For America's Sedan, a Great Leap Forward

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My wife used to work as a sales representative for Johnson & Johnson. Like many sales reps, she was provided a nondescript, inexpensive company car -- in her case, a Chevrolet Impala. At some point, the "a" fell off the trunk badge and we began calling it the "Impal." The Impal's chief virtue was its huge trunk, which could conceal many cases of sample products -- typically, Tylenol PM and K-Y jelly. Say what you want about the old Impala, but it sure could haul some K-Y jelly. General Motors should have made a bigger deal of that.

Thanks to rental companies, sales fleets and bargain hunters, the old Impala is a common sight. It has been America's best-selling full-size sedan since 2004, with nearly 170,000 sold last year.

But there's a difference between "popular" and "best." The redesigned 2014 model is aimed at retaining a solid proportion of the old car's customer base while luring buyers whose names are not Avis and Enterprise.

It's off to a good start -- Consumer Reports recently ranked the Impala as the best sedan on the market, the first domestic car to earn that title in more than 20 years. The former model (renamed Impala Limited) is still in production, but available only to fleet buyers. 

There are now three choices of propulsion: a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder eAssist hybrid or a V-6. The hybrid's combined city-highway rating of 29 miles per gallon is quite impressive for such a large car, but G.M.'s eAssist system is a fairly dreary powertrain, regularly reminding you why it's not called the eFunPower. And that version will not be available until the end of the year.

I say if you want a big car, you want the big motor. In the Impala, G.M.'s ubiquitous direct-injected 3.6-liter V-6 makes 305 horsepower and 264 pound-feet of torque. Interestingly, G.M. dropped this modern, muscular V-6 into the old body style in 2012. Now that's a spicy rental car.

The 3.6 is a guttural, vocal motor, which suits the mood in a Camaro or a Cadillac ATS but seems inappropriately aggressive in a family vehicle like a Chevy Traverse.

The first thing I noticed about the Impala is that it's preternaturally quiet. I asked G.M. officials if they'd done anything to muzzle the V-6, and they responded that the Impala's interior serenity was accomplished mostly by isolating the passenger compartment through tricks like "triple-sealed doors with acoustic perimeter water deflectors" and robot-applied sound deadener on the floor pan and trunk.

But they also conceded that the transmission shift points were lowered so that the V-6 spends less time growling its way through the upper registers of its power band. Translation: The transmission generally forgoes sportiness in return for relaxation and economy. (The E.P.A. rating is 18 m.p.g. in town and 28 on the highway.)

If you jab the accelerator, the engine will clear its throat with a healthy amount of thrust, accompanied by a surprising amount of wheel spin from the front tires. The Impala can light 'em up for quite a while before the traction control kicks in, which should make for some memorable exits from the school drop-off lane.

The interior is a mash-up of visually appealing design rendered with sometimes questionable materials. The wraparound sweep of the dash, the 8-inch screen that powers up like a secret door to reveal a storage cubby behind it, the subtle LED glow of the nighttime lighting -- all are worthy steps forward for our old friend Impala. The optional front bench seat -- the last one offered in a car sold in America -- has been banished in favor of these "bucket seats" that are all the rage. But can we please lose the fake wood pasted hither and thither about the interior? I suspect that other manufacturers are infiltrating focus groups to tell G.M. (and Toyota) that customers really love plastic wood.

Remember this: fake wood, it's not good. Feel free to come up with something better, or just stop making fake wood.

The Impala's other strange synthetic is the "sueded microfiber" seating surface of my midlevel 2LT test model. The material looks like something you'd find draped on a Chinese recliner at the kind of furniture store that has a going-out-of-business sale every two weeks. It looks acceptable now, but after 20,000 miles you may wish they had just covered the seat in leather.

Still, this is a car where the phrase "for the money" comes into play in any discussion of chintzy demerits. After all, this is a cavernous sedan priced at $35,770 as tested. That might sound like a lot for an Impala, but for that money it's pretty well equipped -- 11-speaker Bose audio system, keyless ignition, navigation system, remote starter and 19-inch wheels.

A base 2.5-liter LS starts at $27,535.

The Cadillac XTS shares its platform with the Impala (same V-6, same basic proportions), and I drove one that cost more than $64,000. Now 35 grand doesn't look so bad, does it?

While the 2013 Impala lives on as a fleetmobile, Chevy hopes the slickly restyled 2014 will find 70 percent of its sales with private buyers. So while you'll surely see the occasional sales rep or police chief at the wheel, this is now a vehicle that can be seriously mentioned in the same context as the Toyota Avalon or Dodge Charger.

In the '90s, it was fashionable for rappers to name-check the Impala. But when Lil' Troy wrote, "Wanna be a baller, shot caller, 20-inch blades on the Impala," I'm sure he was talking about a Chevy from the glory days of the 1960s, not the rebadged police car of the 1990s or the anonymous front-drive sedans that were just around the corner. Impala references became so common that rappers just said, "six four," and everyone understood the car in question was a 1964 Impala.

In contrast to the Impala's seedy recent past, this new one harks back to those Impalas of the '60s -- a big, stylish American family car you could be proud to park in your driveway. In that respect, the new Impala's a throwback.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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