The 2019 Chevrolet Malibu receives a light refresh, including a few appearance tweaks and some upgraded technology features. But the real news is the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that now comes paired with the base 1.5-liter engine.
What's the Big Deal?
Well, the Malibu is the first CVT-equipped Chevy for sale to the public (the CVT was already available in some fleet vehicles), and CVTs themselves are a big deal because they tend to deliver more mpg, though typically at the cost of some responsiveness. While we don't have official EPA estimates for the 2019 Malibu yet, Chevy says we'll see a distinct improvement in fuel economy. For that reason alone, we're likely to see this CVT spread to more of Chevy's consumer lineup.
In some ways, the new transmission actually improves drivability. It does a better job taking advantage of the 1.5-liter's modest 163 horsepower, providing a stronger feeling of acceleration without the old six-speed's need to swap cogs. There's still some of that characteristic "rubber-band" feeling to the transmission's response, however, and if you suddenly ask for a lot of acceleration, there's a distinct pause before the engine and transmission get their story straight and start delivering. This lag can be problematic during passing or evasive maneuvers.
It's worth noting that the 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine that's standard on the Premier trim carries over its nine-speed automatic transmission. We're unlikely to see higher-output engines paired with the CVT in the near future. The nine-speed is generally well-behaved when paired with more powerful engines, and shoppers who care about adding grunt to their driving experience will likely appreciate the more traditional feel of a responsive automatic running through its gears.
So What Else Is New?
Not a lot changes on the surface. Chevy's midsize sedan looks a little sleeker on the outside, with reshaped light clusters front and rear along with new bumpers. There's a new RS trim with dark chrome accents and dual exhaust tips, but no added power. This midlevel trim is set to go against playful rivals such as the Accord Sport, with a comparable price point and level of equipment.
Inside, you'll find the same comfy seats, good rear legroom and composed ride. This is the kind of car that's easy to spend time sitting in. Notably, the infotainment unit has been upgraded, with a new 8-inch touchscreen unit standard across the range. This is Chevy's Infotainment 3 system, which provides quicker response times and crisper graphics, along with standard Android Auto/Apple CarPlay and Bluetooth audio streaming that can connect to two devices simultaneously. Thankfully, it's just as easy to use as the outgoing interface.
The upgraded tech is nice to have, as is the now-standard backup camera, but without broader changes the Malibu's interior shows its age. Competitors have moved ahead in leaps and bounds in terms of their interior design and materials quality. Stacked up against the freshly redesigned Accord and Camry and the updated Mazda 6, the Malibu feels older and chintzier.
On the road, we were pleasantly surprised to be reminded that the Malibu is a competent handler. It corners with enough athleticism to challenge most of the midsize field. The steering is very light and a bit numb, which is fine for city duty but somewhat of a disappointment when you get out on a back road and realize the Malibu actually has a little hustle.
The Bottom Line
The 2019 Malibu should start arriving in dealerships this November, and we'll get a chance to see how the public feels about the new transmission. As a replacement for the base engine's old six-speed unit, it certainly has its advantages. Overall, though, the Malibu remains a midpack competitor despite the expected boost in mpg. A more comprehensive overhaul is in order if it's going to go toe to toe with class leaders.