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2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ Mid-Size Sedan

What was tested? 2008 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ ($27,445).

Options: Special paint ($295), rear power package ($250), power sunroof ($800).

Price as tested (including $650 destination charge): $29,440

I hate to sound ungrateful. But after you've driven a new car every week for seven years, it starts to get rather boring.

Oh, sure, there are the occasional super-expensive sports cars that show up in your driveway, but for every one of those there are dozens of dull minivans, lookalike SUVs and dopey family cars that you have to drive and write about in a way that, hopefully, won't cause masses of people to fall asleep in their Cheerios while reading the morning paper.

Every once in a while, though, you get a surprise that makes it all worthwhile.

That happened this week when a new Chevy Malibu appeared at my doorstep.

I know, I know. A Malibu. Big whoop. It's always been a second-rate car made by General Motors, a company that builds its vehicles out of duct tape and surplus parts from the Toys R Us clearance aisle.

Only this time, it didn't look like a clearance-aisle car at all. Honestly, if I had seen this car sitting on a Lexus lot with a Lexus badge and taken it for a test drive, I would have absolutely believed it was a real Lexus -- and a good one at that.

But it's not a Lexus. It's a Chevy that starts at $19,345, or closer to $30,000 for the luxed-up version I drove.

That makes it even more remarkable.

When you walk around the new Malibu it looks like a Japanese luxury car, aside from the Chevy styling cues. The body panels fit tightly, with only the smallest, perfectly spaced gaps where the hood, doors and trunk line up. It even has smart styling, the kind of shape that doesn't draw attention to itself but still makes you turn your head for one more glance at its sharp looks as you walk away.

And inside -- oh, heavens.

It never occurred to me that GM could build interiors this nice. For example, in my LTZ test car there is a strip of wood -- or at least something that looks very much like wood -- that flows in a sinuous river starting at the driver's side door, snaking across the driver's dash, then cascading down the center console, across the passenger's dash and, finally, to the passenger's door. It's stunning. Absolutely stunning.

Thin strips of chrome fit like a Swiss timepiece. The leather is so soft you want to stroke it like a kitten. And everything fits so tightly that you'd think the whole interior was molded in one piece.

It also has the kinds of features everyone expects in a family car, like lots of cupholders, and a few other pleasant surprises. There's a 110-volt outlet in the rear console for plugging in a laptop or any other electronic device you'd normally use at home. There's also an incredible stereo system that can sound just like a symphony hall.

On the downside, you can't get a navigation system in the Malibu like you can in a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. You also can't get dual-zone climate control, which is surprising considering just how luxurious the high-end Malibus have become.

As if I haven't heaped enough praise on it already, the Malibu is also a great car to drive. It has more poise and a better driving feel than the old Malibu, with perfectly weighted steering, healthy acceleration and brakes that feel like they could stop a jetliner. I think it drives even better than both the Accord and Camry, offering just as much fun as the Honda but also the quiet, silky highway ride of the Toyota.

In fact, I'm left with just one complaint about this Chevy.

Why doesn't GM make all its cars like this?

Pros: Judging from its build quality and fancy interior, you'd think it was a Lexus rather than a Chevy. It's a world-class car that can finally beat, and in some ways top, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Cons: You can't get a navigation system or dual-zone climate control.

RATINGS (1-10)
Style: 9
Performance: 8
Price: 9
Handling: 10
Ride: 10
Comfort: 10
Quality: 10
Overall: 9