 making 200 horsepower and 220 lb.-ft. of torque. Good going, GM. You really showed the competition how it’s done. Oh, and I hope you like four-speed automatic gearboxes because that’s all you’re getting.

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2004 Chevrolet Malibu On The Road 1a

Alright, so the powertrain lineup was a disappointment ranked somewhere between dropping your ice cream and the finale of “Game of Thrones,” but that Epsilon platform is a promising set of bones. After all, the Saab 9-3 drives pretty well and newer Epsilon-platform cars are alright, so maybe the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu redeemed itself on the open road? Well, not quite. Upon the Malibu’s introduction, Car And Driver noted some ride quality concerns.

Although the rigidity is supposedly improved, we didn’t get the sense that our Malibu was as tight and solid as a 9-3, or an Accord, for that matter. After any significant bump, we felt aftershocks reverberating through the car, resulting in a “gut jiggle” sensation from the driver’s seat. Maybe this isn’t the structure flexing but rather some suspension component whose frequency is poorly matched to the body’s and is therefore exciting the structure like a plucked guitar string.

Guess what? Every clapped-out Malibu today rides exactly the same as it did when new. Who’d have thought? Oh, and don’t think a jiggly ride resulted in good handling because it didn’t. The electric power steering is vague, and body roll is sufficient enough to classify the Malibu as a single-use ocean-going vessel.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu 3

So far, it seems like the sixth-generation Chevrolet Malibu was a way for company bosses to punish middle management, rental car companies to punish customers, and brand loyalists to punish themselves, mostly because it was. However, not all sixth-generation Malibus were created equally. Sometimes, you just need to take it to the Maxx. You didn’t think I forgot about the Malibu Maxx, did you?

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Chevrolet Malibu Maxx 1a

This was essentially the last mass-market midsized station wagon from a mainstream American automaker, although there’s some debate over that wagon moniker due to the weird stepped hatch. Still, this was a practical family car with 22.5 cu.-ft. of trunk space and some neat available features.

Chevrolet Malibu Maxx Cargo Area

On the more practical side of things, the rear seat could fold, recline, and slide, the front passenger seat could fold flat, and the cargo cover could be used as a table. As far as more lavish amenities go, the rear seat occupants were treated to their own sunroof, and you could even get rear seat entertainment in the Malibu Maxx. All in all, it was an exceedingly practical family car that was unfortunate enough to inherit questionable styling, a low-rent dashboard, and a subpar driving experience from the regular Malibu sedan.

Chevrolet Malibu Ss

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Oh, and then there was the Malibu SS, because this was the era of Maximum Bob and GM Performance, so everything needed a sporty version. Granted, the Malibu SS was more flash than substance as its 240-horsepower pushrod V6 was outgunned by segment leaders, and its four-speed automatic out-geared. Car And Driver managed a zero-to-60 mph run in 6.9 seconds, which doesn’t look brilliant next to, say, the sub-six-second dash afforded by Nissan’s medium-spicy Altima 3.5 SE. Still, at least it got hydraulic power steering over the regular model’s electrically-assisted rack.

Handling and ride? There’s still some learning to do. For such a modern suspension, the Maxx SS’s supplies a leaden ride in the style of Big Three performance packages of yore. Over bumps the floor shivers with impact clunks and resonant vibrations. There’s always an acute sense of the metal in motion down below.

Oh dear, that’s not good. On the plus side, the handling of the SS was much improved over the standard model. On the minus side, fit-and-finish was still atrocious. From one-grit mold lines unsuitable on even the cheapest patio furniture to an inherent feeling of flimsiness, the cabin of the Malibu SS was a pretty terrible place to be. Perhaps Car And Driver summed it up best when it said, “There’s this sense that if you turned the car over and shook it vigorously the entire interior might fall out.”

2006 Chevrolet Malibu 1

Coinciding with the 2006 launch of the Malibu SS, the standard car got a facelift that deleted the chrome nose and made Chevy’s midsizer substantially less offensive to look at from the front. The shit character lines down the profile remained, but at least this revised rental special wouldn’t make you want to do a technicolor yawn if you saw one coming up in your rearview mirror. After the 2007 model year, the sixth-generation Malibu was semi-retired for the 2008 model year as the Malibu Classic before mercifully being taken behind the woodshed and put out of its misery.

