Return of the Real Impala
If General Motors has a distinctive engineering tradition it's a weird commitment to V8 front-drivers. Since the introduction of the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, GM has always had at least one V8-powered front-driver in its product line. Usually two.
Despite all that history, this V8-powered, 303-horsepower 2006 Impala SS is the layout's first migration to Chevrolet. Dismissing this Chevy Impala SS as a pretender because it isn't rear-drive like the Impalas of yesteryear is a lazy cop-out. It's a cop-out because those old Impalas weren't that great and how this car compares to the crusty ghosts of ancient namesakes is unimportant. What is important is how it stacks up against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and most directly the rear-drive, Hemi-powered Dodge Charger R/T.
It stacks up well, both on the road and on paper. Although a fully loaded Impala SS can break the $31,000 mark, our Laser Blue test car, which had leather, heated front seats; a power passenger seat; polished wheels (which are a steal at $295); a Bose Premium eight-speaker sound system; and XM Satellite Radio but no sunroof, stickered for just under $30,000. (A navigation system is not available.) In the age of the $29,000 V6 Camry, we think that makes the SS a good value.
Displacing 5.3 liters, the Impala SS's engine is a member of GM's small-block family of overhead-valve V8s and its all-aluminum construction means it isn't much heavier than the iron-block V6s otherwise installed in the Impala LS, LT, LTZ and 9C1 and 9C3 police packages. Its 323 pound-feet of peak torque at 4,400 rpm, however, is up 43 lb-ft from the 240-horsepower, supercharged 3.8-liter V6 used in the 2005 Impala SS.
To handle the extra twist the Impala has been reinforced. The unibody chassis design carries over but there are thicker frame sections surrounding the engine bay, and the engine and its four-speed automatic transaxle ride in a new extruded aluminum engine cradle. The suspension still uses struts front and rear, rack and pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS, but the gorgeous 18-inch wheels inside P235/50R18 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires are new.
Although the 2006 edition rides on the same 110.5-inch wheelbase of the 2005 car, it's a little less than half an inch longer and 106.4 pounds heavier. That's more or less the weight of two additional cylinders plus the bigger wheels and tires minus one supercharger.
Like it should, the Impala's small-block V8 idles with a burble through its dual exhausts. There's also an immediacy to its torque delivery that can't be simulated by a V6. The automatic transmission shifts confidently and the generous torque means a 5th or 6th gear isn't necessary even if it would help Chevy's marketing.
The operation of GM's Displacement on Demand (DoD) system, which knocks out half the engine's cylinders to conserve fuel when the car is cruising under light load, is nearly impossible to detect. Despite the cylinder shut-off system, however, this is no economy car. During driving heavily weighted to freeway cruising, it returned just 18.6 mpg. In heavier stop-and-go traffic mileage slipped down to 14.7 mpg.
So it's thirsty, but it's also quick. With its traction control active you can throw a brick at the accelerator and the Impala SS will rip to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and bound through the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds at 97.5 mph. Although that's quicker than a Camry or Accord, it's about two-tenths slower than the last Charger R/T we tested.
With its traction control on or off, the Impala tracks arrow straight with no intrusive torque steer. This really impressed us. Despite the V8's ability to light up the front tires with ease, the profound torque steer in the mechanically similar Pontiac Grand Prix GTP simply isn't much of a problem in the Impala SS.
According to GM's Impala product manager Mark Clawson that's due to four things. "First, we use equal stiffness driveshafts that effectively compensate for their different lengths," he explains. "Second we have 'tripod' universal joints that ensure that constant and consistent torque is applied to each half shaft. Third, we've balanced the weight over each front wheel to be even. And fourth, our transverse engine attaches with 'torque axis' engine mounts so it's allowed to pitch forward and backward but it isn't allowed to yaw [twist] so that it would push and pull on the half shafts."
Cadillac Ride, Cadillac Handling
The new Impala SS doesn't drive like an old Impala SS. Instead it drives a lot like the 2003 Cadillac Seville STS, which is another GM front-driver powered by a V8 and four-speed automatic transaxle. And that's not feint praise.
