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Story by Jack Baruth
The word on the street is that GM’s new Malibu is quite the sales success. Nearly thirteen thousand of the “New ‘Bu” found homes in December – but wait! They could have sold even more, if they’d had any left! That’s right: for the first time in any of our recent memories, a domestically produced mid-sized sedan is “production constrained”. By any standard you want to use – sales, customer feedback, the drooling, incomprehensible babbles of The Press As A Whole – the Malibu is a winner. This is the one for which we’ve waited, the make-no-excuses product to take the fight to the Japanese. There’s nothing standing between General Motors and complete dominance over the HondOta CamCord.
Nothing, that is, except your inner chimpanzee.
We aren’t that different from chimpanzees, you know. Even the most hardened devotee of Bishop Ussher’s young-earth theory has to admit that those crazy chimps act pretty human sometimes – or at least they act like people do when said people are busy acting like chimps, if that makes any sense, and I’m not sure it does. Anyway, it turns out that chimps do their thinking in a manner very similar to that of humans. Steve Grand’s outstanding book Growing Up With Lucy details his efforts to build an artificial chimpanzee brain. It’s a wonderful read, but for the moment it’s enough for us to understand that chimps are much like we are when it comes to the mechanisms of intelligence. Human intellect, like chimp intellect, basically breaks down into a couple of tasks – edge detection, motion detection, and pattern recognition. Our brains, and those of the chimps, are optimized to pay attention to edges, changes, and patterns. If something doesn’t fall into one of the above, we tend to ignore it. Incidentally, that’s why you can walk out your front door in the morning without wetting your pants. If you didn’t expect to see trees, cars, squirrels, and the occasional riced-out Honda Civic, these things would shock and/or terrify you. Don’t believe me? Just think about how you would feel tomorrow morning if you walked out of your front door and saw that a Triceratops was running down your street. Chances are you’d be freaked out, right? So why don’t you freak out when you walk out in the morning and see an even larger beast, such as an F-350 Super Duty, driving down the street? Well, maybe you’re a big Ford Racing fan and you don’t care much for those dinosaur-racing folks, but the real reason is that your brain has already digested the F-350 Super Duty and more or less discounted it.
This is a pretty important evolutionary adaptation. If your ancestors walked out of the cave every morning and were completely shocked by everything they saw, they would end up just standing around until something genuinely shocking, like a grizzly bear, popped out of a nearly clump of trees and ate them. Incidentally, it’s possible to restore this “sense of wonder” by damaging certain parts of the brain. Poke a needle in the right place, and you’ll spend the rest of your life absolutely captivated by a flower, your own left hand, or the styling of the 2003 Toyota Corolla – but normal brains have learned to mostly ignore all three of these things in the course of their daily existence and focus on the important stuff, like eating, screwing, the Cadillac CTS-V, the girl from the Cadillac ads who also appears in “Private Practice”, and some outrageously Caligulan but statistically unlikely combinations thereof.
This aspect of the human (and chimpanzee) brain has important ramifications for automotive enthusiasts. Consider, for example, that in General Motors cars, pressing the end of the turn signal stalk usually sets the cruise control, while in pre-Taurus-era Fords, it beeped the horn. I vividly remember my father turning in his company Buick Century for a company Lincoln Town Car and honking his way down the freeway, much to my mother’s dismay and my delight. What did not delight me, however, was the stupid Ford seatbelt buckles. They looked cheap and stupid, and oh yeah, they were totally stupid as well. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the Ford seatbelt buckle was pretty much the same as the GM one – it just looked different, and my chimpanzee brain didn’t like the change in pattern. It already knew what a seatbelt buckle looked like – it looked like a GM seatbelt buckle. Therefore, the Ford seatbelt buckle brought out all my little chimpanzee feelings of distrust, dislike, and even anger, a feeling which my father must have experienced in considerably greater measure as he attempted to honk his way to a steady fifty-five Carter-era miles per hour. Now if you’re unfortunate enough to experience the side-effects of a cheap seatbelt buckle in an accident, then you should contact a lawyer such as hildasibrian.com for advice regarding a damages claim.
