Don’t take that headline to mean any of GM’s current fleet wouldn’t make a sound used car buy. On the contrary. However, the 2006 Impala – still sold to fleets as the Impala Limited – was the last car from an era of General Motors’ history where there was less of a commitment to product leadership. A thorough revision of an ageing car on an even older platform, the 2006 Impala broke no new ground. When new, it was average at best, mediocre at worst; as a used car buy, it is much more compelling.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the “good used car” was what GM seemed to do best. Few of their offerings could have been considered best in class and many were sold well past their use-by dates. When Toyota introduced the high-quality, American-sized Camry of 1992, Chevrolet’s response was a new body for its Lumina in 1995. While Ford was disassembling Camrys in a basement and trying to match the insurgent Japanese car in quality, GM took their upper mid-size offering and priced it to sell. There was no need to best in class if they could be the best-seller in the class, GM must have thought. As it turned out, they were nowhere close to either with the Lumina.
GM’s menagerie of brands still assured them a sizeable chunk of the market but also siphoned away development money: instead of one exceptional intermediate, they had a collection of average models. By 2000, the Lumina had been replaced by the Impala. It didn’t advance the game much either. At best, Chevrolet had a mid-pack offering. It sold well, but again not to Camry/Accord levels.
The W-Body had always been rather awkwardly sized: the ’90 Lumina had been 9.2 inches longer than the rival Taurus but no more spacious. Now, Chevrolet was recentering their lineup on the Malibu. The 2004 Malibu sat on the global Epsilon platform shared with the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra, and the Pontiac G6, Saturn Aura and subsequent 2008 Malibu featured a stretched wheelbase that put those sedans uncomfortably close to the Impala in size.
GM invested $7 billion in the Epsilon platform. Rather than move the Impala to this platform, though, for 2006 the Impala was thoroughly revised but kept the same 1988-vintage W-Body underpinnings. Mechanical improvements were limited to a more robust front-end structure and a stiffer engine cradle, reducing vibration and allowing for a smoother ride. The chassis’ frame rails were also strengthened. Otherwise, it was business as usual for the W-Body platform with the same MacPherson strut front suspension and tri-link, trailing arm independent rear.
The Impala’s old engine lineup was tossed, in favor of the new High Value 3.5 and 3.9 overhead-valve V6 engines from the Chevrolet 60-degree V6 engine family. Both of these engines were available in the Malibu and Pontiac G6. The 3.5 represented a sizeable improvement in power and torque over the previous base 3.4, with 211 hp and 214 ft-lbs. The 3.9 had an even healthier 242 hp and 242 ft-lbs. A 5.3 V8 was also available in the SS; this will be featured later.
The exterior had a wholesale revamp, with clean but inoffensive new sheetmetal. The retro throwback taillights, squared-off wheel arches and blackened headlights were all ditched in favor of a more graceful if anonymous visage. It didn’t scream “Impala” but it didn’t offend, either; classic cues like the Hofmeister-esque beltline kink and the heritage badges remained for tradition’s sake.
The interior was a much more pleasant and serene place to be than before. Thicker side glass and more sound deadening material reduced cabin noise, while the old, plasticky, hodge-podge dashboard design was scrapped and substituted with a clean, simple design similar to the more expensive Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS. Like those larger sedans, the Impala could be had with a front bench and column shifter, an increasingly rare set-up.
Despite its overall larger dimensions, the Impala’s cabin was still scarcely more spacious than that of a Camry or Accord and there were still some cheap materials. However, the ambience was for the most part improved and there was even a standard MP3 compatible stereo with AUX input.
The Impala was keenly priced. A base LS 3.5 retailed for just a tick over $20k, reduced from the base price of the 2005 Impala to more accurately reflect real transaction prices. A base Camry’s MSRP was less than a grand below but it came with a four-cylinder engine. In fact, the cheapest Malibu V6 was scarcely cheaper than the Impala LS and, while the Impala’s dimensions weren’t quite full-sized, it still boasted an extra 3 inches in width and 4 inches in wheelbase over its little brother.
