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2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS First Drive: Expanding the Malibu Lineup

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 9/4/2018 Motor Trend Staff

2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS 8© Motor Trend Staff 2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS 8

Sedans aren't dead, Chevrolet says. The automaker still sees them as vital to business, even though both of its American rivals have shifted their focus to crossovers, SUVs, and trucks. Seizing on its domestic foes' passenger-car timidity, Chevrolet has refreshed its Cruze, Spark, Camaro, and Malibu models for the 2019 model year. The Malibu sedan received not only visual and tech updates but a sporty new RS trim, as well. We drove the new 2019 Malibu RS to see how competitive Chevrolet's updated midsize sedan really is. Updates across the Malibu line include restyled front and rear ends with updated fascias, headlights, taillights, and grille; an optional 8.0-inch instrument panel screen; the latest version of Chevrolet's infotainment system displayed on an 8.0-inch center touchscreen; and a new CVT that replaces the outgoing six-speed automatic on the standard 1.5-liter turbo-four model (the more powerful 2.0-liter model keeps its nine-speed automatic). The visual changes are small, but they improve the sedan's looks and are necessary considering the tough segment the Malibu competes in.

a car driving on a road© Motor Trend Staff

The RS trim sports a visual package that includes a unique black grille, black bow tie emblems, a rear spoiler, dual-outlet exhaust, unique 18-inch machined aluminum wheels with gray pockets, and a rear RS badge. As a result, the RS carries a sportier look compared to the other trims. Inside, the steering wheel and shifter are wrapped in leather, and the black cloth seats match the rest of the black interior, which looks almost identical to non-RS Malibus. It's well laid out but bland, especially the outdated instrument gauge cluster and the trim level's small 3.5-inch info screen. Beyond the RS-specific features, the sporty-styled sedan comes nicely equipped with an eight-way power driver's seat, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and the previously mentioned 8.0-inch touchscreen, which is the highlight of the interior. The screen produces crisp images and displays the automaker's quick and easy-to-use infotainment system (or Apple CarPlay/Android Auto). Considering the $24,995 price tag, the Malibu RS packs plenty of value. But how does it drive?

To get us behind the wheel of the 2019 Malibu RS, Chevy invited us for a day of driving around Seattle's picturesque outskirts, an area filled with towering pine trees, sea inlets, and lakes. Thanks to our long 120-mile route that consisted of highways, streets, and back roads, we got the chance to get to know the RS and the new CVT in lots of different driving conditions. Highway performance is commendable. The sedan soaks up rough patches with ease and provides adequate passing power, though only after you dig into the throttle. Steering is light and accurate, but road noise is quite noticeable.

a car parked on the side of a road© Motor Trend Staff

Off the highway, I got a better feel for the 163-hp, 184-lb-ft of torque 1.5-liter turbo-four engine. From a stop, give the engine a little extra throttle, and it surges to life after a brief delay, providing good initial acceleration. During normal driving, the well-programmed CVT acts much like a normal automatic, shifting through gears in an automated fashion. Under heavy load, though, the engine becomes buzzy as the CVT holds the small-displacement engine high in its rev band. Chevrolet should add more power to the engine as it sometimes struggled to get the 3,135-pound RS up to speed (more power-hungry midsize sedan buyers may also consider the 2.0-liter model). The Malibu's ride is comfortable, and brake feel is linear. Although it isn't a back road sport sedan, the Chevy holds its own when the road starts to twist. The Malibu meets initial turn-in with well-controlled body roll, and the chassis is solid enough to keep the sedan stable through corners.

If you don't care for the RS' sporty looks or if you want more features, the better-equipped LT trim starts at $27,340 and includes heated front seats, dual-zone automatic temperature control, remote engine start, rear seat air-conditioning vents, and LED daytime running lights. The LT also opens the availability of packages not offered on lower trims, including two driver-assist packages. For another $1,605 you can have the efficient hybrid engine, which is projected to get an EPA rating of 49/43 mpg city/highway. If you want the most the 2019 Malibu has to offer, opt for the $32,545 range-topping Premier. It comes standard with the more powerful 2.0-liter engine, perforated leather seating, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, Bose audio system, wireless phone charging, an 8.0-inch instrument cluster display, and LED headlights. A dual-pane sunroof and 19-inch wheels are available.

a car parked in front of a body of water© Motor Trend Staff

Chevrolet did a fine job keeping its midsize sedan fresh with updated styling, tech, and a sporty new trim, but the Malibu will need more than that to properly compete against segment sales leaders like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and redesigned-for-2019 Nissan Altima. The sedan's lackluster interior and underpowered base powertrain are not good omens. Furthermore, the Accord's and Camry's base models come standard with a suite of driver-assist features including automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. With the Malibu, you must step up to the LT trim to get automatic braking, and adaptive cruise control is only available on the top Premier trim.

Still, the Malibu, and especially the sporty RS trim, delivers a well-rounded package that will likely attract paycheck-restricted buyers who wince at the content-packed but more-expensive Honda and Toyota.

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