Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: 2009 Chevrolet Impala

The Chevrolet Impala, as we know it today that is, first debuted for the 2000 model year to replace the aging Lumina. The only similarity between this new Impala and previous models was the name itself, as Chevrolet’s flagship became a front-wheel-drive unibody car initially available with only V6 engines. Though sometimes marketed as a mid-size car by Chevrolet, both the interior volume and exterior dimensions fall well within full-size (or “large”) classification. The original FWD Impala series ran from 2000-2005 with little change. For the 2006 model year a redesigned Impala was introduced, though in essence it was largely a reskin of the previous generation, with mechanical updates consisting merely of suspension tweaks and revised powertrains. Even with virtually no revision since the 2006 redesign, the Impala remains Chevrolet’s best selling model as well as one of the top selling passenger cars in the United States.

And that bestseller status is curious, as I’m left wondering why anyone would buy this car. Ever since it was introduced a decade ago, the Impala has always been among my favorite sedans of the new millennium. I guess that’s because I had never driven one. Don’t get the wrong message, the Impala is by no means a bad car. But it is certainly not an impressive one either. For starters, this Impala does not deserve its spoiler and body skirts by a long shot. The driving dynamics are strictly old-school American; it has been quite a while since I’ve driven a car with such a soft suspension. Even moderate braking induces unsettling amounts of nosedive, and panic stops cause the tail to become airborne. Not only that, but the brake pedal suffers from typical “General Motors Mushiness” when applied hard. Though the Impala doesn’t quite qualify as aquatic, body lean is noticeable in corners. Continuing with the “American” theme, the Impala has almost no steering feedback and doesn’t feel agile in the slightest. All this is rather distressing when I compare it to my ’97 Monte Carlo, the predecessor to this Impala albeit in two-door form. Though neither is meant to be a sports car, it almost seems as though Chevrolet has gone backwards in some regards. Yes, the Monte suffered from the same mushy brakes and numb steering as the Impala, but body motions felt much more controlled. The Monte Carlo also felt like a much trimmer and more manageable car, despite having the exact same 200-inch length and 73-inch width. This disparity can be attributed to both the Impala’s greatly increased height (almost 5 inches), and severely sloped windshield, combined with criminally thick pillars and a high beltline. The latter also contributes to positively abysmal visibility, specifically to the sides and rear, a major drawback to 21st century styling. Another blow to the Impala’s overall appeal is the interior. I thought the Monte Carlo had too many hard plastic surfaces throughout the cabin, but the Impala’s dashboard and door panels make it seem like a Lexus. If you’re going to part with 25,000 dollars for an automobile, I doubt you want to tap on the top of the dash and hear a noise that sounds similar to knocking on the door of a bank vault. On the bright side, the design and appearance of the cabin is flowing and pleasant, and controls fall easily and naturally to hand. For all the disappointing areas of the Impala, the powertrain is not one of them. Though 0 to 60 times of around 9 seconds are not very impressive by new car standards, the power delivery of the V6 is effortless and silky smooth. Only under hard acceleration will you even hear the engine at all. Transmission performance is equally pleasing, in all but hard driving shifts are completely undetectable. The cabin is roomy and spacious as one would expect from a car this size, though backseat space in not quite as generous considering the car’s full-size dimensions.

The soft suspension absorbs road imperfections reasonably well, and is very compliant in highway driving. Engine and transmission performance are where the Impala truly shines, both operate with buttery smoothness and ease. Interior room is ample apart from backseat legroom, and the front seats are comfortable and well shaped. Engine and traffic noise is kept out of the cabin extremely well.

Interior materials are sub par even by economy car standards, which is downright pathetic considering the Impala is Chevrolet’s flagship. Handling and roadholding are at least a decade behind the curve (no pun intended). Visibility is poor to the level where it becomes unsafe.

Many advocates will claim that American cars have been improving dramatically in recent years. While this may be true for some models, this one still has a ways to go. The Impala is adequate, average, and unexceptional. In today’s market a car has to be more than that to succeed. The Impala simply feels dated. When the second generation Lumina was introduced back in 1995, its two main criticisms were the sub par hard-plastic interior and flaccid, unimpressive handling. Sound familiar? Somebody better show the GM executives a calendar, because last time I checked it’s 2010.


Will Hall said...

I agree, these are not the best to drive and I disliked the material's quality, if you ever get the chance try driving the SS version of this, it's quite a handful.

martin said...

Sadly, there are people who settle for mediocre, even when buying new. When you use a a car only to get the groceries and bring the kids to school, and if you are not interested at all in cars, heck, even a Lada would do. I think the Impala caters for people like that.