2004 Chevrolet Malibu Rear

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Car And Driver reported that Bob Lutz confidently stated “The importance of this car is the demonstration that General Motors will do world-class automobiles.” Sorry Bob, this ain’t it. The sixth-generation Chevrolet Malibu is a deeply flawed car, an indisputable miss, and perhaps the most prominent symbol of GM’s pre-bankruptcy race to the bottom. I don’t hate many vehicles, but I despise what the standard four-door sixth-generation Malibu stands for. It was a miss of colossal proportions, as evidenced by the vastly-improved seventh-generation Malibu that won hearts across America. Pre-bankruptcy GM was capable of so much better, so long as it actually tried. Cheap shit is still both cheap and shit. With a high enough price tag and stiff enough competition, everyone will eventually get fed up and splash more cash on something better.

(Photo credits: Chevrolet, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Volkswagen)

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Joseph Avon
Joseph Avon
1 month ago

I completely concur with this review. And I expect many reading this to laugh at the following story. Back in 2007, I had a 2005 Malibu LT which I thought was great at the time. It had about 27k miles on it and had features I’d never had before in a car (auto start, sunroof, auto climate control) Sold it in 2010 just shy of 70k miles which from my memory is about the time to offload a GM vehicle, at least the older ones.There was some clunking going on in the front suspension and when I raised the power drivers seat I tilted to the right. Got a Hyundai Santa Fe and have been a hyundai guy ever since. Fast forward to late middle age, boredom and watching too many YouTube channels that bring cars back from the dead. I have always liked that idea of restoring things back from the brink to like-new. I can’t do the work myself but I still like the idea. I figured that in 2023 since no one wants a sedan anymore, especially one from the big 3, I’d see how much 6th gen malibus were going for. I was in the rare class of folks who liked the look of this model. At a time when cars were getting to look very similar and curved, which has certainly continued, I thought this Malibu, with a quasi boxy look was kind of cool. I know, kind of silly. Anyway, I found a 2004 LT really cheap with only 86k on it. It rode rough but nothing a tune up and some new shocks and struts couldn’t fix, right? I attacked the rought start/idling issues first and after a new battery, plugs and wires and valve cover gaskets, it ran way better. Now onto the suspension. It rode like shit but I was excited to “make it new again”!! Below is what I had replaced. All parts were Moog except for the front struts and rear shocks which were Monroe. All bought from Rockauto and quality was at least the daily driver if not premium. All tires were replaced and alignment done when all parts were replaced. Tires were Hankook Kinergy GT. Took a ride after all this work was done and really felt no difference. I was shocked. It was then that I recall reading this article back in the fall before getting this work done and thinking “thre’s no way it will still ride and handle that bad after I put better parts on it right? Nope. This article is 100% spot on. Nothing else is loose and I was told that i’d be wasting money if I replaced the rear springs and control arms since they look fine and are tight. This leads me to believe that there are just other parts that are worn out that are not easy or impossible to replace unless you dismantle the vehicle. Not sure if this is a unibody frame or not. Maybe improvements were made to the 2005 which I used to own? I did think a bit about buying this 2004 since it was the first year of this model but at that low mileage I couldn’t let it pass me by. Plus I did not find any evidence that there were much changes, if any made to the suspension over the years, save for the SS which I did try and locate but could not. I’d never have bought it if there was anyway it would still ride so lousy after replacing all of these parts. I know this was never a spectacular car, even when new. It was a mid-level family sedan which for the money gave you decent horsepower and features, such as auto start, automatic climate control, etc for the money. So now, it sits in my driveway. I start it up during the middle of the week for 10 min (via the auto start) and take it for a 10 – 20 mile drive on the weekend, putting it through it’s paces. I guess I picked the wrong car to bring back to life!

Front strut(s) replaced
Inner tie rod(s) replaced
Lower control arm(s) replaced
Outer tie rod(s) replaced
Rear shock absorber(s) replaced
Sway bar link(s) replaced
Trailing arm(s) replaced

MDMK
MDMK
8 months ago

Among the 2004-2008 “uglibu’s” many irredeemable qualities was its tendency to quickly rust into rolling powder. Even today, I’m far more likely to see an older 97-03 Malibu on the road in relatively good shape than a post 2004.