Like the Caddy, the Impala SS feels solid and substantial. It's a composed cruiser that's agile despite having most of its mechanical load bourn by the front wheels. The Impala is and feels like a big, heavy car, but dive into a corner and it pulls through with dignity and thrust.
We like the four-spoke steering wheel and the way the steering has heft, but more road feel is on our wish list. At 62.6 mph, the Impala is actually a bit faster than the Charger R/T through the slalom (front-drive is often an advantage in that test), but all that weight over the front wheels takes its toll on braking. The Impala SS's so-so 138.3-foot stopping distance from 60 mph is more than 17 feet longer than the Charger R/T's performance.
Off the test track, the Impala can't match the Charger's chassis balance or responsiveness to steering input and the car's natural tendency to understeer at the limit can't be overcome with throttle. But it rides better, is slightly quieter and is completely confident in everyday use.
Where the old Impala interior was a haphazard riot of cheesy plastic that couldn't make it through quality control at Fisher-Price, the new interior is clean, logical and the materials quality is a leap forward. The dash is simple, the instrumentation is clear and there are side curtain airbags aboard to go with the ones up front. The Bose-tuned audio system features XM Satellite Radio and an iPod-ready input jack and the dual-zone ventilation controls operate intuitively. OnStar is standard.
Still, the interior isn't perfect. The SS's "Nuance leather" seats are comfortable, but there isn't enough lateral support and the console-mounted shifter flops limply between indistinct gates. A manual-shifting system like the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP's TAPshift would be great, but we'd settle for any decent shifter.
But the controversial interior element is how little room there is for a car this size. The Impala stretches 9.3 inches longer than an Accord sedan on a 2.6-inch-longer wheelbase but offers 0.3 inch less front legroom and only 0.8 inch more rear legroom. In its favor the Impala has more hip- and shoulder room than the Accord and its 18.6 cubic feet of trunk volume eclipses the Honda's meager 14 cubic feet, but this is a big car and a big car ought to have more stretching room.
Against the Ropes, Camrys, Accords and Chargers
Compared to high-line Camrys and Accords, the Impala SS offers a larger package with more personality and much more power at about the same price. The Impala SS also compares well to the Charger R/T, which shares much of its engineering with Mercedes products.
The two cars are about the same size and offer about the same accommodations, but the Impala's interior is better-looking and easier to use than the Mopars. On the other hand, the rear-drive Charger offers a better-balanced driving experience, even more power and even more attitude. Where the Impala is as understated and as confident as a Caddy, the Charger is just plain rowdy.
Tear open the space-time continuum and travel back to the '60s and you'll find the story wasn't much different back then. Both were fast, but the Charger was always edgier while the Impala SS balanced comfort and utility in a more restrained design. The more things change — and everything has changed — the more they seem to stay the same. Even when the Dodge Charger is a Mercedes and the Chevrolet Impala reminds us of a Cadillac.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
I kept hearing from the GM faithful (mostly through my blog) that I "really needed to drive the 'new' Impala."
"New?" I replied. "Heck, it's not even a full redesign."
"Yes, but it's had substantial upgrades!" they insisted.
Uh-huh. "Substantial upgrades." That's corporatespeak for, "We couldn't justify/afford a full redesign, so we slapped on some new taillights and reworked the ignition system for an additional 10 horsepower."
Then I finally drove the Impala SS. Damn if this thing doesn't feel "substantially upgraded." For instance, the steering (which has long been a sticking point for me on GM products) is actually
really good. It's weighty, but not artificially so, and it has good responsiveness and feedback. The interior materials won't be confused with an Audi, but they might be confused for not being from GM, too. Same with the V8 engine, which manages to be not only powerful (typical GM), but also relatively smooth while making a great sound (not-so-typical GM). And despite all that power (over 300), it doesn't have any appreciable torque steer.
OK, GM guys, you start doing this level of "upgrade" on everything in your portfolio and "value pricing" might actually work.
Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
There's now one less bad car on the market. No, make that one less truly awful car. That was the designation I reserved for the previous-generation Impala SS. Not only did it disgrace the SS name with its combination of front-wheel drive and a V6, it combined that insult with shameful exterior styling and an interior to match. Chevrolet often bragged about how well it sold, but that just made me lose faith in the public's ability to recognize mediocrity at its worst.
The 2006 Impala SS is based on the same platform, but it's such a completely different car it might as well be all-new. It's hardly a head turner on the outside, but it's not a throat gagger either. They got rid of the lame taillights, smoothed out the sides and added some shape to the front end.
Inside, the cabin not only looks better, it feels better. The controls feel like they belong in a $30K car and there's decent leather on the steering wheel. It could be the same leather as last year for all I know, but the fact that the rest of the cabin looks so much better makes everything feel better by association. Add in the big V8 under the hood and complete lack of torque steer and I actually found myself enjoying this Impala. Chevrolet can brag all it wants about this Impala SS, it's a good sedan that deserves some recognition.
"The 2006 Impala has quick pick up and power that makes it fun to drive. We love to drive it and the kids' friends think it's a cool car." — Dana Phillips, October 9, 2005
"In my opinion, this car is simply awesome. Yes, the exterior can use a little more modification, but it is still a head turner. Everyone that I've spoke with about it loved it. As far as pure HP, I don't think you're gonna beat it with any other sedan on the market. No, I haven't purchased a lot of sedans, but this is an animal on the highway. Going 80 mph seems like 50. The ride is smooth. The interior is nice also. Of course, everyone will have something bad to say about everything in life. Great vehicle." — Giza_wuta, September 11, 2005
"We picked up our Black SS this last week. We're impressed with the car, very quiet, very powerful, and the interior and exterior fit and finish is a huge step up for GM. Love the power and handling. Lots of features for the money such as OnStar, heated seats, Bose sound system, XM radio, leather and power sunroof. Would like rearview mirrors to be larger and Chevrolet to offer a navigation and DVD player as well as auto climate control, but quite nice as is. We like our SS. Compared to Dodge Charger and Ford 500, Ford is underpowered and Dodge, while great Hemi power, lacks fit and finish and refinement of SS. Would like Chevrolet to implement rear-drive for next Impala." — Steve, September 11, 2005
"Love the car! Great look, great ride, great performance. Not owned long enough to comment on fuel economy, but hoping it is good also." — Mark, September 7, 2005
"Picked up my new 2006 Impala SS in August. The new style 2006 Impala SS is the BEST Impala SS ever built so far. Comfort, style, appearance, easy to learn gadgets, fun to drive and outstanding performance.The DoD V8 is fantastic. This 2006 Impala Super Sport is going to be a collectable classic in years to come. It was worth the wait!" — Fred Shine, August 30, 2005
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our Impala SS came with a few optional items. For an extra $295 our test car was fitted with an upgraded head unit that includes RDS, a six-disc CD changer, automatic volume control and an auxiliary jack for portable MP3 players. In addition, our car also came with a $495 option that includes eight Bose premium speakers.
Performance: We've praised import brands like Honda and Mercedes-Benz for having iPod or MP3 player inputs and now we can add Chevrolet to the list of automakers that "get it." People are spending good money on MP3 players and the integration of that technology into a car stereo is a no-brainer.
We also like the new head unit that's been showing up in various Chevys like the HHR and now the redesigned Impala. The knobs feel sturdy and the display is logical, easy to read and attractive. We especially like how you can instantly access a certain feature, say "Treble" for example, without having to scroll through a long list of other adjustments. Just press the button with the musical note on it and then directly press the corresponding button.
The upgraded Bose speakers sound very good. This stereo doesn't quite have the clarity or separation of a premium system but it's obvious from the first listen that it isn't standard. The bass is deep enough and the midrange and highs are especially clear.
The MP3 auxiliary jack is right in front so it's easy to plug in and the combination cupholder-storage bin is a nice place to rest your portable player.
Best Feature: Excellent head unit.
Worst feature: Bass could be tighter.
Conclusion: Like the new Impala, this stereo offers a little something extra. It's not going to change the way you think about in-car audio but it does offer good sound and unexpected features for a reasonable price. — Brian Moody