General Motors has an amazing knack for producing products that predict future trends—but doing it way too early and way too ugly. Exhibit A is, of course, the Pontiac Aztek, which presaged the crossover revolution. Exhibit B is the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, an early example of an oddball body shape that BMW would later push as the Gran Turismo (and had also previewed itself with the ill-fated E36 318ti). And just like the BMW, the Maxx was German. Sort of.
Cast your mind back to 2004, when General Motors first moved the Malibu to the Epsilon platform. In 2002, Epsilon made its debut under that European traveling salesman’s special, the Opel Vectra. It also underpinned the 2003 Saab 9-3 and, eventually, the Europe-only Cadillac BLS. The ’Bu was the first U.S.-specific car to employ these most German of roots.
Traditionally, the Vectra was offered as a sedan, a wagon, and a hatchback, the latter employing a sedan-like profile with its backlight extended gracefully to the end of the rear deck—think of the modern-day Buick Regal Sportback, which is, well, it’s an Opel Insignia hatchback.
This time ’round, those kooky characters at GM Europe decided to try something different—a car that bridged the gap between hatchback and wagon. No doubt they were influenced by the French, who were busy stunning the motoring public into confused silence with cars like the Renault Vel Satis. Opel concocted its own version and called it the Signum, and because Europe does not like to suffer alone, America got its own interpretation, the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx.
One might well raise the point that Americans of the early 2000s were largely uninterested in both hatchbacks and wagons, a problem that Chevrolet neatly sidestepped by labeling the Maxx as an “extended sedan.” (Man, they totally fooled us!)
Compared to the sedan, the Maxx had a six-inch wheelbase stretch but was half an inch or so shorter in length. The primary beneficiary of this dimensional shifting was the back seat, which had seven inches of fore-and-aft travel and was accessed by rear doors significantly longer than those of the sedan. Chevrolet shoppers might not have known it at the time, but they were looking at the car of the future: The Maxx featured a glass roof over the back seat, a feature that has become commonplace today, as well as an optional ($905) rear-seat entertainment system with a screen tacked to the back of the center console. Trunk space, though, was less than that of the smaller Subaru Impreza wagon.
In 2006, Chevrolet decided to spark up some interest by adding an SS package for both the Malibu sedan and the Maxx hatchback—sorry, the Maxx extended sedan. The Malibu’s 3.5-liter V-6 was bored out to 3.9 liters, and it got a novel variable valve-timing system for both intake and exhaust. (The system had to work on both valves, since the 3.9 was still a cam-in-block pushrod engine.) Output was 240 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 39 horses and 19 lb-ft over the 3.5-liter. The standard-fit automatic transmission still had only four speeds (because General Motors), but at least it was eager to carry out part-throttle downshifts. The Maxx SS could get to 60 mph in just under seven seconds—not a bad showing considering the magical era of everyone-gets-300-horsepower was still a few years in the future.
The idea of doing the Malibu’s cheap plastic interior in solid black may not have been Chevy’s best idea, as it was exceptionally dark and dreary. But they did give it a rather nice three-spoke steering wheel with an SS badge in the center, and the dash-mounted ignition-key slot common to all Malibus gave the car a nice, old-school feel. (Some might say dated, but we digress.)
On the chassis side, the SS got better tuning, fatter tires, and—most significant—hydraulic power steering in place of the numb electric steering used by other Malibus. A Porsche it wasn’t; the Malibu Maxx SS hit you with both torque steer and understeer, but its European roots could be somewhat felt in the solidity of its basic platform. It wasn’t a great car, but it certainly wasn’t a terrible car. Well, not too terrible.
Sadly, the experiment did not last long: Chevrolet introduced a new Malibu for 2008, and while the old-shape sedan stayed on an extra year as the 2008 Malibu Classic, all Maxx and SS models were killed off. The Opel Signum didn’t fare any better; the Insignia replaced the Vectra in 2008 and only offered wagon and sedan profile, the latter actually being a hatchback (see the Regal reference above).
Just a couple of years after the Maxx’s demise, BWM introduced the 5 Series Gran Turismo, a car meant to bridge the gap between BMW’s wagons and SUVs. Put it side by side with the Malibu Maxx, and it’s pretty easy to see how the idea managed to live on. BMW’s execution wasn’t quite as unsettling as GM’s, but it still turned out to be a slow seller. Nevertheless, BMW persevered, bless their little German hearts, and the 3 Series Gran Turismo and 6 Series Gran Turismo (the 5 GT eventually got promoted by a number) didn’t get axed from the lineup until this year.
The BMWs are visually awkward, but the Malibu Maxx is its own special kind of ugly—and that’s what makes it so endearing. The SS-ified ’BuMaxx might be weird, but it was one of those rare examples of a GM in its dullest years trying something that was truly different. Note to our friends at Bring a Trailer: If you see a listing for one of these on the horizon, how about giving us a heads up?
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