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Test Drive: 2014 Chevrolet Impala

Chevrolet has been trying to save the planet recently with cars like the Volt and battery-powered Spark EV, but this one is aimed at reviving an endangered species.

The 2014 Impala is the bowtie brand’s latest entry into the large car segment, one of the few that has been shrinking at a dramatic rate in recent years as Americans trade down to smaller models or up to three-row crossovers.

There’s good reason for this trend. Midsize vehicles are much roomier than they used to be and are delivering killer gas mileage, while anyone with five or more people to haul around would be hard-pressed to resist the siren song of a big CUV.

But rather try to disguise it as either of those, Chevy has doubled-down with an enormous sedan that looks even bigger than it is, thanks one of the automaker’s boldest and most successful designs, all dressed up with plenty of chrome razzle-dazzle and more character lines than a Robert Altman film.

Is that a power-bulge on the trunk? Sure looks like one.

No, it’s not destined to be an all-time classic like the Impalas of old, but it is something of a stunner. Even the dark grey example that I subjected to a week-long family vacation was a hit with everyone from ages 4 to 74. The phrase “what a pretty car” applied more liberally than the sunscreen.

The interior scored high marks, as well.

Remember the cabin of that last Impala you got from Hertz? No, neither do I, but this one should stick with you. It’s as contemporary as anything in its class, appointed with very nice materials and is absolutely huge, especially in the rear. If you need something bigger, call a limo. Compared to cross-town competitors the Ford Taurus and Dodge Charger, the Impala feels like one. Not surprising, as it shares a platform with the equally spacious Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS.

An engine, too.

While the base $27,535 Impala comes with a 195 hp four-cylinder, and a 35 mpg hybrid model is on the way, Chevy figures two thirds will be ordered with the 305 horsepower V6 my test car had, which is also offered in its upscale brethren and seemingly every other car GM makes these days.

It’s a smooth motor with plenty of punch that sends its power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission, garnering an EPA highway rating of 28 mpg along the way. Considering the four-cylinder gets 31 mpg and only costs about a grand less than the six in similarly equipped cars, that 50 percent horsepower boost seems well worth it.

In fact, I saw as much as 30 mpg on a long, not-at-all-slow highway slog with the air conditioner on full and the car packed to the gills, including its 18.8 cubic foot trunk. So, yea, go for it.

All-wheel-drive is not available, which is a little surprising since the Buick and XTS can be so equipped, but is certainly a possible add in future years. As it stands, the Impala is eminently comfortable with a pleasant bit of the GM float dialed in, even when rolling on the short sidewall tires that are wrapped around its optional 20-inch 15-spoke wheels. Given the choice, I’d probably stick with the standard 19-inchers to up the cushy quotient even further, and with good reason.

Unlike the last Impala, the name of which was once emblazoned on Chevy’s NASCAR entries and could be ordered in faux-sporty SS trim, this one has no performance aspirations. It’s simply a powerful, quiet, comfortable boulevard and highway cruiser in the most gloriously old-school of ways, and good on it for that.

It doesn’t skimp on the high-tech options, however, which include blind spot and lane departure warning systems, forward collision alert and an adaptive radar cruise control. My car wasn’t equipped with the last of those, but the others acquitted themselves quite well.

Unfortunately, the touch screen-based MyLink infotainment system is less impressive. While it is featured-packed with OnStar and Pandora integration, automatically consolidates and catalogs the music libraries of multiple linked mobile devices simultaneously, and can be outfitted with navigation, the 8-inch display needs firm inputs in just the right spots to operate, and can take a good three seconds to execute functions.

That may not sound like much, but travelling along at 70 mph in traffic with a car load of kids and in-laws it is more than enough. There are a few auxiliary buttons, so you’re not as dependent on the screen as with some similar systems, but you do need to use it often enough that it becomes frustrating. Voice commands are an alternative, but a little hit or miss.

I’d like to take this opportunity to suggest to GM, and all automakers, that they spend the next couple of years getting their electronics to work as instantaneously as physical buttons and knobs do, and that they make sure any features or apps follow suit before they get added, rather than just throwing them in willy-nilly to soak up processing power. That said, let’s keep the not-so-secret compartment tucked behind the slide up MyLink screen in the meantime, it’s pretty cool.

Aside from this not exactly minor issue, I wouldn’t change a thing about the Impala. The car is pure Americana and exactly what it should be. Even the so-called Mojave stitched upholstery does a good approximation of the color of a baseball mitt, in a good way. As if that could be a bad thing.

What could be is Chevy’s decision to continue making the last generation Impala for another year or so to satisfy fleet demand in an effort not to sully the new car’s good name, which of course is the same name, although the old one is now officially and somewhat ironically called the Impala Limited.

The problem with that plan is that when you get back from your next business trip and tell your cubical-mate about the smelly, beat-on rental you got stuck with, you’ll just say it was an Impala, and that stinks, because the new one doesn’t.

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2014 Chevrolet Impala

Base Price: $27,535

As Tested: $39,510

Type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive 4-door sedan

Engine: 3.6-liter V6

Power: 305 hp, 264 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/28 hwy