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SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- My brother called me a few years ago from a rental-car counter. He, along with four co-workers, was trying to figure out which car would hold them all, along with their luggage.
Among the candidates offered, only one was a full-size car: a Chevrolet Impala.
I told him to go for it.
They were amazed that this unassuming, drab, gray sedan swallowed them and their luggage so easily. What it lacked in glamour, it made up for in utility. But it never garnered their respect.
This might explain why 70 per cent of all 2012 Chevrolet Impalas were sold to fleets, not consumers. If you don't find an Impala waiting at the rental-car counter, most likely you'll see one with a business logo on its door.
But when the 2014 Chevrolet Impala goes on sale this month, Chevrolet is hoping to change that.
The 10th-generation Impala has a new design, although it rides atop GM's Epsilon platform, which is used for the midsize Buick Regal, Opel Insignia and Chevrolet Malibu, as well as the full-size Cadillac XTS and Buick Lacrosse. These cars share the same width, varying only in the length of their wheelbase.
With the Impala, engineers worked to ensure that it was worthy of being Chevrolet's flagship sedan.
First, company planners decided that unlike some other Epsilon models, which come with optional all-wheel drive, the Impala would be offered only with front-wheel drive. This saved weight, which was used in other parts of the vehicle to enhance performance.
Next, designers and engineers went to work on the sort of details you may never notice. The doors use laminated side glass and triple door seals to reduce noise. The rear-mounted brake light is integrated into the ceiling, not mounted on the rear parcel shelf where it would hinder rear visibility.
Finally, the company attacked the details you would notice, such as rear-seat headrests that fold down when not in use to keep sightlines clear, or the navigation system with 3-D modeling of major cities rendered to scale.
Such minutiae are easily spotted once you open the door and sit inside the car.
For 2014, there's a greater attention to detail, such as the stitching that accents the seats or the optional ambient lighting. Interior ambience does vary somewhat depending on model. Base LS Impalas get cloth seats and mid-level LT models receive cloth seats trimmed in vinyl, while the LTZ has perforated leather seats. It also has a stunning two-tone color scheme that lends a premium feel that's lacking in the monochromatic cabin of lesser models.
The front seats are wide and flat, but prove comfortably supportive, even on long hauls. As you might expect, seats on lower-level models aren't quite as comfortable as those on the LTZ, which can be heated and cooled -- unusual for a Chevrolet.
The sizeable cabin is much more spacious than last year's; so too is the enormous trunk, which has been enlarged.
While most of the Impala's instrument panel is recessed to enhance cabin space, the center stack thrusts rearward toward the driver, making it easier to reach. It's anchored by a standard 4.5-inch screen for audio functions. Many buyers, however, are expected to choose the optional Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system, which controls navigation and Bluetooth audio streaming, among other features. It comes with an 8-inch touch screen.
Thankfully, MyLink is intuitive to use and features a valet mode that locks out strangers from accessing any information stored in the car's systems. It also locks the storage bin hidden behind the screen. The bin is large enough to hold a smartphone and has a USB port.
While the new Impala's details are impressive, especially when compared to the car it's replacing, its driving feel is just as notable.
Initially, all Impalas will come with a 305-horsepower, 3.6-litre V-6 and a six-speed automatic transmission. It will be joined later in the year by a 196-horsepower 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and a mild hybrid with a 182-horsepower 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine and highway fuel economy of 35 mpg.
That last model, dubbed eAssist by GM, uses a small electric motor to enhance performance without affecting fuel economy. But unlike a full hybrid, eAssist never runs solely on electric power.
Regardless of powertrain, all Impalas come with 10 airbags, anti-lock disc brakes and a full slate of safety options such as blind-spot alert, a rear camera and much more.
The V-6 provides strong performance, with GM estimating a 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds. The throttle is very responsive and the transmission is cooperative most of the time, although there were some odd, hesitating shifts when coasting downhill.
The Impala employs the Camaro's steering rack and you can tell when driving an LT with 19-inch wheels. This is a vehicle that will carve through canyons, thanks to steering that varies its assist as you push it. There's little undue body lean, and excess body motions are held in check. Bumps are well absorbed. Stability at speed is impressive. While it's no sports sedan, it's significantly more fun to drive than its competitors.
By contrast, an LTZ with 20-inch wheels seemed to have a lighter feel to its steering -- almost too light.
Like on many recent new GM vehicles, the Impala's interior was impressively quiet, even at high speed. There wasn't any noticeable wind or road noise, except on rough pavement.
Outward visibility is much better than the Impala's corporate siblings, thanks to its handsome styling, which doesn't sacrifice looks for utility. The one exception is the rear window, which is narrow. Be sure to get the optional rear camera.
In the final analysis, it's hard not to be impressed by the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, a car that does everything a full-size car should.
It can comfortably carry five people and their luggage. Its cabin imparts a premium feel, while the car's overall styling evokes its heritage without a hint of nostalgia. Its performance is strong, while its appetite for fuel is meagre. And the Impala's price is low enough to challenge those of smaller cars with similar fuel economy, but less space.
By narrowly focusing the product -- no all-wheel drive or high-performance SS models -- Chevrolet's new Impala will hit many buyers' sweet spots.
-- The Virginian-Pilot
The Impala's improbable history
From the start, the Impala was the flagship of the Chevrolet line. Debuting in 1958 as the top trim level in the pricey Bel-Air line, the Impala came in hardtop coupe and convertible body styles with a V-8 that produced up to 315 horsepower.
The following year, the Impala became a full model range.
By 1961, Chevrolet added an optional 409 cubic-inch V-8 and Super Sport package. Both would become legendary in song and on the track.
By 1965, when Chevrolet sold nearly 2.4 million cars, almost half were Impalas. It was a high-water mark. That same year a new option package, the luxury-oriented Caprice, would be introduced. Like the Impala, the Caprice would become a unique model the following year, eventually overshadowing the Impala.
Two decades later, the Impala's luster had faded to the point where it graced the entry-level full-size sedan.
In 1986, it was dropped. From 1994 to 1996, the name was revived as a high-performance variant of the Caprice in an effort to stoke sales. The name then vanished once again, reappearing for 2000 on a V-6-powered front-wheel-drive sedan. It has remained in production ever since.