One look at the upcoming 2008 Malibu and it’s evident that Chevrolet has its style groove back.

Decades ago, before import-based manufacturers began swarming the so-called Big Three, the public would hold its collective breath each fall as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler would reveal their new models. And, as the unchallenged sales champ, Chevrolet would typically lead the way with attractive and innovative products that somehow seemed just right for North American highways and driveways.

The world has rotated a time or two since then, but is it possible that Chevy is poised to reclaim its styling crown?

If the introduction of the latest Malibu sedan at the Detroit Auto Show in January is any indication, the answer could be an unequivocal affirmative.

The brand that literally defined the mid-size passenger-car when it was first introduced in 1964 could be ready to do the same all over again, or at least grab its fair share of the spotlight in a highly competitive category of mid-sized sedans.

This new Malibu is sleek, purposeful and devoid of the bland, design-by-committee sheetmetal that helped previous Malibu models blend into parking lots just a little too easily.

The new car is so much better in every way, beginning with a highly detailed dual grille, rounded-off hood and deftly formed fenders, roofline and rear deck.

More of the same goodness awaits on the inside. The Malibu’s sculptors have created a cabin that is equally inspiring, including a prominent control panel flanked by recessed gauges for the driver and a similarly recessed dash panel ahead of the passenger seat. The effect is cosy and welcoming and conveys a unique upscale feel.

Compared to the ’07 Malibu, this car, which now uses the same platform as the Saturn Aura and Pontiac G6, has been lengthened by three inches and adds an impressive six inches between the front and rear wheels (three inches more than the Toyota Camry). That element alone translates into additional — and always welcome — rear-seat passenger room as well as an improved ride.

It’s practically a given that an all-new Malibu would provide some fresh motivation and there are no disappointments under the hood. The base engine is a 164-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder, one of GM’s family of Ecotec-branded motors. For buyers seeking considerably more zip, an upgrade to a 252-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 is on the order book.

Interestingly, the 2.4 as installed in base LS and mid-range LT models comes with a four-speed automatic transmission, while the same motor in the top-end LTZ is fitted with a six-speed automatic. With the 3.6, which is also available in all trim designations, a six-speed automatic is standard.

Chevrolet claims that the base four-cylinder will achieve a highway rating of 31 m.p.g., while the 3.6 will reach a still-respectable 26 m.p.g. Keep in mind that these values are based on the more real-world 2008 government test standards that trim around 10-12 percent off the previous values.

Although the new Malibu’s standard and optional equipment list hasn’t been announced just yet, you can expect LS units to come with the usual air/tilt/power (windows locks, etc.) grouping, along with a satellite-ready radio, OnStar (GM’s live-voice help desk), 16-inch wheels, six airbags and four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock. The LS will add stability and traction control along with 17-inch wheels, fancier interior trim plus other assorted goodies.

The top-ranked LTZ will arrive with 18-inch chromed wheels, distinctive two-tone leather interior and an instrument layout that’s exclusive to that model.

An oversized panoramic sunroof, premium audio system and 110-volt AC power outlet will head the list of available options.

The ’08 Malibu is a clarion call to the competition that Chevy is back in the mid-size sedan game and its star backfielder is suited up and ready to play.