Reliable, Competitive -- and Yes -- American
Sunday, January 22, 2006
ATLANTA There is freedom in anonymity. People leave you alone, unless you do or say something to attract their attention. If you can accept obscurity, be content within yourself, you can live and go in peace.
These are thoughts from the driver's seat of a 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS wagon, a generally fine but often ignored midsize family car -- an able competitor against anything in its size-and-price class.
The Malibu Maxx SS is well made. It is comfortable, reliable, affordable and conservatively styled. It is as safe as most midsize cars reasonably can be in a crash with a car of similar size and geometry.
But it is suspect because it is a Chevrolet, and Chevrolet is American. And we all know that Americans can't or won't make good cars, don't we?
That is nonsense, of course. But that is what happens when you make the kinds of mistakes that erase the memory of all of the good things you have done and that shadow the possibility of anything better you might do.
General Motors Corp., maker of all things Chevrolet, made many of those mistakes in the 1960s through the 1980s, obliterating much of the public goodwill it had built up generations earlier.
Other car companies, foreign and domestic, have made similar errors. The earliest Toyota Motor Corp. cars sold in the United States, for example, may have been reliable. But back then, they were considerably more deadly in crashes than almost anything made or sold by GM.
Alas, life is a matter of perception, and perception, as we've so often heard, is reality. That does not make it a matter of fact. What the heck? Facts tend to get in the way of good stories. They undermine stereotypes and, thus, weaken the foundation of biases.
We love our biases. They are a part of who we are as a nation, a people. We don't want anyone or anything destroying them. That is bad for GM and its various divisions, including Chevrolet. That is bad for the reputation of now-excellent cars, such as the Malibu Maxx SS and the other siblings in the Malibu line. But in the perverse logic of the marketplace, it could be good for you.
When good things have bad reputations, people ignore them, relegate them to mental lists marked "No Longer Acceptable" or "Impossible to Improve." It's easier for most of us to handle things that way. We value convenience unhampered by truth.
But the smart ones among us see a deal. If something good is devalued in the public's mind, we look for a deal.
The Malibu Maxx SS, a great combination of common-sense engineering, design and fun, is a good deal. Had it been substantially new for 2006, it might have been a winner in The Washington Post/Washingtonpost.com "Common Sense Car of the Year" contest, featured in this week's Car Culture column (see Page G2).
But there are certain items of artifice and pretense in all of those "car of the year" judgments, no matter how they are made, and chief among those inherent flaws is that a selected product be certifiably "new." But the requirement has purpose. Otherwise, we might have a proliferation of such prizes: "Car of Last Month," or "Last Week's Best Car," or even the "Best Car Never Made."
We can't have that sort of thing in a capitalist, celebrity-oriented meritocracy. Few things rise to top on the ashes of something that has been or, worse, never was a contender.
That being the case, what can we do about the Malibu Maxx SS? Here's proposing that it be both nominated and elected as "The Most Overlooked, Underappreciated, Most Unfairly Maligned Midsize Family Car." It at least deserves that.