Once upon a time, full-size American family sedans ruled the road. Large and comfortable, they carried up to six passengers (thanks to front bench seats) and floated over rough pavement on soft suspensions. Powerful optional engines could be ordered, and sportier coupe versions were frequently available. One of the best was the Chevy Impala.
First introduced in 1958, the Impala was produced through 1996, revived in 2000 and completely redesigned for 2014. The newest version is the 10th generation and the changes reflect the rise and fall and rise again of Chevy.
The versions produced in the 1950s and 1960s are highly sought-after collector cars, especially the high performance Super Sport versions. Those made in the 1970s and 1980s were reliable but undistinguished people haulers. The more aerodynamic 1990s version started out strong, especially the SS version with a slightly detuned Corvette engine. Many ended up as taxi cabs, however. And those from the 2000s fared worse, however, being largely relegated to rental fleets.
But the 2014 version holds the promise of revival. For starters, it is the best looking Impala in years. It is noticeably bigger than the last generation and the size helps it stand out. The lines are also much bolder, especially the aggressive front air dam and broad rear fenders, which are creased with lines that evoke the Impalas from the late 1960s.
Our bright white Impala turned heads everywhere we went, which is something we can't say about its biggest competitors, including the Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon. Most of those doing double takes were older men, however, suggesting the new Impala might appeal the most to those who grew up with the earlier models.
The interior is also much improved, not only roomier but lined with better materials. The hard plastic that screamed rental car has been mostly replaced with softer plastics and, in the case of our test car, leather on the top of the dash and door panels. The seats were also leather, which helped give it a genuine premium feel. The number of buttons and knobs on the dash were very manageable, a result of moving several functions like calling up the map onto the home page of the display screen.
Base Impalas are pretty well loaded with convenience, entertainment and safety features. Ours included such options as a rear view camera, Bose audio system, navigation, heated front seats, and push button keyless start. It also came with an Advanced Safety Package that alerted us when we departed our lane without using the turn signal or came up on a slower car too fast. Some of the alerts seemed a little too sensitive, but better safe than sorry.
The back seats were also very roomy and trunk was enormous, just like the original versions.
On the road, the Impala drove well for what is essentially a family car. The 3.6-liter V6 offered good power and the ride was firm without being harsh. The overall impression was one of stability as opposed to sportiness, but that's definitely an improvement over the most recent versions.
Still, Chevy has a ways to go if it wants to return the Impala to it former glory days. The 305-horsepower V6 is the most powerful engine available for now, which will disappoint anyone hoping for a new version of the Impala Super Sport. Chevy is bringing out a different car called the SS later this year, however. Based on the Australian-made Holden Commodore, it is expected to be powered by a 6.2-liter V8. It will be more expensive than a top-of-the-line Impala, however.
On the other hand, although we haven't driven either of the two four-cylinder engines offered in the Impala, we can't imagine they'd be much fun. Its simply too big for engines with less than 200 horsepower, even if they offer slightly better gas mileage.
Although the six-speed automatic transmission in our test Impala shifted smoothly, the manual shift mode was less than satisfying. It worked through what is essentially a toggle switch on the top of the shift level. Although the switch did its job, we doubt it will see much use.
No one expects Chevy or anyone else to offer front bench seats again. But the buckets in the Impala seemed to need a little attention from the factory. They bottoms felt lumpy at first, even though they looked deeply sculpted. Maybe they just needed to be broken in. They were not as distracting by the end of the week-long test drive.
And visibility out the back window was restricted by the rising trunk line. When backing up, it was impossible to see what was directly behind the car without using the optional rear view camera.
Overall, though, the new Impala promises to be a hit for Chevy the first genuinely popular family car in years. Its welcome return reflects the company's rising fortunes, the result of careful attention and investment in its product line. The time has come to thinking about seeing the USA in your Chevrolet once again.
Facts and figures (all models)
Model tested: 2014 Impala.
Class: Full-size sedan.
Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.
Styles: Four-door car.
Engine: 2.5-liter inline 4 (195 hp, 187 lb-ft); 2.4-liter inline 4 eAssist (182 hp); 3.6-liter V6 (305 hp, 264 ft-lbs).
Transmission: 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 21/31 (2.5); 25/35 (2.4); 19/29 (3.6).
Price: Beginning at approximately $27,000 ($35,770 as tested).