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The Chevrolet Impala maintains the character of its old rear wheel drive nameplates, while adding new wrinkles to reflect the new General Motors. On the whole, we found it to be a good value and a fun drive.
The designers of the Impala gave it an "updated retro" look, with for example round headlights and taillights set in a rectangular lenses. The overall effect is modern, striking, and generally likeable, which is good given their popularity. There is nothing worse than an ugly, popular car.
We tested an LS model, which comes with with the otherwise-optional 3.8 liter V6. This provides more power than the standard 3.4 liter version, but both these engines are standard corporate models which have been used and improved over many years. Fuel economy ranged from around 22 mpg, around town and with heavy acceleration, to 32 mpg, on the highway at exactly the speed limit. Expect about 26 mpg overall, not bad for its class.
The Impala had many clever features, such as headlights and reverse lights which activate for a few minutes after unlocking or locking the doors with the key fob. This happens only at night, and is presumably to help you find the sidewalk or your garage door; a nice touch.
The accessories, including the radio and power windows, all stay activated after you take out the key, until you open a door. That strikes a good balance between convenience (don't you hate putting the key back in to raise the windows?) and prudence. We also liked the retro-but-sensible, dashboard-mounted ignition switch.
The radio is filled with gadgetry such as speed-sensitive volume, but it gives you control over the features it uses. Some radio controls are also on the steering wheel for convenience.
The instruments were illuminated at night, and generally all made sense with two major exceptions. First, as always, GM decided to load as many things as possible on a single stalk; it contains the windshield wipe/wash controls, cruise control switch, and directionals. Second, though cruise control buttons are on the steering wheel, the on/off switch is on the stalk, and there is no temporary cancel-speed button. Note to Chevrolet: you have room for a right-hand stalk. Toyota and Subaru, among others, use that for the cruise control, and it works quite well.
The parking brake release was another issue: we prefer a hand-operated release, rather than a press-once-to-lock-and-again-to-unlock system. While we are going over minor gripes, the trip computer required very firm button-pushes. The automatic-dimming rear view mirror was not up to its task; it did not seem to dim when reflecting the setting sun, and did not dim enough on the road. If you can get a manual mirror, get it.
There were convenient storage compartments up front, including a very large cubby in the console which can be used to store a full size box of tissues if needed. The cup holders are not especially functional for cups, but they are convenient places to toss coins until you have a chance to place them in the built-in (but removable!) coin holder. The trip computer included a programmable, built-in garage door opener.
We also appreciated the dual-zone ventilation controls, which help the driver and passenger to get along on long trips. In a break with a long and insane tradition, Chevrolet lets you use the hazard flashers even if your foot is on the brake; we appreciate the change.
Acceleration is thrilling, not necessarily the best but certainly among the most responsive. The intake and exhaust were tuned for a throaty hi-po sound, and the transmission downshifts with alacrity - better, indeed, than any other automatic transmission we have tested. It also shifts extremely smoothly under ordinary acceleration. The transmission, as much as the engine, makes the car lots of fun to drive on the freeway. Passing is easier than with most other cars, where there is often a discernible pause before downshifts. In brief, we love a transmission that jerks our head when needed, and feels invisible the rest of the time. Of course, the engine helps, too.
Handling was less sensational. There was noticeable torque steer, and handling was generally less impressive than with similar entries from Dodge and Chrysler, though better than the Camry. If you want superb handling, go up a few thousand dollars to the 300M. To be fair, few will test the limits of the Impala's handling, and it felt nimble and responsive. Braking was also quite good,
Visibility was good; the rear spoiler came in handy by blocking some other cars' bright headlights, but did not interfere with parking.
The ride was nice on smooth roads, a little harsh (for its class) on hard concrete or rough surfaces. However, it was not unpleasant, and those who prefer a firm feel will likely find it to be more than sufficiently smooth.
The Impala is remarkably quiet inside, with very little wind or road noise. Camry owners take note! It also feels very solid.
The interior was moderately sized, competitive for its class but considerably smaller than the Intrepid/Concorde. The trunk was large, and both rear seats could be independently folded down for longer objects. Entry into the rear was fairly easy.
Overall, the Impala is quite competitive. It goes up against vehicles like the Accord, Camry, Taurus, and Intrepid. We can say this: the Accord and Camry have higher resale value, but seem to be much less fun, and are fairly generic in style. The Impala is simply nicer than the Taurus, and does not come with that model's historical reliability issues. The Intrepid is larger and has better handling, but the Impala may be more to the taste of many drivers, partly because it is not so large; and has slightly faster acceleration (3.8 to 3.2).
The new Impala not only does justice to its namesake; it brings up the standard a notch.
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