First Drive

2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS First Drive Review | New in all the wrong ways

What the Malibu needs is a reimagining. What it gets is a wild grille.

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  • Engine
    1.5L Turbo Inline-4
  • Power
    163 HP / 184 LB-FT
  • Transmission
  • Drivetrain
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    3,135 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    15.8 Cu. Ft.
  • Base Price
    $25,000 (Est.)
SHELTON, Wash. — Considering that nearly every story we write these days starts with something like, "As crossovers continue to crush sedans in sales ...," it'd be obtuse to ignore the very real headwinds that face the 2019 Chevy Malibu. Crossovers march steadily on to sales records, and the still-sizable cadre of sedan buyers has eroded. But those remaining have a strong selection of interesting, well-designed, and efficient sedans to choose from – the fittest of the breed are hanging on.

And also, the Malibu. While it debuted in 2015 as a 2016 model, the Malibu felt a bit old when it was brand new. A few years later, this refreshed Malibu — and the RS trim level, specifically, which is new to the nameplate — seems like it's fresh out of an alternate universe, where sedan sales were healthy enough to support a bunch of backmarkers. Remember, Ford is killing the Fusion, once a solid mid-packer. At the moment, it seems like the automakers have decided that being fourth or sixth fiddle to the big dogs isn't worth the effort.

And yet, the Malibu. It is here, and it has a new face. The RS trim — which consists of a black grille, a blacked-out bowtie badge, unique 18-inch alloy wheels, and a dual-outlet exhaust — takes aim at the Accord Sport and Passat R-Line. It, like other Malibus, also ditches the old six-speed auto for a new CVT. The engine remains a 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-four, and also remains somehow well-matched to this car's size and weight. There's nothing different of note about the RS's interior.

Compared to the old Malibu's face, the new Malibu has larger upper and lower openings, filled with a distorted-diamond mesh. Chevy calls it black chrome, but for all the world it looks like black-tinted plastic. The headlights are similar, but improvements in low-beam lighting force some elements to move down into the reshaped lower lamps, like the daytime running lights. There's less brightwork and more aggression to the front fascia overall, mirroring Chevy's current corporate design language.

Around back, dual exhaust tips poke out from a revised lower fascia, replacing the tucked tips hidden behind the old Malibu's bumper skin. They're rounded, oblong quadrangles, loosely resembling the taillights, which themselves are unchanged. A spoiler juts above the trunklid. The five-spoke wheels split at their tips. Is this what counts as sporty in the midsize segment?

Don't expect any contribution to the sportiness from the powertrain. The 1.5-liter engine and CVT are adequate — but neither rises beyond that descriptor. Frankly, the Malibu feels immense, but as we found out in 2016, it's not terribly heavy, so the 1.5 works just fine here. Its ride, handling, and power delivery are unremarkable — few demerits and certainly no plaudits. Steering duties are begrudgingly handled by a leather-wrapped steering wheel that looks a bit like a caricature of itself – cartoonish and distorted. The profound adequacy extends to the seats, which support well for about an hour and then begin to wear on the back. Little offends, but little impresses – the initial, almost neutral pleasantness of the Malibu RS wears off, like you've been inside it too long and it is trying to let on, quietly, that you've overstayed your welcome.

The CVT itself has no glaring vices, but also isn't nearly as sophisticated or slick as the latest units from Nissan and Subaru. What is shocking is that the RS isn't available with the 2.0T and nine-speed automatic — a more natural fit for a "sporty" trim. It's not even an option. Just like the word "coupe" has been twisted to encompass a broad variety of vehicle types, in the sedan world, "sporty" is not what it seems. From a dynamic standpoint, "sporty" is an antonym for "Malibu RS".

The existential question for the Malibu is whether the RS trim will move the needle. Based on what we saw during our time with the RS, it doesn't look like there's enough "there" there for the Malibu RS to lead the charge and conquer the segment. For those already intent on buying a large sedan from Chevy, the RS will be an appealing alternative to the more boring lower trim models. It is, after all, for all intents and purposes a base car with some upmarket flavor — but not too much! — for around $25,000.

Meanwhile, the competition looms conspicuously in this price point. The 2018 Accord Sport, with a 1.5-liter turbo engine and a no-cost CVT option, is just a smidge more at $26,675 — but seriously outperforms GM's 1.5, making 192 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque, and has some real handling modifications like larger front and rear stabilizer bars, a quicker steering ratio, and upgraded brakes. Just redesigned, it feels cutting-edge without being overly controversial. It is an excellent choice in the segment. The same can be said for the equally aggressive 2018 Camry SE, with even more power (but slightly less torque) and an eight-speed auto for $26,270. Camry, by the way, almost doubled the monthly sales figures of the Malibu in July.

The Malibu RS doesn't offer enough, with enough pizazz, to offer a serious challenge to similarly-priced and -positioned competitors. Some real talk here: If Chevy wants to keep selling Malibus a few years on, it's going to need more than a revised grille and some exhaust tips — or a shady plot in the graveyard of runner-up sedans, next to the Fusion, awaits.

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