2019 Chevy Malibu first drive review: No better, no worse

Chevrolet’s updated Malibu doesn’t really move the needle in either direction. But really, does it need to?

Steven Ewing Former managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
Steven Ewing
4 min read

There's nothing about the 2019 that makes it radically different than its predecessor. The midsize sedan's midcycle refresh focuses largely on powertrain and technology improvements, with a few styling tweaks to round out the updated package. The end result is a Malibu that's as spacious and easy to drive as it's always been. But a number of inherent shortcomings will continue to prevent the Malibu from being more than, at best, a midpack pick.

The big news for 2019 is the addition of the RS trim you see here, with unique 18-inch wheels, a rear spoiler, dual exhaust outlets, black badges and a black gloss grille. It's a styling package -- think SE -- intended to offer a bit more visual flair at the lower end of the Malibu's price range. Of course, you'll have to like the way the refreshed Malibu looks to begin with, and quite frankly, I don't. That huge grille doesn't do the car any favors, nor do the overstyled plastic trim pieces in the lower turn signal housings.

2019 Chevy Malibu gets a new face, better tech

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Turbo power, now with CVT

Like most Malibu models, the RS is powered by a 1.5-liter turbocharged I4 engine, with 163 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. A continuously variable transmission replaces the previous six-speed automatic, which ought to result in improved efficiency. The EPA hasn't released official fuel economy for the 2019 Malibu with the 1.5-liter engine, but the 2018 model was rated at a respectable 27 miles per gallon city, 36 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined.

Only the top Premier trim gets the more powerful 2.0-liter turbo engine, with 250 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque and a nine-speed automatic transmission. If you're looking for fuel efficiency above all, Chevy will continue to offer a Malibu Hybrid, with its impressive 49 mpg city rating. With only 1.5-liter models available at this test drive, I can't speak much to the on-road experience of these Malibu models, so stay tuned for in-depth reviews as these cars roll into various Roadshow offices.

As for the 1.5, it's largely inoffensive and mostly quiet in operation, with enough power to get the Malibu up and moving, though certainly not in a hurry. The CVT tends to hang out between 2,500 and 3,500 rpm under normal acceleration, but dig deep into the throttle and the transmission will "shift" at higher revs, mimicking the action of a conventional automatic.

Even on upsized 18-inch wheels and P245/45-series all-season tires, the Malibu has a perfectly compliant ride. There's enough damping to easily smooth out smaller imperfections on the highway, and the car doesn't completely fall apart when pushed through more engaging corners on the gorgeous, tree-lined roads of my test route south of Seattle, Washington. With light steering and solid, progressive braking feel, the Malibu is effortless and pleasant to drive. It's not nearly as engaging as a Honda Accord or , but offers a solid behind-the-wheel experience.

2019 Chevy Malibu RS
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2019 Chevy Malibu RS

Chevy's new Infotainment 3 interface is a delight to use. Unfortunately, the rest of the Malibu's cabin is pretty dull.


Excellent tech, drab accommodations

Chevy's new Infotainment 3 setup finds its way into the Malibu for 2019, with an 8-inch touchscreen standard across all trim levels. I really like this interface -- the high-resolution display uses neatly organized and intuitively labeled icons, and inputs are met with instant response. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard, and a Wi-Fi hotspot and embedded navigation are available on higher trim levels. The 2018 Malibu's Chevy MyLink system is already one of the better on-board tech offerings available today, and Infotainment 3 simply improves upon this great design to make it even easier to use.

Too bad the rest of the Malibu's interior isn't so lovely. The Infotainment 3 display sits atop a dash covered in some really cheap materials, from the poor plastics that make up the switchgear to the cloth fabric that lines the passenger side dash and flows under the center stack. Buttons and dials are neatly organized and all vehicle controls are easy to locate quickly, but seriously, this whole cabin looks like it's a decade old.

Much of the interior is comprised of chunky black and gray plastics that look as bad as they feel. Commonly used touch points like the wiper and turn signal stalks, as well as the center console storage cover, feel flimsy and cheap, or like they're just going to break.

The gray cloth seats are comfortable enough, but offer no real support for your thigh or back. But at least they're power operated, even at $25,000 RS level. The Malibu offers generous accommodations for rear seat passengers, with ample head- and legroom, as well as 15.8 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk to handle a family's worth of luggage.

2019 Chevy Malibu RS
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2019 Chevy Malibu RS

The $24,995 Malibu RS features unique 18-inch wheels, a rear spoiler, dual exhaust ports and blacked-out badges.


Same as it ever was

2019 Malibu pricing starts at $22,965, including $875 for destination, and that new RS trim comes in at $24,995. That's a little bit less than the $25,780 of an Accord Sport 1.5T, though $785 is a small price to pay for the Honda's substantially nicer interior and more engaging driving dynamics.

Honestly, I can't blame Chevy for not putting a ton of effort into the Malibu's midcycle update. As more and more customers step out of sedans and into more functional, just as affordable crossovers and SUVs, it's a more worthwhile investment to bolster that booming utility vehicle lineup. The 2019 Malibu is no different than its predecessor, with adequate on-road manners and seating for five adults. But I'd much rather have an . And I'm pretty sure most new car shoppers would, too.

Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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