Monday, June 17, 2013

Chevrolet Impala - Once Again, a True Flagship

Back in 1958, the Chevrolet Impala debuted. It was the top model of the full-size Bel Air, in coupe or convertible form. The goal? Affordable luxury for regular, working Americans.

Flash forward to 1965. The Impala, in my opinion the most beautiful year ever, sells more than a million units. That's the model--not the Chevrolet brand. It still stands as a record.

The Impala then spawned its own Caprice luxury model above it, but the name lived on. In the 1990s the Impala became less important as midsize sedans, such as the Oldsmobile Cutlass, took over as the mainstream favorites. After a few years in retirement, the name reappeared as a 2000 model, but this car was a large midsize front-wheel-drive sedan. Despite not being especially beautiful or up-to-date, the car sold fairly well, particularly to fleets.

1958 Impala
With the rebirth of GM since bankruptcy, and fewer GM brands to sell, the corporation has now delivered the first car to deserve the historic name of Impala.

The early 2014 Impala is big, and shares a platform with the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS--fullsize cars. Its sensuous figure wears many evocative lines and forms. The face peers intently forward, an intelligent and energetic expression on its slightly angled eyes and bold chrome grille. The sides wear strong shoulders, the waist tucks in, and the rear fenders carry a curve that goes back to the gorgeous '65--and even to the original 1958.

If there's any surprise for me, its that the taillamps are not the historic three circles but are a single, segmented chunk that looks more like something from a Toyota. But there is no doubt that this car has road presence.

How big is big? The 1958 car was eight inches longer, on a nearly nine-inch-longer wheelbase, and stretched nearly five inches wider. The 1976 Impala was more than a foot longer than the '58 and almost two inches wider! But we don't need cars that big today. The new Impala is full size, generously proportioned throughout, and the rear seating is just like a limo. It stands well above the midsize Malibu, as it should.

Inside, the styling is just as exuberant as outside. The theme, as seen on the Malibu, is another take on the twin cowl dashboard from the original Corvette from the 1950's. It flows aggressively off the doors and forward, around a sharply delineated and graphically satisfying instrument pod, pulling back to provide a well-equipped and lavishly decorated center stack, then looping back in front of the passenger. Materials are various and with one tiny exception, meet in perfect joins.

Driver and passenger are well cossetted, with surprisingly firm and multiply adjustable seats with heating and cooling provided. The seats, leather in my car, had contrasting piping for a jaunty look. There was stitching on the dash and doors, but I discovered that it was cosmetic! It was embedded in pieces of molded plastic. But the visual effect was pleasant.

One surprising detail. The display screen on the center dash rises up and there's a space to hide your iPod behind it--and a USB port.

Drivers will appreciate feeling a bit of the road through the steering wheel (which makes a face!). The dash carries swirls of trim that dance across the surfaces, making it hard to find a place to settle your eyes. Best to look out towards the road.

This new Impala carries over the previous car's fine engine--a 3.6-liter direct-injection V6 with 305-horsepower and 264 lb.-ft. of torque. The only transmission is a six-speed automatic with manual selection through a button on top of the shift knob. Modern automatics are so good that you really don't need to even think about them, but I tried the manual shifter. I learned that it automatically downshifts as you slow down, even down to first gear.

Of course, in the name of fuel efficiency, it tends to upshift at the first opportunity. I found that fourth gear was good in town. As an experiment, I tried shifting into fifth while going about 30 miles per hour and it wouldn't do it--"Shift Denied" appeared on the information screen in the instrument panel. It knows what's good for it.

Speaking of fuel efficiency, the car is rated at 18 City and 28 Highway by the EPA. I averaged just 19 miles per gallon. Maybe I was getting to lead-footed because it was so fun to do it.

I had an opportunity to drive the car on some of my favorite back roads and was amazed that it stuck so well in the corners and delivered a very satisfying performance. Of course getting up to speed was no problem--the car can do zero to 60 in just 6.8 seconds.

If there's anything that is nothing like 1958 it's the high tech features of this car. All the usual stuff is standard, of course, including things like satellite radio, OnStar, and blind spot monitoring. But this one also featured Collision Alert. This means that if you're coming up on another car quickly and haven't touched the brake pedal it flashes a red light in your face. It can be turned off, and I did so, since I found it was reacting to parked cars when I was turning and was sensitive during commuting. It is probably a great idea, however.

I was frustrated that every time I stopped and got out of the car, when I restarted it, it would pull the seat forward and upward. How annoying. Then, I discovered that there is a "Set Exit Position" setting, and turned that feature off--the day before I gave back the tester!

I received periodic alerts from the car, including "Wind Advisory," "Weather Watch--Fire Danger," and "Caution, I880 Accident." For the last one, sure enough, a half mile ahead were two stopped cars and a pile of broken glass.

Not much to pick on here--the fuel economy could be better, the sun shone into my eye off the chrome Chevy logo on the steering wheel, the door handle pinched my finger once and the view to rear from the high backlight showed only the windshield of the car behind me.

Prices start at $27,535 for the LS model. There is a midlevel LT, and the LTZ, like my Silver Ice Metallic tester, came to $36,580. By today's standards, that's a pretty good deal.

It's great to see such a fine car coming from the century-old Chevrolet brand. It's just another reason to celebrate the rebirth of GM - and to feel good about buying American.

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