Despite crossovers taking the country by storm as the lame millennial version of Beatlemania, the midsize sedan segment remains a strong one. This class is filled with badges you've seen adorning tree-lined suburban streets for decades: Accord, Altima, Camry, Malibu, Sonata, you get the idea. In order to stand out in this segment, automakers need to bring their A-games and develop vehicles that work for both drivers and the rest of the family.
In a few ways, the refreshed-for-2019 Chevrolet Malibu has what it takes to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the stalwarts. But in so, so many other ways, the last remaining Chevy sedan is little more than a sandwich board with "This way to the crossovers" written on it.
With the exception of the Premier and Hybrid trims, all Malibus receive the same engine: a 1.5-liter turbocharged I4 that makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. While the four-pot sounds like a person playing a trumpet for the first time, it provides a commendable amount of torque at low revs, making it somewhat easy to zip down an on-ramp or sneak past a particularly slow left-lane hog.
I say somewhat because the standard continuously variable transmission practically neuters whatever benefits the engine provides. The CVT is generally schizophrenic, swapping between holding revs and dropping them at what appear to be arbitrary points. It's not particularly smooth, with some mild shuddering while maintaining a set engine speed, and acceleration decreases markedly when the ratio changes. Sometimes it'll throw some simulated gear steps in there, but only under heavy throttle use, and even then, the ups and downs are sloppy. There's a demonstrable delay after my foot presses on the gas pedal at any speed, so planning moves ahead of time is a smart idea.
Thankfully, while the CVT lacks surefootedness and comfort, it packs plenty of efficiency. I had no problem meeting the Malibu's EPA-estimated fuel economy of 29 miles per gallon city and 36 mpg highway, and it's clear the transmission prioritizes gas thrift above all else. But again, it has issues against its competitors: The 2019 Honda Accord's 1.5-liter can squeeze out 38 mpg on the highway, the 2019 Nissan Altima raises that figure to 39 mpg and the Toyota Camry turns out 41 mpg.
The rest of the driving experience is best described as unremarkable. The suspension's ability to filter out bumps and dives is, at best, midpack in the segment, conferring a decent amount of both noise and movement to the occupants. While the 245/45R18 Continental ProContact TX all-season tires do a decent job of soaking up potholes, they also happen to bring a not-insignificant amount of road noise into the cabin. The body contributes wind noise to the equation at highway speeds, too. Prepare to crank the stereo's volume knob.
There are some glimmers of promise from behind the wheel, though. The brake pedal is just about perfect, with the right amount of firmness leading to impressive modulation that makes deceleration a predictably smooth affair. The steering isn't too shabby, either -- sure, it feels entirely disconnected from the underbody components, but its weight and ratio are spot on, adding a smidge of engagement to an otherwise anesthetized affair.
The 2019 Malibu's looks are only three model years old, and while it doesn't have the futuristic sort of aesthetic that are found on the new Accord, Altima or Camry, the 'Bu looks plenty fine in my book, with some interesting sculpting on the sides and a grille that, while large, doesn't look obscene. For its midcycle refresh, Chevrolet added a new RS trim that adds just $1,000 to the base price of the LS trim. It's on the mild side, comprising black badges, a black grille, a rear spoiler and 18-inch alloy wheels, but I like the little bit of edge it gives my tester.
The interior, on the other hand, isn't exactly inspiring. The RS is on the lower end of the Malibu's trims, so there's not a whole lot of flash inside this car. While I like the cloth seats, they're not terribly supportive. The dashboard is cleverly layered, but it uses a variety of mediocre-quality plastics that don't feel as nice as those used by the competition. I think the cloth trim on the dash and door panels is a clever touch, but since it's the same color as the rest of the interior, it gets lost in a shuffle of dark and drab.
Front and rear visibility are commendable, even with the fastback-ish look out back. The side mirrors are a bit small, so I find myself craning my neck to check blind spots more than usual. That rakish rear end doesn't eat into back-seat space, either; there's plenty of room to get comfortable for tall passengers. The only weird thing to note here is that the rear window's heating elements can occasionally distort cars to appear taller, but it's not so distracting that it's an issue, just an odd quirk.
On the storage front, there's a decently sized tchotchke tray ahead of the shifter, the armrest cubby has enough room for a purse and the door panels will happily accommodate most anything that won't fit between the front seats, save for the largest of Nalgenes. The Malibu's 15.8-cubic-foot cargo capacity provides more than enough space for individuals and families, and while it trumps the trunks from the Camry and Altima, it's nearly a full cubic foot short of the Accord.
In some ways, the Malibu exemplifies Chevrolet's in-car tech, but in other ways, it feels sorely lacking.
Let's start with the good: Every Malibu receives the same telematics setup, running Chevrolet's Infotainment 3 system on an 8-inch touchscreen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are, thus, offered on every Malibu trim, which is great. It's an easy system to use, too, providing sufficient responsiveness and capability. Other standard tech kit includes a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and Chevy's Teen Driver tech, which can limit features and create in-vehicle report cards to ensure your child isn't hooning the heck out of the family car.
That said, Chevrolet's decision to democratize its infotainment isn't mirrored in other systems. Take safety, for example. If you want access to Chevy's suite of driver aids, you'll have to shoot for the $27,495 LT trim at the minimum (about $4,500 over the base price), and even then, it's split between multiple packages. LT and Hybrid trims have two safety packages totaling $1,000, while the top-spec Premier has a third package for $1,000 on top of that, which for some reason also demands a $1,500 package comprising a sunroof and larger wheels. Jamming every safety system into the Malibu pushes the price north of $36,000, which is unacceptable when so many competitors offer these systems on most or all trims as standard equipment. Hell, all that stuff is even standard on the baseEquinox, which is the Malibu's crossover analogue.
Similarly incorrigible is the backup camera cost-cutting. Chevrolet only deigned to outfit the Hybrid and Premier trims with its high-definition backup camera, which provides a properly solid view behind the vehicle. The standard camera, by comparison, looks like it rocks the internals of a 1998-spec Logitech webcam. It's confounding how Chevrolet can afford to slap 8-inch screens in every car, yet updating all the backup cameras at once appears to be a bridge too far.
My tester is quite affordable, starting at $24,120 and ringing in as-tested at $25,740 including destination, but I also find it lacking several features I'd appreciate in a midsize family sedan, so I will instead start with the $26,620 LT trim, which adds heated seats, satellite radio, LED taillights and automatic climate control. I'll save $395 by skipping my tester's Cajun red Tintcoat paint job.
That takes us to the options packages. $545 will go to rear parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring (the first of two safety packages), with another $550 being spent on lane-keep assist, forward collision warning and low-speed automatic emergency braking. I'll also drop $1,050 on a dual-pane sunroof for a little more light in the cabin. That brings my total to $29,640 including destination, which keeps it more than $5,000 below the average new-car transaction price.
If price matters more than anything, you'll undoubtedly appreciate that the Malibu starts well below competitors like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. Yet, aside from the infotainment system, those cars pack superior standard equipment. Trying to equip the Malibu similarly brings the cost way up, at which point its appeal rides the asymptote down toward "None." If you simply must stay in the GM family, your money is better spent on an Equinox.
Therein lies the issue with the 2019 Chevy Malibu. While the refresh did wonders for its tech loadout, and even though the RS trim adds a bit more style, it's still far behind the competition. The Malibu's on-road demeanor is meh, and its standard equipment is lacking in many ways. With price as the only saving grace, and a fleeting one at that, it's hard to recommend the Malibu anywhere but the Enterprise desk at the airport.