We're standing outside a hotel in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter waiting for the valet to bring our 2014 Chevrolet Impala. This is the hipster neighborhood in California's southernmost metropolis. It's thick with nightclubs and night owls, and when everything shuts down at 2 a.m., nobody's going home in a full-size sedan unless it's a taxi.
It's not our scene, and surely this redesigned Chevy Impala has no business here either.
But that's where we're wrong. Overly regimented people with kids and early bedtimes aren't the primary audience for large sedans anymore. Instead, empty nesters are buying them. And just like a night out in San Diego, these king-size sedans represent an indulgence, so customers want more space, not less. At least that's what Chevrolet officials tell us.
Bigger Than Before
The 2014 Chevrolet Impala shares its Epsilon II platform architecture with the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS. Like the big Caddy, it's just over 200 inches long (the Buick is 197 inches long), because Chevy wanted to make sure it would have a huge trunk. The Impala's 18.8-cubic-foot cavity certainly qualifies as such, though in this class, it's second to the Ford Taurus (20.1 cubic feet).
A longer 111.7-inch wheelbase opens up more legroom in the new Impala's cabin, and unlike the midsize Chevy Malibu, which feels cramped for its class, the full-size Chevy gives you as much room to stretch out as its key competition, including the Chrysler 300 and Toyota Avalon. Those two rivals still offer more shoulder room up front, but when four of us pile into the 2014 Impala for a four-hour drive through the mountains and citrus groves east of El Cajon, nobody's unhappy.
"We focused on providing occasional adult comfort," says our 6-foot-plus backseat-mate, Todd Pawlik, the chief engineer of the Impala. His knees don't graze the front seatback, even though our co-driver is also a 6-footer. Real-life owners, Pawlik says, won't use the rear seat often, but when they do, their passengers will mostly be adults, and adults expect comfort.
V6 Only To Start
Our 2014 Chevrolet Impala LT test car has the same direct-injected 3.6-liter V6 engine used in last year's Impala. Given that this large sedan weighs around 3,800 pounds (a gain of 125 pounds over the old car), Chevrolet officials expect most buyers to get the V6. It's the engine Chevy will offer when the new Impala goes on sale next month.
You'll notice the ratings on the V6 are slightly higher this year, as it's listed at 305 horsepower at 6,800 rpm and 264 pound-feet at 5,300 rpm versus 300 hp and 262 lb-ft previously. Chalk it up to the debut of electric power steering, Pawlik says, as the engine no longer has the drag of a hydraulic power steering pump. Look for all General Motors vehicles with this engine to make the switch to EPS for the 2014 model year.
Last year's six-speed automatic transmission returns to drive the front wheels, and we're told there's no plan to offer all-wheel drive. Gearing hasn't changed, and although the final-drive ratio is numerically shorter, there's no actual difference because the tires are larger.
With four adults onboard, the 3.6-liter feels unstrained, and we're able to pass at will on the two-lane roads in eastern San Diego County. There's nothing exciting about this V6, but acceleration is competitive with the rest of the class. Chevrolet says the 2014 Impala will reach 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, which is on par with the last Chrysler 300 and Hyundai Azera we tested. The Avalon, Nissan Maxima and Hyundai Genesis 3.8 are all a bit quicker.
The transmission shifts smoothly at all times but doesn't match revs on downshifts. It doesn't upshift for you in Manual mode, either, which is inconvenient since there are no paddle shifters, just a toggle button atop the shifter. Chevy says fuel economy ratings will come in at 19 city and 29 highway mpg, which is lower than the V6 Avalon (21 city/31 highway/25 combined) but competitive with other six-cylinder full-size sedans.
Four-Cylinder Comes Later
If you're frugal, Chevrolet will offer a direct-injected 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 196 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque on all trim levels of the 2014 Impala starting in May 2013. It won't be any more efficient than a six-cylinder Avalon, but it will be cheaper.
In the fourth quarter of 2013, the Impala eAssist, a mild hybrid, will arrive with predicted 25 city/35 highway mpg EPA ratings. It will have a direct-injected 182-hp 2.4-liter engine plus a small belt-driven electric motor that contributes another 15 hp. Tip: This Impala's going to be slow. The LaCrosse eAssist took 9.2 seconds to hit 60.
