2010 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ

No one would mistake this for a Lamborghini, but its got a modern style that's more than just pleasing to the eye.

The Chevrolet Malibu is comfortable and stylish.
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Last week, General Motors announced a milestone: it had paid off the remaining US$5.8 billion (Dh21bn) it had "borrowed" from the US and Canadian governments when it was bailed out of bankruptcy last year. "GM's ability to pay back loans is a sign our plan is working," said the company's CEO, Ed Whitacre. Sunny news indeed from the US car maker. (This of course, is besides the fact that, according to the Detroit Free Press, some US senators are saying that the company actually used another loan to pay off this one; kind of like using one credit card to pay off another. What's wrong with that? I do it all the time.)

Part of the reason for the quick turnaround, according to Whitacre, is GM's improved product lineup, and the Chevrolet Malibu falls smack in the middle of that lot. Launched last year, the car is an important one for GM in a popular saloon market already dominated by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. To make an impact, you've got to have something that stands out from the crowd. And, as far as looks are concerned, the Malibu delivers. No one would mistake this for a Lamborghini, but its got a modern style that's more than just pleasing to the eye; I think its cohesive design is better looking than both top offerings from Japan.

The 3.6L V6 supplies ample power for the Malibu; it's no scorcher, by any means, but I didn't find it underpowered at all. It's a little rough around the edges, though - at higher rpm under load, it tends to make a bit of noise and rattle, though not unnervingly so. But it's spritely in town and on the motorway, and I was surprised to find I had to keep an eye on the speedometer to keep it at a reasonable pace.

Part of that is because of the ride. It stays calm and composed, even at speed, absorbing bumps and cossetting the passengers. It's also eerily quiet inside the cabin, especially at motorway speeds; more so than other cars in its class. Its silence alone is enough to make the Malibu feel like a luxury saloon a few steps higher in class. The six speeds of the automatic gearbox help smooth out shifting and power delivery, and it seems to work well; rarely was I wishing I was in a different gear. But the manual option with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters is, simply, ridiculous. This is not a car you would want to drive in a sporting manner, so why bother with paddle shifters? Especially when, in automatic mode, the shifters don't function, which is when I would actually want them the most on this car - for those times you need to downshift for extra oomph when passing or such. Don't pretend this is a sports car, Chevrolet; there is no need for these at all.

The interior is both strikingly different and more of the same GM. It's good in that it's a creative design using contrasting colours and materials; the basic black is broken up with swathes of colour and aluminum-look plastic, and it does break up the humdrum. And I say this despite being a little taken aback by the trim colour, which can only be described as a terracotta orange and a little out of place here.

The bad, however, is in the details. The plastic is on the cheap side, and the quality just isn't up to par with its Japanese competitors: switches move around in their sockets, and I was actually able to remove two trim pieces completely with just my fingers (and I only tried to in the first place because they were loose already). There were some nice touches inside: soft, teal mood lighting, a USB connector on the stereo (though, its removable rubber cover would be lost in a week), a cavernous centre console box and big, comfy, leather seats (again, with touches of orange that looked like it came from a basketball) that are electrically adjustable. The only feature glaring in its omission is an array of parking sensors, which you would imagine would be very handy on a family car - especially with the state of parking here.

But one feature I did enjoy was the sunroof. When open, even at motorway speeds, the shield deflector that pops up does an exceptional job of keeping the inside quiet and calm; I spent a few seconds moving it up and down myself just to see the difference, and it's remarkable. Yeah, it's a small detail, but it does such a good job it was worth mentioning. Another area that impressed was the boot. It's absolutely cavernous - forget the old golf-bag comparison test; you could fit a whole golf cart inside it. For a car aimed at families, it's a handy feature.

The Malibu isn't an exciting car, no matter what anyone at GM says. But that's not really a bad thing. It's not meant to tear up the streets, boy racer style; it's meant to move families in comfort, with a bit of style to make it stand out in an already crowded market of four-door saloons. And, job done, in that regard. If GM could bring its quality standards up just a notch or two, the Malibu would be a clear winner. nvorano@thenational.ae