If a person really wants to learn the driving characteristics of a car, they should first drive it at night in a thunderstorm. It’s a delightful variation of the old adage “sink or swim, baby”.
Driving this silver Impala on a busy interstate during a night darker than a stack of black cats in a rain having an intensity best described as toad-strangling does require immediate familiarity with all the various controls, especially the windshield wipers. This is jumping into the deep end of driving, an experience much more memorable than piloting any new-to-you car on a sunny day in light traffic.
Being an advocate of full disclosure, I must confess a dirty little secret: I’ve driven scads of these Impala’s since this version appeared in 2006. In 2009, I was assigned a brand new one at work. Two years later, my employer also bought the Impala whose pixelated images are dancing across your corneas. It’s assigned to the motor pool and it’s the automotive equivalent of a library book. About 1,297 people have driven this Impala at its current station in life – give or take a few hundred.
To further my purge of secrets, I must also confess to not having driven any Impala in about a year. Quirks fade over time, so I was able to get reacquainted with the Queen Bee of the current crop of fleet vehicles available in the United States.
So what about this Impala sticks out the most in my mind? The windshield wipers were too short. Watching them sweep back and forth for over 130 miles on my way to St. Louis, I was able to quickly ascertain the amount of swept area seems rather small in relation to the size of the windshield.
Were the wipers the originals? It’s rather doubtful as the car is five years old with 72,000 miles on the odometer. Perhaps somebody grabbed the wrong ones during a preventive maintenance routine; perhaps they didn’t.
Another noteworthy observation is how this Impala swallows miles with an amazing amount of ease. Few are the cars that gobble up long expanses of interstate (either dry or wet) with both an anxious-to-please demeanor and unadulterated comfort.
Of course, I was driving. Having the honor to enjoy the driving splendor only found in a nice thunderstorm, the Impala is pretty successful at ignoring crosswinds, its 3.5 liter V6 purring along at only about 2,000 rpm at 70 miles per hour (or maybe less; I was distracted with more important things). For the size and relatively large displacement of its engine, the Impala is surprisingly fuel efficient with an EPA estimate of 19 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway (23 mpg combined).
Piloting an Impala also means you will intimidate absolutely nobody in the stoplight grand prix races. Don’t attribute this to some misinterpretation about the 3.5 being a wheezing dog; rather, it revs up surprisingly well and is very well suited to the Impala. You definitely won’t pucker when merging with traffic and the 3.5 allows you to surprise yourself with speed if you aren’t paying attention.
I was not alone on this soggy sojourn; of my two passengers, the younger and larger framed gentleman of 6’4″ in height had to pour himself into the backseat. My trying to smooth his abrasions was only partially salved when I told him I had been assigned a Ford Focus and changed cars specifically for him. He politely revealed his observation about the only differences he had ever noticed between the two is width.
He’s right; other than my throwing the lawn chair on the seat, this is exactly how the seats were situated for our trip. At 5’11”, I actively avoid opportunities to sit in the rear of an Impala; I can only imagine his level of joy.
Things for the front seat passengers can be compromising. No, I’m not going to rail about the console – yet. What I will rail about is more unusual (and admittedly isolated), in that there is no other place to install a two-way radio other than sticking it to the side of, well, that idiotic console. Having ridden in the shotgun seat of a different Impala with a radio installed identically, I wasn’t fond of having “Motorola” etched into the side of my leg.
Or maybe it’s a Kenwood. As if the brand really matters.
Maybe I shouldn’t find such annoyances to be so annoying; maybe I should have driven my assigned pickup.
Speaking of consoles, in the big scheme of things this one is pretty benign and a great example for other manufacturers. Taking this picture, I was on the verge of having muscle cramps near my hip as I was swinging my leg so wide. The upshot with my incessant harpooning of consoles is the rationale for my deep-seated detestation of them has finally been excavated.
Consoles are fine in muscle cars or cars with sporting aspirations – I had one in both my 1989 Ford Mustang and my 1996 Ford Thunderbird. This is a base trim, fleet grade Impala, a car in which using adjectives involving any variation of the words “muscle” or “sporting” is oxymoronic. With sedans and other vehicles intended for mom, pop, and the brood, having these negates any realization of smart space utilization in the front seat. The bulk of the time consoles make about as much sense as giving dentures to a shark.
