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2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS: First Drive Review

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author photo by Eric Brandt August 2018

For the first time in the more than two decades that the Malibu has been Chevy's midsize sedan, the 2019 Chevrolet Malibu gets the sporty RS trim. The RS badge has been most famously worn by the Chevrolet Camaro, as an appearance package that suggests the performance of the V8-powered SS but without the V8-sized price tag.

That's no different on the new Malibu RS as the RS trim is strictly an appearance package. Along with a mid-cycle refresh across the whole Malibu lineup for 2019, the RS adds unique 19-inch wheels, a black grille, a rear spoiler and dual-exit exhaust. Chevrolet did a nice job making the aesthetic upgrades look classy and not like a tacked-on afterthought, which sometimes happens with appearance packages like these.

Sport Sedan in Name Only

Unfortunately, there isn't all that much to say about the Malibu RS beyond the revised exterior. From behind the wheel, you would never guess that this is anything more than a midrange Malibu LS, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would have been nice to see some interior upgrades to match the car's sporty new look. Don't expect any seat bolstering or special interior trim.

That being said, this car is priced in a way that doesn't make it too full of itself. Starting at just $24,995 with destination charges, it's very affordable for its segment and not bad at all for a sedan with the visual upgrades that it has. It may be a sport sedan in appearance only, but if you're in the market for a lower-end midsize sedan and wouldn't mind a little extra visual flair, then the Malibu RS could be up your alley, as long as you're not expecting too much on the performance end.

Efficient, but Noisy CVT

There's nothing wrong with how the Malibu RS drives, but there's also nothing particularly special about it. The car we drove was equipped with the Malibu's base 1.5-liter turbocharged inline four linked to the Malibu's new CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). The best CVTs are the ones that make you forget you're driving a car with a CVT, but the CVT in this Malibu lets you know it's there on acceleration. It has the odd whininess that CVTs are infamous for, but power delivery is nice and linear despite the weird noises you might hear. The engine is satisfactorily responsive even for highway passing, and it returned very good fuel economy at 35 mpg in combined driving (but mostly highway driving).

Missed Potential

We can't help but wonder if the Malibu RS would have been better served with the Malibu's 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine that's only available in the range-topping Premier trim. If that were under the hood, the performance would have better matched the car's appearance, giving it more of a true sport sedan demeanor. It would also nicely round out the top end of the Malibu's model range with a luxury option and a sporty option, both with the better engine.

Comfort is a bit of a mixed bag. The suspension offers a reasonably smooth ride, but the seats aren't as comfortable as the suspension. The bumps that do come through the chassis go right into the seats. It's still fine for long distances and it can handle the occasional rough road, but it's pretty middle of the road in terms of riding comfort in its segment.

Final Thoughts

This begs the question of who the Chevrolet Malibu RS is for. In theory, it's for the driver who wants the appearance of performance, but would rather not pay for a higher-performing engine at the dealer or at the fuel pump. But does that kind of driver really want what is basically a lower-end Chevy Malibu with 160 horsepower and a CVT? The RS trim has been worn by the Chevrolet Cruze for a few years now -- serving the same purpose as an appearance package with no real performance upgrades -- and it must be successful enough for Chevy to want to bring the same trim to the Malibu. But in our opinion, the RS badge just makes more sense on the Camaro.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2019 Chevrolet Malibu RS: First Drive Review - Autotrader