Mid-size performer offers handling and interior room.
by Phil Berg
Base Price (MSRP) $19,149
As Tested (MSRP) $25,675
Chevrolet Impala is a capable mid-size sedan introduced as a new model in 2000.
The name Impala is resurrected from the stylish mid-size sedan from the 1960s that achieved such strong sales success. The fleet-footed animal in the logo promises grace and performance, and the current car delivers.
Equipped with its powerful 3.8-liter V6, the new Impala is quick, and more responsive than the six-seat models from Toyota, Dodge, Ford and Buick. It shares its platform with the Pontiac Grand Prix, and offers competent suspension tuning, distinctive looks, and plenty of interior room.
Two models are available, both four-door sedans. The base Impala uses a 3.4-liter, 180-horsepower V6 and starts at $19,149. The base 3.4-liter V6 also sees duty in the Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Alero.
LS ($23,225) gets GM's proven and highly competent 3.8-liter V6, which produces 200 horsepower. Besides the larger engine, the LS comes standard with larger (16-inch) aluminum wheels, quicker steering, traction control, anti-lock brakes, and a wide range of electric amenities. The 3.8-liter engine is shared with the Buick Regal and Lumina LTZ.
The Impala is slightly shorter than the Lumina four-door sedan, but it looks bigger on the road with its upright windows and roof pillars and longer greenhouse. 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.
The most significant styling cues are the headlight and taillight clusters, which use a unique combination of round lights clearly visible from behind trapezoidal covers. It's an aggressive new look for a Chevy sedan, so you'll easily spot an Impala in traffic. If you don't like the boy-racer spoiler on the decklid of the LS model, it will cost you $175 to delete it.
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.
New for 2001 is the addition of GM's OnStar system as standard on the LS and optional on the base model. OnStar is a customer-service network linked to each car via satellite. It's one of those convenience features that you may never notice during daily use, but it's nice to have if something goes wrong. The system can notify network representatives of the car's location to assist in providing emergency roadside assistance or to help track it if it is stolen. It automatically notifies the OnStar network when the airbag has been deployed, and operators will dispatch emergency crews to the spot unless you respond to their calls.
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.
Chevy Impala's rear seat area is shorter on legroom than the cavernous Dodge Intrepid, but better than the Chevy Lumina, Ford Taurus, or the archaic Ford 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 smaller Malibu, but they're 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.
The headliner and ceiling are specially padded. 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.
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.
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, handy for parking a big car in compact spaces. The rear decklid, however, seems high, so care is required when backing up.
Handling is surprisingly quick and sharp in the Impala. This is not the wallowing live-axle barge from the 1960s. One reason is the use of a huge aluminum engine cradle subframe to hold the drivetrain, thus isolating vibrations and making the car more rigid. A monster dashboard bulkhead made of light and strong magnesium adds to the rigidity, which gives the car a robust feel.
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 the Toyota Avalon.
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.
Acceleration is brisk, though there's still an ever-present reminder that this is a front-wheel-drive car: Torque-steer rears its head during hard acceleration, especially with the more powerful 3.8-liter engine, felt as a slight tug on the steering wheel whenever you stomp down on the gas pedal.
Since you can get the big 200-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 as an option in the lower-priced base model, the 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. Police may learn to like this car, 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.
When the Impala was introduced as a new model in 2000, Chevrolet was aiming for a car to carry the heritage behind that famous name. The result is 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.
The Impala delivers excellent value among mid-size sedans, with decent handling, immediately recognizable design cues, and a long-list of amenities.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.