by Phil Berg

The rebirth of an American icon brings better handling, more room.

Base Price $19,265
As Tested $24,715

The 1960's Impala was the closest Detroit ever came to a car that was everything to everybody, selling more than a million copies in 1965. That's an impossible task for a four-wheeled machine to accomplish today.

But the dream name survives on what is now a super-refined Lumina, built on a much-modified Pontiac Grand Prix platform. Viewed from the outside, the 2000 Impala is not the biggest passenger car Chevy sells. But it's big inside.

Equipped with its powerful 3.8-liter V6, the new Impala is a quick car, more spunky than the six-seat models from Toyota, Dodge, Ford and Buick. And with unique suspension tuning, this new Chevy Impala is not the wallowing boat of the '60s Impalas.

Badged for the 2000 model year, the Impala is Chevy's first new millennium car. But it began to arrive at dealers in early April 1999.

Walkaround

The Impala is 0.9 inches shorter than a Lumina, but it looks bigger on the road with its upright windows and roof pillars and longer greenhouse. Round headlights and taillights are a new look for a Chevy sedan, so you'll easily spot an Impala in traffic. The Impala is a whopping 9 inches shorter than a Dodge Intrepid, yet it's slightly larger in total interior volume than either the Intrepid or the Lumina.

Two models are available. The base Impala starts at $19,265, while the LS begins at $22,925. The LS comes standard with the larger engine, aluminum wheels, quicker steering, traction control and anti-lock brakes, and a wide range of electric amenities. The engines are carried over from other GM cars. The base 3.4-liter V6 produces 180 horsepower and comes from the Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Alero. The optional 3.8-liter V6 generates 200 horsepower and is shared with the Buick Regal and Lumina LTZ.

It's what's underneath that separates the driving experience of the new Impala from similar-sized GM sedans. A huge aluminum engine cradle frame holds the drivetrain, isolating vibrations and making the car more rigid. A monster dashboard bulkhead made of light and strong magnesium gives the car a robust feel.

The headliner and ceiling are specially padded and Chevy says this design will pass the federal head injury requirements scheduled to come into effect for all cars in 2003. A seat-mounted side airbag for the driver is an option.

Police may learn to like this car, too, even though front-drivers are still looked upon with trepidation by America's men in blue. The front steering knuckles for police versions of the Impala are made of steel instead of weight-saving aluminum, though Chevy says the aluminum knuckles--as well as the rest of the car--exceeded durability tests. Off the record, Chevy's engineers said the new Impala passed tests that projected its life span at 400,000 miles. These tests included curb-hopping, which is not normally part of a new car's durability cycle.

The optional ($600 on base models) anti-lock brake system includes a tire-pressure warning monitor. The availability of a base car without anti-lock brakes bucks a trend at GM to equip all cars with ABS; Chevy explains that some of its customers prefer cars without it.

If you don't like the boy-racer spoiler on the deck lid of the LS model, it will cost you $175 to delete it.

The Inside Story

The Impala is noticeably roomy inside. With 122 cubic feet of interior volume, it is 6 cubic feet more spacious than the Lumina. So what magic did Chevrolet perform to make the Impala shorter, yet larger inside than the Lumina? Interior space was gained by designing a high roofline with more vertical sides, carefully rearranging the rear bulkhead, and moving the seats slightly outboard.

Base models come with a three-seat split bench in the front; LS models come standard with just two front seats, though the bench seat is optional. Chevy expects most buyers will choose the three-in-front arrangement. From the driver's seat you get the impression that the car is huge inside, likely because you sense a notable distance to the right-side passenger.

The Impala's rear seat area is shorter on legroom than the cavernous Intrepid, but better than the Lumina, Ford Taurus, or the archaic Crown Victoria. The seat position in the rear is comfortable and relatively high, which makes it easy to get in and out. There are three shoulder belts in the rear, as well as child seat tethers. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds down to allow bulky items to protrude from the trunk; that's handy if you're a Home Depot regular.

Two interior colors are available, an unusually loud mustard brown and a more conservative gray. It's easy to orient yourself inside the Impala. Controls are logical, work smoothly, and are easy to see. They follow the function of those in the trim Malibu, only bigger.

At first glance, the seats look flat, like semi-benches, but when you sit in them, they provide good support on your thighs and your back. They feel like bucket seats. The center passenger in the front has to straddle the split between the front seats. A slight hump down the center accommodates the exhaust pipe; that hump hampers legroom for the front center passenger.

Ride & Drive

The new Impala feels like a big luxury car when compared with a Ford Crown Victoria or Toyota Avalon. The Crown Victoria feels unrefined when you drive the cars back-to-back. The Toyota feels bland by comparison.

Handling is surprisingly quick and sharp in the Impala. This is not the wallowing live-axle barge from the 1960s. The Impala uses suspension and mounting structures that are different than the Grand Prix's, as are the driving characteristics. The LS we tested felt particularly good, with its quicker steering ratio. Both models, however, get a strut brace in front, as well as anti-roll bars front and rear. This hardware is usually found only on sports sedans. The engine cradle and dashboard structure lock the steering shaft down rigidly, so there are no excess wiggly movements. Chevy says a new link between the steering column and the steering gear contributes to better on-center feel at the wheel. On the road, the steering feels good, better than a Toyota Avalon, which is known to be a bit numb.

Acceleration is brisk, though there's still an ever-present reminder that this is a front-wheel-drive car: Torque-steer rears its ugly head during hard acceleration, especially with the more powerful 3.8-liter engine.

Since you can get the big 200-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 in the lower-priced of two available models, Impala becomes the least expensive GM car powered by this gutsy pushrod engine. Chevy claims it will accelerate to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds, which is quick for this class. The police package cars will get the higher-ratio gearing from the Grand Prix, and should be quicker still.

The view out of the Impala is good, and particularly helpful are the small quarter windows that split the rear pillars. The creases on the hood give you a good perspective for judging where the front of the car is. The rear decklid, however, seems high, so care is required when backing up.

The brake pedal feels firm and responsive. Braking is smooth and steady, and we applaud Chevy's decision to use discs at all four wheels, even on the base model.

Final Word

Chevy was aiming for a car to carry the Impala heritage. Instead the GM division got a capable, quick, and fun car that drives nothing like Impalas of old. And that's good news. You can bet there was debate whether to dredge up the image of old, ill-handling Impalas by resurrecting the name, but for younger generations who never knew the older versions of the car, "Impala" will mean something entirely different.

Overall, the Impala is the state-of-the-art in six-seat sedans.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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