2019 Chevrolet Malibu first drive: Mid-size sedan let down by its details

August 26, 2018

With the 2019 Malibu, Chevy has dressed up its mid-size sedan to take on Accords, Camrys, Altimas, and every crossover SUV under the sun with an RS trim package. But what it now has in flash, it lacks in some substance.

The new Malibu RS trim adds a gloss black grille up front surrounded by redesigned headlights. Its 18-inch alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and black emblems hint at sportiness, but the RS package is only focused on getting the look right. While rivals slide in different suspension calibration and brakes, there are no mechanical differences between the RS and other Malibus.

MORE: Read our 2019 Chevrolet Malibu review

At about $23,000 to start, the refreshed 2019 Malibu’s other headliner is its new continuously variable transmission (CVT). The new transmission pairs to its base 1.5-liter turbo-4 and is programmed to simulate conventional automatic shifts. There’s also a 250-hp turbo-4 that remains hitched to a 9-speed automatic, but the RS isn’t available with the hi-po engine. Only Premiere models get the 250-hp drivetrain. Maybe RS no longer means “Rally Sport?”

For the to and fro of everyday commuting, the updated Malibu makes for a perfectly acceptable transfer pod. Its 1.5-liter and CVT combo both do the job, droning less than many rival drivetrains with similar transmissions. Oddly placed “shift” buttons handle “gear changing,” and there’s a low range for descending long hills. A secondary gate would make for a clearer, more physical execution of the downshifting task.

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The Malibu deals with twisty roads well, with light, but communicative and quick steering and excellent brake feel. Road noise is higher than normal, mostly from the tires and suspension, but wind noise is largely absent.

During our drive, we were saddled with a revealing 1.5 hours of Seattle traffic in the Malibu. After 30 minutes of slogging through the stop-and-go highway jam, the seats induced a hefty back and butt ache. The Malibu LS we drove featured cloth upholstery paired with a chintzy looking and feeling nylon fabric on its dash. Otherwise, interior fit and finish is fine. The dressier Malibu Premier features heated, cooled and leather-covered seats.

2019 Chevrolet Malibu

2019 Chevrolet Malibu

High-value, but missing the goods

The 2019 Malibu is offered in L, LS, RS, LT, and Premier trims, but every step of the way lacks the active safety systems offered as standard in rivals such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion. Chevy makes buyers pay extra for automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and active lane control—and even then only where available on certain trims.

Indeed, we need not have driven a proper $25,000 Malibu RS since black badges and a leather-wrapped steering wheel do not constitute greater fun. And it’s not a trim we can recommend since the RS is not even available with active safety gear as an option.

What the Malibu gets right is its standard infotainment: an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity comes on every trim. A wireless charging pad is optional.

In the end, the Malibu's palatable drivetrain and pleasing chassis are let down by some subpar trim and finish and the alarmingly low level of active safety and driver assistance systems as standard equipment.

As a high-value brand that has also started to claim high-contentedness, the latter is disappointing, even if the driving experience itself is uplifting.

Chevrolet provided airfare and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

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