Despite its position atop Chevrolet's sedan lineup, the full-size Impala hasn't been much of a flagship for the brand in recent years. Instead, the aging car has become synonymous with rental cars -- or precisely the opposite of what a flagship is supposed to conjure.
That's about to change with the completely redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Impala, which, despite an occasionally bothersome transmission, delivers the kind of comfort, roominess and luxury touches expected of a true flagship.
Offered in LS, LT and LTZ trim levels, the 2014 Impala is available with a choice of three drivetrains: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, an eAssist mild hybrid system and a 3.6-liter V-6. The V-6, which goes on sale first in mid-April, is the engine I tested at a driving event in San Diego. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder goes on sale a few months later and the eAssist version a few months after that.
The Impala wears the latest interpretation of Chevrolet's twin-port grille. While it's similar to the 2014 Chevrolet Traverse's grille, its vertical orientation and width gives the Impala a Camaro-esque appearance. The look is subtly aggressive with a hint of menace, and when paired with the optional LED daytime running lights, the car really stands out. The visual interest continues beyond the front. Intricate sheet-metal creases, including rear quarter-panel arcs inspired by classic Impalas, give unexpected detailing to the doors, hood and trunk lid. Large wheels are the order of the day, with 18-inch steel rims with covers standard and 18-, 19- and 20-inch alloy wheels available on the higher trims. The styling, though, compromises driver visibility. The tall tail helps finish the exterior design and is a boon for trunk room, but it results in a short, rectangular slot of a rear window. The B-pillars are also wide, which blocked much of my view when checking for traffic over my left shoulder. The Impala offers a number of electronic safety features designed to enhance the driver's sense of what's happening around the car, including a blind spot warning system and a backup camera, but there's something about an airy cabin with unobstructed views that technology can't replace.
The V-6 sedan accelerates swiftly up to cruising speeds. Power doesn't arrive with the forcefulness of the Toyota Avalon's V-6, which remains one of the best V-6 engines around, but the Impala's no slouch, either; Chevrolet cites a zero-to-60-mph time of 6.8 seconds. Engine noises are especially muted in the cabin, even under hard acceleration. The V-6 teams with a six-speed automatic transmission yielding an EPA-estimated 19/29 mpg city/highway. That's similar to what front-wheel-drive V-6 competitors like the Azera (20/29 mpg) and Taurus (19/29 mpg) offer, but it's behind the Avalon (21/31 mpg). At this time, mileage estimates haven't been certified for the other engine choices. The automatic transmission is reasonably responsive with controllable part-throttle kickdowns and quick downshifts under full throttle. It's pleasantly unobtrusive in all respects except one: When quickly decelerating, like on a highway off-ramp, it occasionally makes a jarring downshift. I thought the jolt was a fluke when I first felt it, but it happened a few more times in different Impalas at the event. The downshift mapping helps slow the car with engine braking, saving the brakes, but the execution is much more aggressive than the norm and might catch some drivers off guard.
Ride & Handling
The most surprising thing about the Impala is how well it handles serpentine roads. While the car doesn't feel small, it does feel smaller than its substantial exterior dimensions, and body roll is well-checked. The ride is firm but not harsh, which means you do still feel bumps, manhole covers and all the other things that make a road surface imperfect. The Impala floats a bit over bigger dips, but that's one of the rare times the suspension makes the car feel like a large car of old.
The different wheel and tire pairings affect ride quality and ambient noise levels in the car. Though all versions of the Impala I drove were notable for their quiet interiors even at highway speeds, the one fitted with 18-inch tires seemed the quietest of all.
Meanwhile, tire noise was more intrusive with the 20-inch tires, which also more readily transmitted small road irregularities to the cabin. Chevrolet says there are minor tuning differences in the front suspension between cars with the 18-inch tires and those with 19- or 20-inch tires.
The Impala uses an electric power-steering system that reduces engine load, improving efficiency. The system can compensate for road conditions; Chevrolet says that if you're traveling on a crowned stretch of road, for instance, you won't have to hold the wheel at an angle to continue in a straight line; the system will automatically correct for it. Power assistance varies based on both vehicle speed and the position of the steering wheel, but on the whole the steering wheel feels light and ready to rotate, especially at parking-lot speeds where it spins easily with little effort. A little more heft at cruising speeds would be welcome; as it stands, it's too easy to move the wheel left or right a few degrees from its straight-ahead position, increasing the amount of attention the driver must pay it.
