Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
The original Impala, which debuted in 1958, was based on the following premise: Build a good-looking car with more performance, amenities and value than the consumer might expect, all at a Chevy price, and success will follow.
And follow success did, with the Impala becoming Chevrolet's best-selling car in its second year of production and one of the most popular cars on the road in years to come. In fact, in 1965 Chevy sold more than one million Impala units in a single year-setting a record that still stands.
At the 1993 SEMA show, a new, retro Impala SS debuted as a high-performance version of the Caprice Classic. The crowds loved it because it was a traditional muscle car. So, Chevy added a bigger engine, slapped some larger wheels on it, and called it good for production in 1994. Unfortunately, this little gem fizzled out two years later when General Motors got rid of it and the Caprice. It figures: they finally get the car just right...and then they kill it.
But that was almost four years ago, and today's Impala is nothing like it used to be. First off, it's built on a front-wheel-drive platform instead of rear-wheel drive. Secondly, the throbbing V8 of yesteryear is gone; instead, this Impala's most powerful motor is a 3.8-liter, 200-horsepower V6. Finally, it's based on and shares a chassis with the Lumina, which Chevy plans to replace with the Impala during the 2000 model year.
On the outside, the new Impala takes some styling cues from the '60s models, such as the round taillights, and some from the '90s version, like the C-pillar badges found on the SS. We like the styling of the new Impala for the most part, finding it neither too garish nor too boring, though the round taillights remind one editor of beady eyeballs and the rear bumper appears a bit thick.
We took possession of a Torch Red Impala LS during a hot week in August and set out to see how this new take on an old nameplate would fare. The red paint on our test car helped hide the largess of the rear lights and reflector applique, and the deletion of the decklid spoiler kept the Impala's overall shape clean.
Our initial driving impression of the 2000 Impala was that it succeeded as an around-town vehicle. Running errands at moderate speeds proved that the sedan is capable of hauling families to and from the store, school and work. Though the 3800 Series II V6 engine is not underpowered, it certainly isn't going to light anybody's fire with stunning acceleration, either. Making 200 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 225 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm, the engine meets low-emission vehicle (LEV) standards. For 2000, Chevy improved this venerable V6 by tuning the throttle body, adding a limp-home mode, increasing the exhaust capacity and putting in a new one-piece flywheel. Happily, there was no whining, engine rumble or revving noises when pushing the Impala to its limits.
No, the noises instead came straight from the road, causing occupants to raise their voices in order to continue conversations. The level of road noise that intruded upon the cabin was unacceptable and annoying. The upgraded stereo in our test car just happened to be equipped with automatic volume compensation, which means that the faster you go, the louder the stereo volume gets. Hmmm, wonder why they installed that feature.
We were smitten with the incredibly smooth automatic transmission-the only kind you can get on the Impala-that shifts precisely when you expect it to under hard acceleration and changes gears imperceptibly under normal cruising situations. We noticed that the shifter had a tendency to stick at times, though, making it difficult to change from "park" to "drive" quickly.
We also found the Impala's seats to be somewhat uncomfortable, feeling both spongy and unsupportive. Visibility, on the other hand, was excellent. We had no problem maneuvering the car around town or on the expressway, thanks in part to the small triangular C-pillar windows designed to enhance the rearward view.