The ’09 I was assigned had a gear selector on the column – a $250 option that was worth every penny as it played well to the perception of Impala as family sedan. Even better, there was ample space to mount a two-way radio without it looking as tacky as that plasti-wood on the dashboard.
Will I ever bitch about consoles again? Probably, as so few make sense. Yet I keep reminding myself cars are like real estate – you have to pay for extra usable space.
At the epicenter of that space hogging chunk of molded plastic sits the gear selector. There are no indications (they are on the instrument cluster), prompting me to think one of two things: this same gear selector and its surround are in use in some right-hand drive Holden or Vauxhall to save on GM’s tooling costs; or, some ergonomic specialist figures you should be looking at the instrument cluster instead of the floor when attempting to drive. Or maybe it’s something else.
The W-body has been around since 1988, with the Lumina being the first Chevrolet on the structure.
The Impala nameplate returned on a non-specialty vehicle in 2000 with this guise of Impala emerging in 2006. It’s currently only sold as a fleet vehicle, which is where the entirety of my experience with them rests. Having driven a vast number of fleet vehicles in my twenty-year career, I would love to say the Impala is to fleet cars as Tchaikovsky is to classical music. But it isn’t. Despite its obvious and arguably subjective thorns, the Impala does what it was meant to do – get people to their destination with nothing ever breaking.
But how reliable is this anecdotal experience? The only problems I’ve ever encountered with them, even during my brief stint as a fleet manager where these were as plentiful as wet after a storm, was the Impala has an annoying frequency of needing four-wheel alignments that prompt premature tire wear. That’s it. Buy them, align them, drive them, align them, sell them. Even with 200,000 miles on the odometer, these Impalas simply keep going.
Even the seats, a bucket that feels like a bench, wear like iron. With all the people who will drive any given unit, with all shapes and sizes in the vast butt spectrum being represented, these will go out the door with nearly new looking seats.
But how does the Impala stack up against competitors? Perhaps this is a loaded question.
Taking a look at all similar sized sedans that were in the top ten best sellers for 2011, I meandered over to www.safercar.gov to look up recall histories. I looked at the time period from when this version of Impala was introduced in 2006 to when our subject car was produced in 2011. Here’s what I found:
The Impala recalls dealt with GM’s well-known ignition switch issue, a seat belt anchor, and a suspension piece on the police specification Impala.
Others of note are Ford having a floor mat that could get jammed under the accelerator while Toyota and Honda both have the Takata airbag issues. Additionally, Toyota has power window switches that have caused flammability concerns.
Is looking at recalls a wormhole leading into the depths of Pandora’s Box? Regardless, looking at these numbers create some divergent and curiosity fueled questions:
- Has the Impala been generally underestimated?
- Does this Impala reflect GM’s treating cars like tomatos – pick it green and let it ripen?
- Are these numbers a reflection of the manufacturer’s level of concern and responsiveness?
- Might cultivating a perception of infallibility have a dark underbelly?
Or, again, it may be something else entirely. I’ll dive down the recall wormhole at a later date.
Since I’ve likely incensed a few with talking about dark underbellies, the Impala does have one of its own. Or maybe the dark underbelly is a nasty blemish.
The radio and HVAC controls are identical to that in the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup I am assigned at work. Ditto for the headlight switch and (slightly too large) steering wheel. Buyers should receive some degree of unique despite buying a high volume car like the Impala. It isn’t as if the Impala and Silverado are low volume vehicles in which parts sharing is to be expected.
GM raided the parts bin to save on amortization and realize lower unit costs – in a way, it’s like my using this picture twice. GM has earned a black eye for parts bin diving in the past; while 2011 is long gone, this Impala is still being made for all sorts of fleets.
And this Impala is currently being made for the retail market. It’s as related to the W-body as much as beer is related to orange juice. Confusing, is it not?
Despite its flaws, I see more privately owned Impalas on a daily basis than I do Camrys or Accords. That is no joke. Automotive tastes are quite regional, but I can’t sling a dead cat without hitting an Impala.
Even if many of these Impalas originated in a fleet, that simply emphasizes the versatility and stamina of the W-body. But isn’t it sad these are nearly synonymous with being a fleet vehicle?