SageWestyTulsa
SageWestyTulsa
10 months ago

My ex-father-in-la bought one of these new in ’04 or ’05, in the requisite silver with gray cloth interior. Wheel covers in lieu of alloys, natch. It stands out in my memory as the absolute worst-driving modern car I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. I recall that, while making a left turn through an intersection, the body roll was so unexpectedly severe that I genuinely thought the suspension had collapsed. I also remember riding in the backseat once, and looking upward at the rear headliner edge that appeared to have been trimmed by a myopic kindergartner with a pair of those plastic safety scissors. Just abysmal all around.

Kevin B
Kevin B
10 months ago

Bucking the conventional wisdom of never owning a car in its first year of production, I bought an ’04 Malibu LT. It had every option except sunroof. It was a quiet, comfortable interstate cruiser. The front seats were rumored to be made in France, which made sense because they were damn comfortable. Too bad you didn’t mention the half-assed electric power steering. It sucked donkeys. Had the steering column replaced twice, apparently with columns that had the same basic flaws.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago

Heh, my roommate had a Malibu Maxx because it was one of the few cars out at the time that could haul and upright bass. It had neat looking steelies that didn’t look like steelies under the hubcaps, too.

That’s about as interesting as it got, though. The normal Malibu is truly Peak Beige Era and as stated in the Buick showdown, I hate everything about the Beige Era. Just an unforgivable point in history that we should never revisit. Let it perish from our memories in all its flavors, from its tacky H2-style excesses to its most loathsome Avalon-style yawns. The Great Perishcession. The Carperishlypse. Perish Hilton. Screw that entire era.

Scott
Scott
10 months ago

I don’t want one, but there are a few Malibu Maxx(s?) around my neighborhood, and though not remotely lovely, I don’t have any kind of suicidal feelings when I see them. I also know (from a friend of a friend) that somehow, the Malibu Maxx can transport some cargo unable to fit in a number of compact-to-middlin’ crossovers and a normally capacious Prius V. I’ve actually seen it myself: you can fit a LOT more crap inside a Malibu Maxx than there’s any right to expect.

ScottyB
ScottyB
10 months ago

Everytime I see a Maxx I scream and text several friends and then dare them to top that for saddest car they’ll see that day.

Scott Ashley
Scott Ashley
10 months ago

There is one more unforgivable miss right below the surface of this story, I’d like to scratch away at it expose it. The Saturn division got an Epsilon and since GM could never turn down a good badge engineering job I believe it was an Opel (you can correct me if wrong), but it was not badly received and certainly the better car when compared to the Malibu. So a GM division which would be gone in 2009 or so got the Opel and bread an butter Chevrolet got the Malibu? That IS a gun to the foot GM!

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
10 months ago
Reply to  Scott Ashley

The Saturn Aura resembled the Opel Vectra, mostly in the front clip, but had far more in common with the Chevy/Pontiac Epsilon counterparts, more of a badge engineered G6 as it shared the 112″ wheelbase (the Malibu was 106.3″, same as the Vectra). The Aura’s styling was more a nod to the direction they were intending to take Saturn, sharing full vehicles with Opel once they brought them in line globally. The Opel Insignia that replaced the Vectra was to be the next Aura, but with Saturn’s demise GM shuffled it to Buick as the new Regal, as did some other Buicks after.

The redesigned 2008 Malibu was upgraded substantially, using many of the updates the Aura headlined, and arguably the new Chevy had a better quality interior. Both 2007 Aura and 2008 Malibu won North American Car of the Year, so GM kinda double dipped with that award. The Malibu as discussed here ran for just 4 model years 2004-07 (excluding any “Classic” rental models) which is short for GM standards or even Honda/Toyota/etc at the time so they weren’t really sticking it to Chevy while Saturn had a superior product, it followed closely, maybe even worked out some teething troubles for the Malibu.

The Vectra of the time was not really suited for US tastes as it stood, it would have been a bit too tight, not quite powerful enough, and the interior ergonomics would probably have been blasted, if the Astra’s brief stint directly ported to Saturn showrooms were any indicator.

R Rr
R Rr
10 months ago

It is the FIAT CROMA, not “Chroma”

Next time just do a quick Google search if you’re not sure

Last edited 10 months ago by R Rr
Healpop
Healpop
10 months ago

“body roll is sufficient enough to classify the Malibu as a single-use ocean-going vessel.”

Fantastic description!

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
10 months ago

After this piece of garbage, I couldn’t believe that the 7th gen car came from the same company. That car still looks good to me.

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