2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS First Drive – Curiously Viable Transportation

I thumbed the start button, adjusted the mirrors, and backed away from the coffee shop. A couple of miles later, my co-driver/navigator was distracted and we missed a turn on our route guide. I hustled around an unexpected roundabout, trying to make up time, and the mid-sized sedan dove into the corners like a much smaller car.

It’s remarkable how unremarkable the 2018 Chevrolet Malibu RS really is. I expected a dull car with dull responses and no power — which would provide ample opportunity for devastating snark. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about how surprisingly well this Chevy drives.

Chevrolet invited journalists to Seattle to drive both this Malibu RS and the facelifted Camaro (more on that later this week) and, honestly, I wasn’t particularly jazzed to drive the Malibu. After all, when you look at it on paper, it’s a relatively low-powered midsize sedan, tarted up with big wheels and “sporty” trim, with a new transmission that should (again, on paper) negate any sportiness.

Disclosure: As if the preceding paragraph didn’t tell you already, Chevrolet flew me to Seattle, fed me, and put me in a hotel for two nights.

The 1.5-liter turbo-four found in the Malibu produces 163 hp and is exclusively mated to that CVT. That’s a power deficiency of at least 29 peak horses from the Accord and 40 from the market-leading Camry. Oddly, it doesn’t feel underpowered. The continuously variable transmissions’ ratios feel perfectly matched to the power available, and the driving experience is marvelous.

This is, by far, the best CVT I’ve ever driven. Most transmissions of this nature make the driver feel as if there is something wrong with the car — the engine hangs at a higher RPM level, causing noise, or the needle might move up and down the tachometer in steady-state driving on the freeway. Disconcerting noises plague most CVTs. Not this one. Had I not read the literature on this car or attended a morning briefing before hopping behind the wheel, I don’t know if I’d have noticed the lack of traditional gears.

I did notice that little has changed on the inside of the Malibu. It’s well thought out, and the cloth seats are comfortable enough for a long day behind the wheel, but the materials do lend a rental-car feel throughout. Hard plastics, tough-wearing cloth seats, and rubbery bits abound. All likely to wear well over time, but competitors do a better job of making the things you look at every day feel a bit more premium.

Save the front corners — where a large A-pillar intrudes near the mirrors — outward visibility is good, especially to the typical blind spots over the shoulders. I was pleased with the easy-to-use infotainment system. Apologies for the awful photo of the screen — I forgot that the door was open, and thus the map lights were shining down on the touchscreen.

Chevrolet has tweaked the styling front and rear on the refreshed 2019 Malibu. The horizontal bar that divides the upper and lower grilles — body color in years past — is now chrome in most trims. In this RS package, that bar wears a blacked-out chrome finish, one that Chevrolet calls “Black Ice.” It neatly pairs with the black grille formed with interlinked rhombuses.

Out back, the taillamps were reworked with dual elements, and LEDs on higher trims. This RS trim also adds dual exhaust tips — wholly unnecessary for a four-cylinder engine, but it gives balance to the rear view.

The Malibu RS slots neatly between the LS and LT trims, offering a nice visual upgrade via the 18-inch alloy wheels at the very least. Priced at $24,995 (U.S. dollars) plus delivery, it’s $1,000 more than the LS, and adds those alloys, a power driver’s seat, dual exhausts, black bowtie logos front and rear, and a spoiler. The LT trim is another $2,345 over the RS trim, and adds heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, a remote starter, satellite radio, LED lighting front and rear, and heated outside mirrors.

The RS trim doesn’t get navigation, but Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard on all but the most basic L trim level. As smartphones are upgraded more frequently than automotive infotainment systems, I don’t see this as a serious concern — the smartphone makers do a great job with the various navigation options. Turn-by-turn directions are available via OnStar, but that does require a subscription.

The RS trim will likely be the one you see on dealer lots soon — Chevrolet spokespeople expect fully 25 percent of all Malibus sold will carry the RS badge. I have to imagine it will be subject to some seriously attractive lease deals. Unlike some automakers, Chevrolet sees a future in the traditional car market, and has doubled down with this refreshed Malibu.

The Malibu RS carries the weight of an ignoble heritage. For most of the last 50 years, the RS has been a “tape stripe” or otherwise appearance-focused package. Indeed, Chevrolet refers to the Malibu RS as the affordable sport-appearance package. But it’s an exceptionally attractive car at an attractive price. Before, if asked by a friend for a recommendation on a midsizer, I’d have a short list of three or four models. I’ve now added the Malibu to the top of that list.

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