The Chevrolet Impala is a surprisingly thrifty and comfortable large car, with a luxurious feel and plenty of space. It’s not aimed at car reviewers or enthusiasts, but at the American public, which usually likes comfort and size.
Taking an unusual position in a market where most cars flaunt their sport credentials, the Impala does not have the compromises of, say, the Dodge Charger — it does not have the weight that so often comes with rear wheel drive, nor does it have the stiff suspension or mediocre gas mileage that can come of trying to appeal to the enthusiast. Instead, the Impala goes after the majority of the market, sacrificing the majority of the critics.
The steering is fairly numb; that makes highway driving dull, and a little harder than it is in cars with more precision. Many will not notice that; what they will find is a quiet, responsive engine, a gentle, responsive automatic transmission, a fairly quiet interior (between the old and new Chargers), and comfortable, soft seats (in our case, cloth).
The 3.5 liter engine is quiet and smooth; the transmission is seemingly always in the right gear. In gentle driving, the pair have a luxury feel, which is accentuated by the smooth suspension. The Impala easily soaks up bumps and potholes, and makes no pretension towards the stiff, contact-with-the-road feel of sportier models. The Impala takes normal cornering quite well, feels well controlled around turns, and handles bumps well; pressed hard, it does well enough, though it doesn’t feel anything like a sports car. This is the same architecture the police use, and it can handle being pushed reasonably hard.
Unlike the Buick Regal, which we found to have a “rubber bandy” feel, the Impala gives the impression of having more power in ordinary driving, and of providing that power without delay. It’s not a muscle car, but it’s not a “hit the gas and count to three” car either.
Gas mileage in our test trip was excellent for a full sized car; around town we were in the low 20s, and on the highway at 70 mph we averaged 31 mpg in steady driving. Overall, on a trip with a lot of highway and rural driving (at 35-60 mph), we averaged over 30 mpg, with two adults and two children, and never dropped below 27. Gas mileage seemed to peak at around 65 mph, where we exceeded 32 mpg (we confirmed the trip computer’s gas mileage figures using the “fuel added” method). The Federal Government rated the car at 23 city, 29 highway, an interesting difference. (GM also sold a 3.9 liter, with the same four-speed automatic.) For 2012, the Impala will only be sold with a single engine, a 3.6 liter with a six-speed automatic, rated at 22 city, 30 highway — presumably, a wash. An E85 version will be available for the dozen or two people who actually use E85.
Styling is restrained and tasteful both inside and out; the interior had woodgrain-appearance dash accents, with chromed surfaces here and there to relieve the dark color scheme. At night, the back seats are well illuminated, the front seats not quite as well; the traditional white-on-black gauges are clearly readable day and night, and large enough for fine differentiation. The speedometer is not set up with a crazy range, making it easy to pick a speed — 20 mph, 75 mph — and stick to it.
The four-button trip computer provided gas mileage, range (miles to empty), average speed, and the air pressure of each individual tire, unfortunately one at a time; you could show gas mileage, temperature, and compass heading all at once, which is missing from some competing setups. There were also two trip odometers, and an interface for setting lighting and locking preferences.
The annoying old GM cruise control stalks have been replaced by a far more conventional steering wheel button system, though it would have been nice if they had put it where Chrysler does, on the right hand side; still, it had a separate on/off button, cancel button, and speed up/down buttons, all where you’d expect them and clearly differentiated. On the right were various audio controls, with up/down tuning buttons that went by preset rather than by radio frequency.
GM continues to use its brights as daytime running lights, but has dialed down the power quite a bit — definitely a good thing since not much power is needed for DRLs to have their full effect (word is at least one state threatened to ban GM if they did not stop using such bright DRLs). They still default the headlights to a rather sensitive automatic mode, but now when you shut them off (turn to the left and let it snap back), the warning messages goes away when you press one of the trip computer buttons. Unlike VW, GM lets you turn on the parking lights alone; they also let you use the fog lights with the parking lights (fog lights have an obvious button inside the headlight control). The rheostat is cunningly positioned with the headlight control; traction control and remote trunk release buttons are also there, presumably because everything has to be somewhere.
The headlights were bright and decently well focused; wipers were effective and quiet; and there were no major blind spots. Our only visibility complaint was with the sun visors, which are positioned in a way that leaves a large uncovered area between the visor and pillar.
The stereo (AM/FM/CD on our test car) was easy enough to operate, but the sound was not as good as we’re used to from General Motors, and we’d suggest (as we normally do not) using one of the optional units. There were six presets, all buttons were easily operated with gloves on, and controls were self explanatory and intelligently grouped. Volume and tuning/audio controls had knobs rather than buttons.
The climate control was likewise simple enough, with levers for temperature (not an ideal system on bumpy roads, but Impala was stable enough to make it a non-issue) and knobs for fan strength and vent choice. There were detents between vent choices, so one could mix bi-level and heat and such.
The 2011 Impala had a base price of $24,495; the top trim level cost $30,035. Pricing is somewhat higher for the 2012 models, which come with a 3.6 liter engine and six-speed automatic.
Overall, the Chevrolet Impala conveyed a strong sense of luxury, though it was missing many of the trappings of luxury cars. It had a refined air and feel; while the sound insulation could be better and the stereo could be far better, overall, it was a fine vehicle for those who want to drive in something comfortable, and have no pretensions towards racing or “high performance” driving.
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304.