Thursday, November 21, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Chevrolet Impala 2LT

The Impala, once a fabled muscle car in Chevrolet's line-up, and available in SS trim with all of the performance goodies, was relegated during its last two generations of existence to a totally substandard front wheel drive platform that mostly saw duty as taxi cabs, police cruisers, and rental cars. It was much despised for its sloppy handling and packed about as much power as a lawn mower. Without even exaggerating, it was very likely one of the worst cars on the market. Chevrolet made an effort to spice things up a bit by shoehorning a 5.3L V8 motor, but it was woefully under-powered, offering about as much performance as the V6 of most competitors, and made the terrible handing land barge even more of a handful to get around a corner. Thankfully, that version proved so unpopular that GM promptly axed it, although not before having done a nice job of tarnishing the SS brand.

When it came time to develop the all new 10th generation Impala, GM smartly went back to the drawing board and started over from scratch. They used a brand new platform, the Epsilon II that is shared with the all new Cadillac XTS, and did a clean-sheet redesign that incorporated the newest design cues from the brands recent resurgence. Under the hood, they added a slightly de-tuned version of the 3.6L direct-injection V6 motor from the Camaro and ATS and spent considerable time reworking the suspension to make the car feel more premium. Inside, the old interior was thrown out entirely and a whole new design was penned around the MyLink infotainment system, ensuing that all cars now have a 4.2-inch touchscreen display as the focal point of their dash.

However, is all of this effort enough to push out the lingering impression of the rental car specials of the last two generations? Has GM done so much damage to the reputation of this storied nameplate that it cannot recover from its terrible mediocrity?
Thankfully, the answer is a resounding no. In fact, this new Impala is so good, it will almost certainly make everyone forget the last two awful generations and forgive GM for ever having produced them. Yes, it really is that good.

First, let's start with the exterior, which saw a clean-sheet redesign and now sports a prominent bow-tie emblem on the grille. This new face is handsome and aggressive, presenting exactly the kind of look that Chevrolet needs people to remember. The same corporate face is now shared across the line-up and will be making its appearance on the soon to arrive Chevy SS sedan, a revival of the RWD platform from GM's Holden subsidiary in Australia. From the side, the car has a look reminiscent of a stalking cat, all stretched out in a long, lean, and low look that both makes the car look enormous and kind of cool, in a slightly retro big-sedan sort of way.

And as much as the exterior is improved, the interior earns even higher marks, with much more premium materials making an appearance throughout. Gone are the ugly mouse-fur velour rental car seats, the horridly cheap plastics, and cheesy day-glo blue radio. In their place are leather seating surfaces, class appropriate soft-touch plastics, and the new MyLink touchscreen radio console. GM has also made a concerted effort to give the interior some proper design, exorcising the morons from their old design team who seemed to design only with a ruler, and replaced them with some people who actually understand user interfaces. The end result is not only a truly functional interior, but one that is also comfortable to sit in, is generally ergonomically good, and offers a sense of airiness that the old interior failed to offer despite the car being enormous. Even the MyLink system is relatively intuitive, and for those who prefer traditional controls, they are there for certain radio and A/C functions.

But the winner of the most improved award is actually the drive train. Fire up the motor and it settles quickly into a smooth idle. This version of the direct injection V6 is tuned for quiet competence and offers good, but not overwhelming power, with a smoothness that is exceptional even in this class. Combined with the new 6-speed automatic, this drive train is leaps and bounds above anything that the Impala has had before. As a bonus, since the platform is shared with the Cadillac XTS, there is the distinct possibility of a renewed SS version with the 440-hp turbocharged version of this motor that is currently doing duty in the XTS V-Sport.

On the road, this new Impala exhibits excellent road manners, especially for a car of this size. The ride is comfortable, if a tad on the stuff side. While I would certainly not describe the handling as enthusiastic, it is well controlled and a tremendous improvement over the downright scary handling characteristics that the last few generations of this car exhibited. Nothing about this car is particularly sporty, and that includes the steering, which is accurate, but a touch over-boosted. However, it certainly fits the character of the car, which is a big, comfy cruiser. No matter what, it is a significantly better drive than any Impala from the past and while it won't be winning any handling contests, it is certainly as good as, if not better than, most of its direct competitors such as the Toyota Avalon.

After some solid time with the car, I headed back to the dealership, generally impressed with the car. It is a genuinely impressive entry by GM into a segment that seemed all but lost to them. There are a few things that could stand to be improved, such as the terrible design of the shifter, but overall, this is such a dramatic improvement over the last version of the car, it is hard not to appreciate the effort that GM went through to make it better. Objectively, it is an excellent vehicle in the class and is very much deserving of the praise that it has earned from the mainstream automotive press.

GM, please continue to make great cars like this. If you do, we will continue to support you by buying them.