Unless you're really self-absorbed, you're well aware that General Motors is going through an unprecedented upheaval that has seen the cancellation of brands, the closure of plants and the loss of jobs. But the automaker's intended recovery as a leaner, meaner machine means that the brands that survive must excel in the market. That's quite the task for GM's high volume show piece, the Chevrolet Malibu.

No, it doesn't offer everything: You can't plug it in at night, you shouldn't take it to a race track and it won't haul the whole family (plus Fido) to the lake while towing your boat. But for the majority of consumers, that's just fine.

What the Malibu, redesigned for 2008, offers for GM is a chance for Chevy to regain its spot as a major player in the mainstream market - apple pie and all.

What is it?

GM hopes that the Malibu becomes the sedan ubiquitous with the white picket fences, two car garages and two-and-a-half children of the American Dream. Based on the same platform that underpins the soon-to-die Pontiac G6 and Saturn Aura, the Malibu theoretically represents the best GM has to offer in the most competitive new car segment in North America.

It's worth noting that the Sweden-built Saab 9-3 rides on a shortened version of this platform, though as we discovered a few months ago, the 9-3 neither looks nor feels anything like its American-tailored cousins.

What's it up against?

A segment of the market once dominated by Detroit, the midsize segment has since been taken over by a pair of Japanese cars born and raised in Ohio and Kentucky, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, respectively. Ford's heavily revised Fusion is just now hitting dealer lots, and as we found earlier, it brings an added dose of sport and style to the market.

The list wouldn't be complete without the Nissan Altima, Mazda Mazda6 and Hyundai Sonata, each of which adds a little spice to this fairly plebeian segment.

Any breakthroughs?

Almost as if the General could control fuel prices, the Malibu gained an optional six-speed automatic to go with its thrifty four-cylinder engine last year. Efficiency-oriented gear spacing resulted in the best EPA highway fuel economy rating in its class, 33 mpg (22 in the city).

Don't be fooled by what you might find on dealer lots, Malibu shoppers: Base LS and LT models still come with a dated four-speed that drops that highway rating to just 30 mpg. The LT offers a $695 six-speed auto (with paddle shifters) or, for $2,200, the 2LT package on our tester includes the extra cogs, as well as heated suede-like seats, Bluetooth, alloy wheels and a number of other items.

Unlike previous offerings from GM, the four-cylinder isn't relegated to just the lowest trim level; quite the contrary, as our nicely-equipped tester proved. Toyota and Honda have been doing this for years - offering the smallest engine as a line-wide option.

Ironically, the Malibu four-banger/six-speed combo's fuel economy figures rival the more costly (by about $2,500) Malibu Hybrid's 26 city/34 highway mpg.

How does it look?

Malibu offers a little more flair than most of its rivals, though that might actually turn away some conservative buyers in this segment. The large corporate front grille that dominates the fascia seems at odds with the license plate brackets compulsory in some jurisdictions (though not Michigan, where the Malibu was created), but otherwise the front strikes an impressive pose.

Viewed from the side, the Malibu suffers from the same long rear doors as its G6 and Aura platform mates. Though it hides its length better than the Pontiac, we still think those limousine-esque rear doors look awkward from some angles. On the bright side, they do help give the Malibu excellent rear seat entry and egress, as well as leg room that rivals a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Rounding out the tail, you'll find a sharply cut-off trunk that is at odds with the normal jelly bean shape prevalent in the class. Kudos to Chevrolet for trying something a little different, even if the Malibu badge didn't make it onto our press fleet car's toned hiney. In fairness, anything is possible with press fleet vehicles, so we won't hold GM accountable.

Missing badge aside, Chevy is rebuilding its brand identity - something Louis Chevrolet and Don McLean probably never dreamed the brand would have to do. You'll find bowtie badges built into the side-marker lamps, back up lights and and head lamps in addition to the gargantuan, seemingly Silverado-sourced gold badges on the grille and trunk.

And on the inside?

Here's a case of where pictures say 1,000 words when they need to say about 1,500.

Special attention was paid to the selection and contrast of colors, resulting in, for once, a GM product interior isn't awash in a dull beige or gray. The retro-inspired dashboard features two rich shadessplit by a very convincing and attractive sliver of faux wood, while the faux suede and faux leather seats (harder wearing than the real stuff) look like they came out of a much more expensive car.