Which brings us, as you perhaps expected, to the great LJK Setright and his hundred-mile rule. Setright believed that a motoring journalist had about a hundred miles’ worth of driving in which he could legitimately form an opinion of a new car. You see, by the time that first hundred miles is done, the human brain has more or less adapted to a car and is no longer able to look at it with that childlike (or chimplike) sense of wonder. Anybody who has ever owned a Suzuki Hayabusa, or ridden any of the big sportbikes for any length of time, can attest to this. The first time you pull out onto the freeway and rocket to one hundred and twenty miles per hour in nine seconds, it seems reasonably certain that you’ve just escaped death. The twentieth time you do it, the bike feels… well, is there something wrong with this thing? It’s not as fast as it used to be. Oh yes it is, dear reader, but your chimpy brain has adapted to it, in the same manner that lets a big-league hitter eventually send even the hardest-thrown fastball over the fence.
After a hundred miles, our brains have “edited out” the harshness or softness of the ride, the feel of the steering, the placement of the pedals, and the wind noise coming from the door seals. Given enough time, our inner chimpanzee may even re-wire the location of the horn button, ensuring that my father, when he found himself in his next General Motors company car, would react to a highway disturbance with a quiet yet highly frightening engagement of the cruise control.
For racing drivers, The Chimpanzee Inside can lead to anything from underperforming to committing some rather grave errors. Once we’ve memorized a track, we tend to also unconsciously memorize a proper pace for that track. An example: I like to start my Boxster trackday weekends on street tires. Street tires are more forgiving, and by not putting on the Hoosiers right away I ensure that I’ll start my day without overdriving my way into the tire barrier. There’s only one problem: my Inner Chimp already knows how fast the Boxster can go on Hoosiers, so I find myself entering corners way too hot and having to save it halfway through, with a bunch of attendant squealing and sliding. Once I give up on the idea and slap on the R-comps, all is right with the world and the car suddenly feels much better-composed, because it’s matching up correctly with my mental pattern of how it should behave. I could also take a moment here and discuss the moment in this year’s NASA Championships where my Inner Chimp, tired and stressed from four days of racing and qualifying, told my left foot to step on the clutch instead of the brake going into Turn Eight, causing me to sail off-line and out of the race lead, but it would just piss me off, so I won’t. But if I did, I would mention that although my conscious mind knew perfectly well that the left foot should be on the brake for that corner, the Inner Chimp has absolute veto power over the conscious mind, and it was in the mood to associate the left foot with the clutch. That’s why Fernando Alonso takes a taxi to the races, I think.
Where was I? Oh yes, LJK Setright and the Malibu. According to Setright, after a hundred miles or so, we’ve more or less adjusted to a car and will no longer be able to examine it with a truly critical eye. This explains a lot about automotive journalism, by the way. Ever wondered why Car and Driver loved their long-term HondOta BumblePuppy but ranked it sixth out of four in a comparison test? Perhaps you’ve been curious as to why a car might get five stars in EVO but fail to beat a four-star car in a “Trackday Car of the Year” wrapup. The answer is in adaptation. Some cars, by the way, are much better at convincing the driver to adapt than others. The Porsche 944 was one of the all-time great adapters. Spend two weeks with a 944 and you’ll swear that it’s the best car in the world. Come to think of it, Porsches in general are good at this. After driving my 911 for a week, I’m utterly convinced that floor-hinged pedals are the way to go – but ten minutes in my Boxster S changes my mind. Porsche knows how to get under the skin of its owners.