Some large cars don't deliver a corresponding level of interior roominess: The Ford Taurus is a prime example. The Impala doesn't suffer this fate, as its cabin is roomy enough that 6-foot adults can comfortably ride in the front and rear seats at the same time. The Impala rides on a long-wheelbase version of GM's global Epsilon platform, which is shared with the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS, and the nearly 4 inches it gains in wheelbase compared with the Chevrolet Malibu (which uses the regular-wheelbase Epsilon platform) is especially noticeable in the backseat; there's enough legroom to stretch your legs out a bit. The rear seat cushions offer good thigh support, too, which also enhances overall comfort.
The seats in LT and LTZ trim levels can be trimmed in a number of different materials with various accents, but they all offer similar levels of comfort. The front bucket seats (a three-person front bench seat is no longer offered) do a good job keeping the driver behind the steering wheel on winding roads, yet the side bolsters aren't overly restrictive. All trims have a power-adjustable driver's seat with four-way power lumbar adjustment.
The trunk measures 18.8 cubic feet. Among prime competitors, only the Taurus' 20.1-cubic-foot trunk is larger. A standard 60/40-split folding backseat expands the Impala's already deep trunk. The opening between the passenger compartment and cargo area when the seats are down is sizable, and the backrest folds flat with the cargo floor.
The exterior's attention to design details continues in the cabin, which is generously appointed with soft-touch materials on the dashboard and doors. Available blue ambient lighting that's integrated into the chrome trim is a unique take on two familiar design cues, and it works to good effect when it's dark outside. From the gear selector to the climate system, the cabin controls have a premium feel.
LT and higher trim levels come standard with Chevrolet's MyLink entertainment system. MyLink includes an 8-inch touch-screen that consolidates controls for the stereo, available navigation system and smartphone-enabled features like Pandora internet radio with a button layout that resembles apps on an iPhone screen. The touch-screen recognizes some smartphone-type gestures, too, like swiping to a new screen or flicking through a list of radio stations. Secondary steering-wheel controls let the driver operate various functions without taking their hands off the wheel, and the system also has natural-language voice recognition. There are three USB ports and an SD card slot, and the system can pair up to 10 devices.
One of the system's more interesting features is its evolution of the familiar radio preset. With MyLink, presets are no longer limited to radio stations but can also include things like a specific address you frequently drive to or a friend's phone number. It's a simple but powerful concept, and MyLink includes 60 of these presets.
MyLink also offers a valet mode that, when active, hides all of the personal data you've entered into the system -- like a home address in the navigation system. It's activated by a customizable four-digit code, which also locks the motorized touch-screen in its lowered position to prevent access to the storage space behind it.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had crash-tested the 2014 Impala as of publication, but the sedan will likely be evaluated at some point.
Safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, which are required on new vehicles. The Impala also comes with 10 standard airbags, including side-impact and side curtain airbags for the front and rear seats.
In addition to comfort features like remote start and an auto-dimming rearview mirror, the LT Convenience Package includes rear parking sensors and a backup camera. Also optional for LT trims is the Advanced Safety Package, which bundles the bulk of the Impala's available electronic safety features like forward-collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning and a blind spot warning system.
The range-topping LTZ includes all of these safety features and is optionally available with adaptive cruise control and a collision-mitigation system. The adaptive cruise system can bring the car to a complete stop if traffic dictates, and the radar-based collision-mitigation system can alert the driver if it senses a crash may occur and also apply the brakes if the driver fails to react to the warning.
The Impala had fallen behind the curve over the past few years, and in another time it wouldn't have been out of the question for Chevrolet to replace the name altogether with something new -- just like it did with Cavalier and later Cobalt in the small-car segment. The 2014 Impala, though, seems up to the task of overcoming any negative sentiments created by its predecessor. Chevrolet should take another look at the transmission's downshift decision-making, though, as it's the one glaring shortcoming in an otherwise appealing package.
The full-size sedan segment isn't as large as the midsize segment, but it's no less contested; the past few years have seen redesigned or updated versions of all the major competitors come to market. With a new Impala for the first time in a long time, Chevrolet now has a legitimate answer to the competition.