Review: 2012 Chevrolet Impala

Tracing its roots to the year 2000, the Chevrolet Impala’s expiration date is way past due, but the four-door remains one of GM’s top sellers and a cash cow for the automaker, thanks in no small part to its popularity among the nation’s many fleet operators.

From the federal government to your local parks and recreation department, the big bland sedan is a no-brainer for many bottom-liners. But they’re not the ones who have to drive it every day.

Propelled over the years by a parade of unmemorable powertrains, most recently a pair of lumpy old V6s connected to four-speed transmissions that made the rest of the car appear to be from the distant future, the Impala has represented basic, full-size transportation at its most mediocre. But this year, that all changes.

Well, not exactly all of it.

For 2012, the $26,585 Impala has been visited by GM’s engine fairy and endowed with the automaker’s very modern and increasingly ubiquitous 3.6-liter directed injected V6. It’s essentially the same motor found under the hood of the Cadillac CTS, Buick LaCrosse and Chevy Camaro. Good company, all.

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    Here the flex-fuel unit produces a very healthy 300 hp, almost as much as the V8 that was last offered in the front-wheel-drive Impala in the (perhaps not so) good old days of 2009. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, it delivers 30 mpg on the highway, impressive for such a big boy.

    Chevy hasn’t gone out of its way to promote this car to the media, or hand out test cars like the candy-colored Sonic subcompacts it’s big on these days, which is somewhat surprising given its continued popularity. So it was a happy accident when we arrived in Detroit to cover the 2012 North American International Auto Show and found one waiting in our Hertz #1 Club Gold parking space. Membership does have its dubious privileges.

    After confirming its provenance by peeking under the hood, my cameraman and I settled into the plush, terrycloth-esque upholstery, assumed the guise of a pair of grizzled FBI agents on the tail of public enemy number 103 or so, and headed off toward downtown Motown.

    With authority, I might add. New ticker installed, the Impala is as light on its feet as Don Ameche in the second act of Cocoon. It’s a smooth customer, and looks (like its trying to look) years younger with dual exhaust pipes and an available rear spoiler. The kids call it peacocking, and I’m quite sure the fifty-something valet at our midlevel hotel approved.

    Nevertheless, the overall effect of the Impala is still best defined by the word “blend” as spoken by Marissa Tomei, especially when painted in the plain white wrapper that ours was.

    This is a car from the days when style was an unspoken word at GM, and the sizes of windows, doors and trunks were of paramount importance. In fact, in an automotive world quickly filling up with head-turners like the Hyundai Sonata and Dodge Charger, the Impala’s dedication to not upsetting the visual spectrum may soon make it a standout in the crowd.

    As it is, the Impala could’ve been genetically engineered – or I suppose in this case simply engineered -- to be the ideal rental or public service vehicle. It’s roomy and plush in an affordable way with oversimplified controls and overboosted power steering that make concentrating on the perp you’re tailing, or the directions to the convention center that much easier.

    Of course, it is also the last car available with a front bench seat and, finally, not long for this world. A snazzy all-new Impala based on the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS sedan is on the way next year.

    May it serve its nation and her travelers well.


    2012 Chevrolet Impala

    Base Price: $26,585

    Type: 5 or 6-passenger 4-door sedan

    Engine: 3.6L V6

    Power: 300 hp, 262 lb-ft torque

    Transmission: 6-speed automatic

    MPG: 18 city, 30 hwy