The general store owner in eastern Tennessee is taken by the Impala's Chevrolet badge.
"I own a Chevy," she says looking up from her tabloid.
We've stopped in her establishment to buy a bottle of water, but we picked up some wisdom with our liter of ice cold, sodium-free, non-carbonated, microfiltered and ozonated refreshment.
We get to talking and inquire as to whether she likes her Silverado. "Yeah, you know, it's an honest truck," she responds.
The 2006 Chevrolet Impala is no different, possessing honesty in spades. It's solid, unobtrusive and likable.
Both inside and out, the 2006 Impala — a front-wheel driver — is about the same size as its predecessor and its domestic rivals, the Ford Five Hundred and Chrysler 300. That means it's nearly 10 inches larger than a Honda Accord, but offers about the same interior volume.
Weight is up about a hundred pounds across the board, with the SS tipping the scales at 3,712 pounds (a Chrysler 300 weighs 4,066 pounds). Rather than feeling chunkier, though, the 2006 Impala feels more solid. Even the LS base model can inspire the confidence of driving an M1 Abrams.
The Impala's look is also improved. The only garish features are the silly spoiler stuck to the trunks of all models, and the chicken-wirelike grille of the Impala SS.
Four Models, Three Engines
The lower-rung LS model more than justifies its $21,990 base price, especially for hard-core Chevy fans. It feels solid, its retuned suspension rides comfortably, and its brand-new 211-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 provides a solid kick. Big 16-inch tires are standard, and hold their own on the winding, hilly roads.
Next up in the Impala pecking order is the LT, which Chevy anticipates as its high-volume seller. The LT comes standard with the same 3.5-liter V6 in the LS, and offers, as on the base Impala, optional ABS with traction control. The LT offers the option of upgrading to the more powerful 3.9-liter V6 that provides 242 hp. LTs can also be outfitted with leather seats as opposed to the standard cloth upholstery.
The larger V6 is standard on the midlevel LTZ model which also gets 17-inch tires, attractive wood trim along the dashboard and the sportier FE-1 suspension, which gives it better handling than the LS and LT models.
Still, the 303-hp, 5.3-liter V8-equipped Impala SS is the one you want. It rips out 323 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, and is the quickest Impala ever built. That's right, 409 fans. Sorry, big-block buffs. Chevy says the new Impala SS can hit 0-60 in 5.7 seconds which dusts every single one of the car's storied ancestors. If only it was rear-wheel drive.
The 2006 Impala SS also features 18-inch wheels and tires, and unique suspension tuning that sacrifices some ride comfort for extra performance. A fully loaded SS will cost $31,000.
Gearing and Steering
GM has also retuned the Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic used in all of the Impala models. The transmission in the SS feels slightly jerky but torque steer isn't a problem in that model as on the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP, which features the same 5.3-liter V8. Shifts are smooth enough for the most part, though, and the gearing is spot on.
Steering was a complaint on the 2005 Impala, and while the 2006 model features the same rack and pinion type as last year's version, Chevy has quickened its response and improved its feel. A boot has also been placed on the steering column to drown out unwanted noises creeping in from the engine.
A Cut Above Blandness
The Impala's interior, even in the cloth-upholstered LS and LT models, looks pretty classy. Compared to the blandness of the Ford Five Hundred's cabin and the Chrysler 300's stiff-as-a-board seats, the Impala is downright luxurious. Unfortunately, it still lacks the immense trunk space of its crosstown rivals.
It is quiet inside, and the leather seats, which come standard on the LTZ and SS, look fantastic and are shaped well.
Complaints are limited to some plastic trim on the SS's dash that wasn't consistent with the high quality of the rest of the vehicle, and the air conditioning was barely capable of keeping up with the stifling heat of a Tennessee summer.
Safety a Priority
In keeping with GM's recent emphasis on safety, dual-stage front airbags are now standard on all trim levels of the Impala. Furthermore, the Impala's "safety cage" has been strengthened, and under-seat structural dynamic side-impact tubes and side curtain airbags also come as standard features.
While GM still recommends that customers seat their children in the back, the Impala features airbag suppression in the front, which does not deploy the bag if it gauges the weight of the front-seat passenger to be below an acceptable age quota. Tire-pressure monitors also come standard on all Impalas equipped with 17- and 18-inch wheels.
GM claims the 2006 Impala has improved four-wheel disc brakes, but a review of the 2005 Impala's specifications show little has changed except for the addition of new dual-piston front brake calipers. During our drive the brakes performed adequately. ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution is a standard feature on the Impala LT, LTZ and SS, and is optional on the Impala LS.
Wrapping It Up
Last year GM sold 290,256 Impalas, which made it the third best-selling passenger car in America behind the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. With this full redesign, Chevrolet has immensely improved an already popular sedan. Add the new V8-powered SS model to the equation, and we think the 2006 Chevrolet Impala is a winner.