2005 Chevrolet Classic review: You can’t buy a day in paradise, but you can rent it

2005 Chevrolet Classic

The 2005 Chevrolet Classic, surely abuse of the word “classic.”

You can’t buy a Classic day in paradise, but you can rent it. You can rent a Classic day in Newark, New Jersey, too. You can rent a Classic day just about anywhere.

The Chevrolet Classic is, in fact, a mainstay of the rental car business, even though it’s a model you may not heard of. When Chevrolet brought out the all-new Malibu for 2004, the old one didn’t completely go away. Instead, Chevy slapped a new badge on it, calling it the Classic, and began selling them in bulk to rental companies and other fleet owners interested in anonymous midsize four-door sedans.

It’s a good deal for Chevrolet, who keeps producing a fully amortized—and then some—product, and fleet operators, who can buy wheels at budget prices. But what does that mean to the individual buyer who doesn’t have access to GM’s fleet sales operations? Just this: rental cars don’t stay in rental fleets forever. The major rental car companies don’t keep them for more than a year. Used Classics are available from rental company sales offices or used car lots.

So you can buy that Classic day in paradise…but only if it has been used.

The Classic, then the Malibu, was created from the whole cloth in 1997 as a competitor to the Ford Contour, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Dodge Stratus. It met lukewarm praise as an acceptable midsize family sedan. A bunch were sold over the years, but a Camry or Accord it wasn’t, and by 2003 it was stale as last month’s saltines. Ergo the all new Malibu of 2004.

The 2005 Chevy Classic is identical to the 2004. With front wheel drive, it has a 140 horsepower four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. The four-door sedan weighs in at 3,100 lbs. It has two bucket seats in front and seat belts for three in back. It is, as the New York Times said in 1997, “A Car for the People Who Aren’t Car People”.

It has the same anonymous styling as it had in 1997. It’s the perfect bank robbery getaway car: No one would remember any distinguishing characteristics. Captain Kirk could have evaded the Klingons in a Classic. There’s no need for a cloaking device.

The Classic isn’t a classic stripper, however. Power windows, power remote locking, cruise control, rear defogger, air conditioning and intermittent wipers are all standard. Sure, they’re what most Americans have on their own cars, so rental rockets, even ones at the budget end of the spectrum, must have them as well. But a bit surprising, however, is the power adjustable driver’s seat.

The Classic is no roller skate either, with P205/65R15 tires. Standard fitment is steel wheels with full wheel covers, but aluminum rims are available and were on the Classic we rented on Oahu. But cars are more that lists of features—something that the Koreans are learning—and the Classic shows the gabardine is a tad thin when it comes to automotive excellence.

One’s first impressions of a rental car begin with the trunk. The baggage goes in before the people, and at 14 cubic feet, the Classic can swallow two large roll-on suitcases with room left over for smaller bags around the edges. Have kids with luggage? Time to upgrade. Although the trunk floor and sides are lined, the lid isn’t, and it makes a tinny sound when being closed. And with our rental Classic, it was a hard close. Ya gotta slam that puppy, Spike.

Inside, the seats feel thin though the fabric seems sturdy, as well it should be for fleet use. That sort of sums up the entire interior, as a matter of fact. It’s memorable as a bowl of oatmeal and equally exciting and not quite pleasing.

The engine can raise the excitement level, however, the first time one pulls out in front of a speeding truck. The Classic can’t pull a beach towel off a wet bikini, and objects in the rear view mirror can become bigger than you really want them to be. And during acceleration, everything vibrates in resonance with the flatulent engine.

The transmission has a high stall speed, which means it has to rev relatively high before it tightens up and begins pulling. That allows the engine to rev up into its power band, but it makes for a sloppy experience. The transmission shifts well enough, like the traditional automatic it is. Well, consider the price…

Handling is fine for trundling about, but steering is dead feeling on center. Worse, the slop in the steering combines with suspension with lots of bump steer: Bumps in the road add their own steering input. It was very unnerving in the guardrail-lined corners on the north coast of Oahu.
But for getting your rented boogie board or snorkel and fins to the beach, the Classic is perfectly adequate. It will get you to the luau on time and, really, for going from one part of paradise to another, what more do you need?

And for those who work at the starvation wages of the tourist industry, a Classic is one way to make the tips go farther. (Tourists: Don’t stiff your waiters. It’s not that much for you. It’s a lot for them).

The 2005 Chevy Classic sells to fleets for $19,505 (MSRP…though you know the big rental companies do better than that). We’ve seen off-service rental Classics, 2005 model year with less that 15,000 miles on the odometer, listed for under $14,000. A 2004 with about 40,000 miles was going for about $4,000 less. Off-rental cars are commonly “certified,” and rental companies usually have a seven-day buy-back policy. Sometimes there’s a warranty, or the remainder of the manufacturer’s warranty, on the cars.

What one gets for that price is a bland transportation appliance that’s out of date now and wasn’t up its best competitors’ standards when it was new. But if what you’re looking for is a reliable set of wheels at a budget price, the Classic isn’t paradise, but it’s what folks are driving there.

Post script: One wonders who thought GM’s decision to allow the Chevrolet Classic in rental fleets is a good idea. Sure, it gleans the last few cents from the long ago fully amortized Malibu, but it may also be exposing many renters to the first Chevrolet they’ve ever driven. It’s is wise to put them in a product that when it was introduced eight years ago wasn’t leading its class technologically or in sophistication? Penny wise and pound foolish, GM.