This “adjustment” phenomenon also explains one of The Great Mysteries In Automotive Enthusiasm: people who are fans of Acura interiors. The Internet is chock-full of people who rant and rave about the awesome interior appointments of the TL, MDX, and RL. The TL, in particular, has an almost hypnotic hold on these people. Imagine my disappointment a few years back when I sat in a TL and found it to be nothing more than an Accord with extra fake aluminum trim – but you see, that’s the point. The kids of today are growing up in Hondas, and just as I was accustomed to Buick and Oldsmobile interiors as a child, they are pattern-bonded to Honda. They’ll grow up expecting a low hoodline, white-on-blue LCD instrumentation, and air conditioning which exists primarily in the imagination. In short, they’ll be Honda chimps, and if they have some cash they’ll become Acura chimps, since the Acura way is more or less the same as the Honda way. The same’s true for all the dour people who served time in Camrys before becoming middle managers and finally earning enough scratch to go out and get a Lexus ES350. You can tell them that the Lexus is more or less a Camry, and you think you’ve told them something they didn’t know – but their Inner Chimps knew it, even if their conscious minds didn’t. That’s why they are comfortable in a Lexus: it’s a Toyota underneath, and their primitive brain likes that just fine. You can hear the chimp making its noise inside all of our heads. CHANGE. IS. BAD. CHANGE. BRINGS. DANGER. WE. LIKE. SAME. IT. IS. SAFE.
Which brings us to the Malibu. It’s a great car. I personally think it might be the sharpest-looking family sedan since the 1998 “B5” Passat. The interior, which is shown in the photo at the top of this column, looks pretty sharp both in photographs and in real life. But wait a minute. That radio. Those control stalks. Those window switches. That shifter. It’s all GM stuff. Thirty years ago, when the best-selling car in the United States was built by the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors, that would have pleased a lot of Inner Chimps. It would have been another asset, a cherry on the top of a well-baked cake.
Today’s Inner Chimps are different. More than eight hundred thousand of them a year are buying Camrys, Accords, and Altimas, further adjusting to, and becoming comfortable with, the way things are done in the Japanese-branded cars. If the Malibu doesn’t immediately sell at a pace comparable to the Accord or Camry, the Press As A Whole may criticize the car – but it’s not the car’s fault, any more than it was the 1978 Accord’s fault that the Ford Fairmont kicked its ass in the annual sales race. It’s the chimps. It will take some convincing before they’re ready to leave the safety and familiarity of their Hondas and Toyotas for the strange new (old) world of General Motors.
As car enthusiasts, our Inner Chimps tend to be shouted down by our desire for novelty. Our revulsion at the seatbelt buckle of a Ferrari F430 isn’t enough to stop us from begging to be allowed to test-drive one. We’ll take that chance. But family-car people are cautious chimps. They have chimp kids who need protection, chimp houses which need to have the right chimp car in their driveways to satisfy the gossipy chimp neighbors, and chimp spouses who are eager to criticize their mistakes. Their parents went to their graves, or at least to their retirement homes, secure in the knowledge that General Motors (or Ford, or Chrysler) built the world’s best family car, but these chimps will take some serious convincing. The good news for GM is that the Malibu is a very convincing automobile. Still, the proof won’t be in the 2008 sales numbers. Rather, it will be in the 2028 sales numbers. Those will tell us how successful twenty years of GM product have been at convincing CamCord chimpanzees to swing over to Chevrolet’s tree and, er, taste the GM banana.
In the meantime, any upright apes who consider themselves “car people” would do well to give the Malibu a once-over. It’s a brave product from an increasingly brave company, and it deserves your serious consideration. Give it a drive – less than a hundred miles, if you believe Setright had it correct – and let us know what you think. If you’ve never spent any serious time in a GM car, or even in a domestic car, parts of it will seem strange, but take a moment and evaluate what you see, feel, and experience from as close to an impartial perspective as you can manage. Don’t let your prejudices, whether they come from a lifetime in Accords or a dismal experience with a 1984 Celebrity Eurosport, get in the way of what this Malibu is. That would be, well, nothing but monkey business.