Few who saw Chevy's new Impala at the Detroit North American International Auto Show realized how new it really was. The car it replaces has been quietly competent and successful -- outselling Chrysler's hot 300 by more than 50,000 units during the first half of this year - but bland in looks, moderate in performance and about as exciting as yesterday's beer. All it did was offer good build quality and interior room and terrific value for dollar and sell in substantial numbers year after year.
Now comes this new Impala looking better (though not that different) than the old one and surpassing it (and most everything else in its class) in virtually every way. Comparing roominess (for six), cargo capacity, base and V-8 performance, V-6 and V-8 fuel economy, and V-6 and V-8 base price, Chevy says it beats Camry, Accord, Altima, Five Hundred and 300 in everything except the Five Hundred's bigger trunk and the 300C HEMI's bigger performance.
Yet critics and enthusiasts will diss it for at least four valid reasons: 1) its new look is handsome but hardy exciting, 2) it's front-wheel-driven, 3) there's not an overhead cam among its three available engines, and 4) its only transmission is a four-speed automatic.
Three new powerplants
The new 60-degree 3.5-liter V-6 standard on base LS and LT models generates a very respectable 211 hp and 214 lb-ft of torque (at 4000 rpm) and features a forged steel crankshaft, electronic throttle control and - a first in any OHV (pushrod) engine -- variable valve timing. It pulls the 3553-lb LS from rest to 60 mph in 8.4 sec., offers E85 ethanol-blend fuel capability and scores 21 mpg city and 31 highway on unleaded regular in EPA testing. Compared to the previous GM V-6 of the same 3.5-liter displacement, "there are maybe a half-dozen parts carried over," says Asst. Chief Engineer Gary Horvat. "This is pretty much a ground-up new engine."
The mid-range 3.9-liter version, standard on the LTZ and available on LT, adds a variable-length intake manifold to optimize flow at high and low revs and ups the V-6 ante to 242 hp and 242 lb-ft. Chevy says it's good for 7.8 seconds from 0-60 mph and 19/27 mpg in fuel economy. Yes, these new V-6s would be somewhat smoother and quieter with overhead cams, especially at high rpm (and slightly more efficient with more gears in the box) but also a bunch more expensive.
For V-8 fans (and who isn't?) best news is the delightful new Impala SS, which returns legendary small-block Chevy power to the once-legendary Impala nameplate for the first time since last decade's huge, blimp-like rear-drive Impalas. This all-aluminum 5.3-liter sweetheart pumps out a healthy 303 hp and 323 lb-ft, launches the 3712-lb SS to 60 mph in 5.7 sec. and -- partly thanks to GM's Displacement on Demand (DOD) cylinder deactivation technology - delivers a very decent 18 mpg city, 28 mpg highway EPA economy.
Styled to blend in
"Our goal was to build on the previous car's success and move it upmarket a bit," said Impala Lead Exterior Designer Louis "Chip" Thole. Mission accomplished, we think. Perceived quality inside and out, judging by fits, gaps and materials, is much improved and competitive. Subtle vortices off the front and rear wheel wells (a new Chevy trademark) add interest to the side view, and the SS gets performance-look crosshatch grille texture. We think its clean, conservative look salutes (pre-bold-new-face) Audi in front, BMW in the rear C-pillar and half the cars on the road in its triangular taillamp design. (We're told the Chevy quad round taillamps beneath the large primary lenses dominate at night.)
It's no Audi inside but (like most Audis) simple in design and well executed with IP plastics hard to the touch but nicely textured. The only real controversy, as always, is the faux wood in most models. Some will like it, we don't. Brushed metal-look trim is optional, but we like the SS's carbon-fiber-like panels. There's good passenger room front and rear, and flip-and-fold rear seats provide a choice of recessed cargo bins or a carpeted flat floor with pass-through to the trunk. Nice!
The Impala's fully-independent suspension calibrations logically elevate with performance. Base V-6 buyers get 16-inch S-rated tires with "smooth ride and in-control handling," Chevy says. The 3.9-liter V-6 brings FE1 "elegant agility with?more ride character" and more aggressive 17-inch T-rated tires. The SS wears 18-inch W-rated rubber with FE3 chassis rates that appropriately "trade some ride?handling, without being harsh."
We found all three variations true to these descriptions. Base V-6 models, not overly soft or underpowered, will satisfy their budget-minded buyers. "Up" V-6 cars felt stronger off the line and comfortable in ride yet surprisingly agile and balanced through the turns - better than expected, truth be told. Our overwhelming favorite, of course, is the highly effective SS. Its lovely small-block music entertains each time you tickle the pedal, its acceleration is exhilarating, and its curvy road character is as good as it gets with fwd cars this size. There is a touch of torque steer when powering hard out of tight turns.
Steering (with the same 13.3:1 power rack-and-pinion gear in all models) felt slightly underboosted at parking speeds but nicely weighted with good feel and feedback underway. We didn't get a chance to try repeated aggressive stops, but the four-wheel power discs with vented front rotors never showed any fade when we used them hard. ABS and traction control are available on LS and LT and standard on other models, and all but the base 16-inch wheels come with tire pressure monitoring.
It was clear at elevated speeds that much attention has been paid to interior quietness in both cabin isolation and at-the-source noise reduction. Examples are laminated steel in the front-of-dash, 5-mm side glass, stylishly flat windshield wipers, a very sound absorbent steering column boot and exhaust hangers mounted at the system's noise nodes. For crash protection, the passenger compartment is surrounded by a high-strength steel "safety cage," under-seat structural tubes work with a center-tunnel crush box to deflect and absorb side-impact loads, and both side-curtain and dual-stage front air bags are standard.
The Impala is assembled at GM's Oshawa, Ontario, Canada plant, recently cited as the highest-quality facility in North and South America for the third time in four years by J. D. Power. It's also the most efficient North American plant according to the 2005 Harbour Report. Chevy pointedly adds that the 2005 Impala beat Accord, Altima, Five Hundred and 300, and topped Camry for the fifth straight year, in Power's 2005 IQS ratings.
Impala prices (reduced from '05 despite more standard equipment) start at $21,990 and extend through $22,520 for the 3.5L LT, $27,530 for the 3.9-liter LTZ and $27,790 for the SS. These much-improved '06 Impalas complete Chevy's recently-renewed car stable and -- given that lots of folks prefer front-drive, especially in bad-weather states, and eschew look-at-me styling -- we don't see why they shouldn't sell even better than their popular predecessors.
2006 Chevrolet Impala
Base price: $21,990
Engines: 3.5-liter V-6, 211 hp/214 lb-ft; 3.9-liter V-6, 242 hp/242 lb-ft; 5.3-liter V-8, 303 hp/323 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 110.5 in
Length: 200.4 in
Width: 72.9 in
Height: 58.7 in
Curb weight: 3553 lb (LS)
EPA (city/hwy): 21/31 mph (3.5-liter V-6); 19/27 mpg (3.9-liter V-6); 18/28 mpg (5.3-liter V-8)
Safety features: Dual front and side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes (optional LS/LT)
Major standard features: A/C; power windows/locks/mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; eight-way power driver's seat with manual-adjustable lumbar; AM/FM/CD player; 16-inch wheels/tires
Warranty: Three years, 36,000 miles