What you can't see is what is perhaps most important: The material choices. Though a significant step ahead of the old Malibu and the Pontiac G6, the door panels are still made of hard plastic, the center console might have been sourced from Toys R Us and the steering wheel leather is so coarse it should be used as sand paper.

Though the design is unquestionably class-leading, the execution still leaves something to be desired; GM needs to have a look at Mazda and Nissan's offerings in this class to learn the value of upscale, soft-touch plastic.

That said, the interior is hardly a bad place to spend time - it's easy to nitpick when it comes close to being best in class. Though the seats aren't our favorites due to their distinct lack of side bolstering and the three-spoke GM corporate steering wheel has been the subject of much displeasure here at Leftlane HQ, the interior is otherwise roomy and well laid-out. Each button and knob, aside from oddly placed and tiny steering wheel controls, falls instantly to hand.

Malibu's trunk suffers from the GM-typical small opening, but it counters with a nice trunk lid liner and a grab handle, so you don't have to muck up your paws to shut the trunk.

But does it go?

First, let's talk about what doesn't go: Gasoline. On a highway trip averaging about 70 mph, we averaged a hybrid-beating 39 mpg, even with the air conditioning on.

Wow. A verified 39 mpg on the highway. Maybe Rick Wagoner was our copilot. Regardless, color us impressed.

That's mostly due to the six-speed's gearing, which keeps the small motor spinning at a relaxed 2,000 rpm at 70 mph. The Malibu's reasonably smooth, 2.4-liter, dual overhead cam four-cylinder is a peaky motor, though, which means that highway passing or hills almost certainly requires a downshift to access the power reserves.

The 169 horsepower tops out at 6,400 rpm and torque, at 160 lb-ft., peaks at 4,500 rpm. The four-cylinder doesn't like to play below 2,000 rpm, meaning urban fuel economy does suffer a little since we found ourselves revving it a bit to keep pace. Overall, we averaged a respectable 27 mpg in mixed driving that included healthy use of the skinny pedal. Not bad - and great for those inclined to take regular interstate road trips.

Aside from the predictable top-gear kickdowns, the six-speed generally seemed to be in the right gear at the right time. We experimented a little with the paddle shifters - more a marketing gimmick in a car at this level than a genuine performance upgrade - but we were content to leave the transmission lever in drive.

With a wimpy set of Firestones wrapping the optional 17-inch wheels on our tester and fuel-saving electric power steering telling the front-driven wheels what to do, we weren't surprised to hear squeals of protest each time we entered a curve. A sportier set of tires would make a huge difference since the Malibu offers decent control and fairly flat cornering, but you'll never overcome the numb, artificial steering feel unless you swap traditional hydraulic power steering in. The standard electronic power steering no doubt saves a few pennies at the pump, but it also sucks much of the joy out of driving by offering too much boost and nonlinear feel.

We've complained about that same power steering setup in the G6 and Aura, too, but at least it seems GM listened to its critics when it came to calibrating the suspension that is more-or-less shared with the cousins. Though bumps still make more more suspension noise in the Malibu than they do in the Japanese and Ford rivals, the level of isolation and control has increased exponentially. Only low speed rough roads, like cobblestones and speed bumps, upset the ride with a series of bangs and clunks from the front suspension. At moderate and high speeds, the ride was composed and refined.

Why you would buy it:

You realize that the Toyota Camry offers little of substance that betters the Malibu.

Why you wouldn't:

You still have that outdated, anti-Detroit phobia that made you run away from the Ford Fusion you test drove earlier.

Leftlane's bottom line

We're hoping we never have to say that the Malibu was "Too little, too late." Though not quite the sensation GM hoped it would be, Malibu is a solid, attractive and efficient competitor that should please even the most discriminating buyer.

It is proof that, though it might have taken a few design generations to get there, GM can build world-class products. Between the Malibu and the Lambda-platform large crossovers, GM has a pair of top-notch products that would be impossible to keep in stock if they had Toyota badges on them.

2009 Chevrolet Malibu 2LT base price, $24,705. As tested, $26,655.

Premium audio package, $550; Rear power package, $250; Premium mat package, $185; Red Jewel paint, $295; Destination, $670.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.