Let's Make It a Road Trip
After four hours, we're still content in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala's driver seat. A big reason for this is the ride quality. Our test car is as compliant as you expect a big sedan to be, yet it's a controlled ride.
Chevy is offering 18-, 19-, and 20-inch wheel and tire packages, and our Impala has the midrange 245/45R19 98V Goodyear Eagle RS-A 2 all-season tires. We notice a touch of float over larger impacts, but otherwise, the car manages bumps without much fuss.
It feels capable enough around turns, too.
"We didn't want to use the HiPer strut front suspension [which separates the spring and damper paths] as on the XTS and uplevel versions of the LaCrosse, because it's very expensive," Pawlik tells us. Instead, the engineering team stiffened up the strut tower housing and specified front dampers with rebound springs to improve handling.
The V6 Impala shares its electric power steering unit (though not its calibration) with the Camaro. It's good steering for this class, with a nice sense of stability on-center and reasonable precision in normal driving.
Its brakes are larger than before to offset the weight gain, and regardless of the wheels you choose, your Impala will have 12.6-inch ventilated front discs and 12.4-inch solid rear discs with single-piston sliding calipers all around.
Amenities for Modern Times
There's a lot going on in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala's cabin. The design is handsome but busy, and we don't love the dash materials or the strangely plain gauges. Chevy's designers have finally brought the car into the 21st century, though, and the fit and finish on our early-production tester is solid.
The best part is the 8-inch MyLink touchscreen interface for audio, navigation and phone functions. It's easy to use if you've ever picked up a smartphone or tablet and it's a radical advance for the Impala, which never before had a factory nav system.
MyLink is standard in LT and LTZ models (it replaces the puny 4.2-inch screen in base LS models), though you'll have to pay extra for navigation functionality. The touchscreen is less sophisticated than the Cadillac CUE setup (there's no haptic feedback when you touch it), but it's surrounded by conventional audio and climate dials. These controls provide redundancy, so even if the touchscreen confuses you, there's almost always an alternate way to accomplish basic tasks, even if you don't want to use voice control.
Even better, the front passenger seat occupant sensor performs double duty in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala: If someone's in that seat, they can pair a phone or enter a destination while the car is moving. The system locks out the driver from these activities, regardless of whether there's a front passenger onboard, Pawlik advises. Really, our only complaint about the whole setup is the low-resolution image from the back-up camera.
Other than airbags and OnStar, last year's Impala was bereft of modern safety tech, too. It's a different story in our 2014 Impala LT tester, which has an $890 option package that gives it the ability to warn us of impending forward collisions, vehicles in our blind spot and motorists who didn't notice us backing up. Veering out of our lane elicits both an audible warning and gentle steering correction. These items are standard on the top-of-the-line LTZ, which is also eligible for adaptive cruise control.
Don't Rent It, Buy It
Our 2014 Chevrolet Impala LT has most of the features you'd want in a large sedan, including nav, Bose audio, suede/vinyl upholstery with contrasting piping and heated seats, and costs $36,165 (up from a base price of $30,760). Leather upholstery, ventilated seats and HID headlights are available when you move up to the LTZ.
A comparably equipped Avalon or Maxima costs more than our Impala LT, while a Taurus or Azera would be similar. The Chrysler 300 remains the best value story in this class, as it's a stylish rear-wheel-drive (or AWD) sedan available for less money than any of the above cars. The slightly more expensive Genesis 3.8 is also tough to ignore.
Ultimately, though, Chevy's greatest challenge in selling this redesigned Impala could come from within. Seventy percent of last year's Impalas were sold to corporate fleets, and now Chevrolet wants to reverse that: It hopes to sell 70 percent of these new Impalas to everyday people, though officials wouldn't get any more specific about an annual sales target than "30,000-70,000 units."
Regardless, it'll be a tall order given that most Americans have only encountered the previous Impala on rental car lots. Further, Chevy plans to continue building the old version for fleets (badging it as the Impala Limited, and it's limited alright), which could add to the confusion.
Of course, there's no confusing the new car with the old in the metal, and once you actually drive it, you'll have to admit the 2014 Chevrolet Impala finally has what it takes to compete for real customers.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.