There were some noticeable omissions, however. Anti-lock brakes, once a safety feature heavily touted and proliferated through the Chevrolet lineup, were standard only on LTZ and SS models despite the standard fitment across the range of side-curtain airbags. The only transmission with each of the three engines was a four-speed automatic. The shifter was not gated like in the Buick Lucerne, nor did it feature a manual shift mode like the Malibu SS. Most rivals had moved onto five- and six-speed automatics by 2006, although fuel economy was still a laudable 18/28 mpg with the 3.5; those figures dropped to 17/25 with the 3.9 and a still impressive 16/26 with the 5.3.
The Impala may have utilized an old platform, but crash safety was commendable. The NHTSA gave it five stars for driver and front passenger protection in frontal impacts; four stars were given for side impacts. The old platform did hamstring handling, however. The LTZ and SS had a slightly different suspension tune but no Impala was especially fun-to-drive. Instead, these cars had a compliant ride and were able cruisers, especially on the highway. For most buyers in this segment, that was enough.
For 2007, the 3.9 gained Active Fuel Management, allowing cylinders to be deactivated in light-throttle and cruising situations and consequently improving fuel economy to 18/28 mpg. The addition of AFM coincided with a small dip in horsepower for the 3.9 (down to 233 hp) but the engine gained FlexFuel capability as in the 3.5.
After 2007, the Impala settled in for a period of little changes. 2009 models belatedly received standard ABS and traction control across the board; the SS was also gone after this year.
Sales reached a high in 2007 with 311,128 Impalas sold. That would not last: the following year, slipped by around 5k units and in 2009 they slid by a whopping 100k units, or 37%. What happened in 2009? Well, the new, bigger and very handsome Malibu had by then rolled out to all Chevrolet dealerships. The Malibu was better-looking, had a more powerful V6 available and had a stylish cabin that was just as roomy. As the chart above shows, this is when the Malibu finally, properly usurped the Impala as Chevrolet’s intermediate breadwinner.
300 horses featured once again under the hood of Impalas in 2012 when the Malibu’s 3.6 High Feature V6 and a six-speed automatic transmission became the standard (and only) powertrain in the lineup. With 262 ft-lbs of torque, the new engine was a significant step-up in performance over the old High Value engines and put the Impala on an even footing with Camry, Altima and Accord V6s.
The new 3.6 V6 was the first major change for the Impala in years and will likely be the last for the W-Body Impala. A new, thoroughly up-to-date sedan on the Epsilon platform would wear the Impala nameplate after 2013; the W-Body continues as the Impala Limited and is sold only to fleets. Finally, the 2013 Impala offered a compelling reason once again to choose it over the Malibu, with handsome styling, an available V6 (the Malibu’s biggest engine is a turbocharged four) and a more spacious cabin.
The new Epsilon-based Impala has earned critical acclaim, ranking as Consumer Reports’ favorite full-size sedan and winning comparison tests regularly. The W-Body Impala enjoyed no such glory. But the value proposition it offered new has been enhanced by weak resale values. The cheapest Camry in 2006 retailed for $19,275 with the 2.4 four-cylinder and automatic transmission. Edmunds puts that Camry’s dealer retail price at $5,804. In comparison, the cheapest Impala in 2006 – which cost ever so slightly more than the Camry but had a standard V6 – is expected to have a dealer retail price of $5,151.
With a comfortable interior, decent feature list and no major alarm bells for reliability, the Impala is a very sensible used car buy. A friend of mine recently purchased one and an acquaintance of mine has owned one for five years with no mechanical issues. Neither of these young guys are car enthusiasts and they simply required safe, comfortable and reliable transportation. The Impala delivers and dealer prices and financing are much more palatable than with an Accord or Camry.
General Motors realized good enough was no longer good enough with its passenger car lineup somewhere around the late-2000s. The 2006 Impala was a pleasant refresh of an ageing sedan but although it had its strong suits, it was yet another “good enough” sedan. The Impala had bang for your buck – a standard V6, a big trunk, the promise of incentives – but for many, a four-cylinder mid-size sedan was sufficient car for their $20k. In the context of its competition, the Impala was competent but no class-leader and ultimately needed keen pricing to be worthy of purchase. Now, its a great value used buy.
Photos courtesy of Brendan Saur