Chevrolet seems to have the suspension sorted pretty well. The front end doesn't exhibit any heaviness and there's little bob or bounce on bumpy roads. The ride, however, is a bit stiff and jiggly on the rough stuff. Overall, Chevy maintained a nice balance between cush-mobile feel and go-kart rumble. Steering is linear and reasonably direct, but somewhat devoid of road feel. Brakes are a strong point for Impala, stopping quickly and without squeal, but the ABS engages easily on rough pavement and the brake pedal doesn't offer enough feedback when depressed. Around corners, we noticed a fair amount of body roll and if you turn the wheel quickly at higher speeds, it feels like the P225/60R-16 tires are considering relinquishing their grip on the pavement. Inside the sedan, we were greeted with a nicely executed interior. The instrument panel and dashboard controls were uncluttered, boasting intelligently placed, ergonomically sound buttons and gauges. We liked the pull on/push off knob for the headlights, the volume dial on the stereo, and the simple dual-zone climate controls. The cockpit offered a huge center console, tall and deep dash bin and good-sized cupholders that are very American, and very appreciated. The vents worked wonders on scorching days, offering two adjustments per outlet for positioning the air exactly where you want it. Even though the secondary stalk worked a myriad of tasks, it was still easy to use, and the rather large steering wheel came with both stereo and cruise controls mounted right on it. We also appreciated the visor extenders, compass and outside temperature display, and optional sunroof that came on our test vehicle.
Disappointments were limited to the low-rent feel of some interior materials, exposed screw heads in the recesses of the door armrests, the silly-looking AIRBAG notice stamped into the dash in front of the passenger, ugly faux wood strip on the four-color dash, and the overdone cutlines around controls and buttons. In the back seat, we were happy to find a power point, flip-down armrest with cupholders, three three-point seatbelts for the passengers, and three car-seat tether anchors. Our editor-in-chief found that in this full-size sedan, his knees brushed against the back of the driver's seat-a situation which interestingly does not occur in Chevy's own midsize Malibu. Chevy claims the Impala has theatre seating in the back; we still felt like we were sitting on the floor. And the backrest is angled so sharply that it causes slouching and makes it impossible for rear-seat passengers to get comfy.
We also noticed that the passenger-side seatbelt adjuster on our test car wasn't working; the harder we pulled on the plastic release button, the more it felt like it was about to break off in our hands. We stopped pulling and let the seatbelt cut across our necks instead. Once, when we had to slam on our brakes to avoid hitting a car that cut us off, both sides of the 60/40 split-folding rear seat came flopping down into the cabin. After inspecting it later, we found that in order to get the seatbacks to latch securely, you must push the cushion back into place with plenty of might. And the latch on the smaller, 40-side of the split seat was jammed. We appreciated Chevy's exceptionally large trunk with cargo net, but wished the luggage lift-in was a bit lower.
Competing in the full-size market, Chevy plans to pit its new sedan against the likes of Ford's Crown Victoria, Toyota's Avalon and Dodge's Intrepid, among others. And that's where the Impala gets into trouble. We like the Buick LeSabre Limited better than the Chevrolet because of its quieter and more comfortable cabin. We'd buy the Chevy Malibu over the Impala for its more comfortable back seat. We'd choose a Chrysler Concorde LX over this car for its beautiful styling and superior interior room. We prefer Dodge's Intrepid ES for its excellent passenger accommodations and sporting nature. Ford's Crown Victoria beats out this vehicle with its kitschy styling, quieter cabin, V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. The 2000 Ford Taurus has suave good looks and a more modern powertrain. Honda's Accord is more sophisticated in feel and simpler in design. Nissan's Maxima is a true driver's car that is available with a stick shift. Toyota's Avalon wins for its superior build quality and better interior materials, as well as its smooth-revving twin-cam V6. The VW Passat has a more comfortable interior, a fun-to-drive nature, and an available manual transmission. The only competitors we would in fact forsake for the new Impala are the Pontiac Bonneville, with a design that only a mother could love, and the Toyota Camry, because it's dull and more uncomfortable than the Chevy.
Able to accommodate six passengers and their gear, the Impala is aimed at 44-year-old family men and women with a household income around $60,000. As Chevrolet's flagship sedan and with Impala's rich history, the company hopes to sell the Impala Sedan and the Impala LS to those with a passion for the "pure American driving experience." Good luck.
When Chevy redesigned the Malibu, the advertising campaign declared: The Car You Knew America Could Build. And they were right on target. Unfortunately, the second time around isn't exactly a charm, and the 2000 Impala may be best described as: The Car You Knew America Would Build.
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