Future Curbside Classic: 2014 Chevrolet Impala – A Major Upgrade

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Living in Havana, Oregon suits us very well, but it’s good to get out into the real world from time to time, including some contact with contemporary cars that we’d never likely see here, let alone drive. A family event in Baltimore last week meant a rental car for the four of us, and as we were loading our luggage into a Nissan Altima at 11:30 PM after our flights, the very friendly Enterprise employee suddenly said out of the blue “How would you like to take this brand new Impala we just got instead? It’s a class above your car, but enjoy the upgrade on us. I think you’ll like it”. I do love Enterprise; and have since they started back in the late seventies. And he was right.

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We grabbed our bags out of the Altima, handed back the keys, and followed him across the aisle where this handsome big buff guy was sitting. I haven’t generally been a big fan of Chevrolet’s styling trends in recent years, except for the prior generation Malibu (minus its big bass mouth). And I’m not going to say the new Impala bowls me over, since its still a bit too self-consciously “bold” and “dramatic”, especially on its front end. But then I still haven’t quite gotten over Audi’s switch from its delicate little grilles to giant storm sewer grates. Is it really necessary to have that “chrome” detail down in the corner of its front valance? And of course, the bowtie is still way too big.

Ok; I get it; we’re not exactly living in understated times. And the Impala’s expressive front end is a substantial improvement over Chevy’s Audi-aping gaping maws of the recent past. In the context of the times, which is really the only relevant point of view, the Impala fits right in; a bit better than average even. Design is fashion; comparing the new Impala to one from decades ago is a lost cause. It has a decided presence, one that comes across better in the flesh than in pictures.

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Speaking of fitting in, our four bags were practically lost in the Impala’s trunk. And in this case, the word “cavernous” truly applies, as it’s very long, deep and dark. And huge, in case that wasn’t clear. Almost startlingly so; are the rear seats folded down way up in there?

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If the trunk was a preview of coming interior room attractions, it was a very successful one. The Impala is very generous inside. I don’t get a lot seat time in new cars, and the last time we all flew to Baltimore, we had a 2010 Camry rental (review here). The overwhelming impression was how roomy, quiet, and comfortable it was. The Impala has it beat in every category, but then that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since it’s in a price and size class above the Camry.

For a bunch of country bumpkins like us, you might have thought we were getting into a big new Jaguar or Acura or some other car costing a lot more. Whoa; this is nice…and big…and nicely put together… Oddly, in the blazing sunlight, my camera makes the interior look tan or light brown. It was actually charcoal black; weird.

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The back seat has superb amounts of leg room; the front seat was all the way back here, and then I got in behind it and there was still a very healthy gap between my knees and the seat back (I’m 6’4″). Luxurious. As a point of comparison, rear leg room is 5.7″ more generous than the antiquated W-Body Impala of yesterday and yore. But then any comparisons with that living relic are pretty irrelevant at this point; it was about a decade past its sell-by date. Rear headroom was a bit less generous, but the flowing roofs of modern cars almost guarantee that.

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My washed-out shots of the dusty IP aren’t going to do it any favors, and like the exterior and other recent Chevy dashes, it’s a bit busy. But it grew on me, and it was easy enough to drive off after a late flight, and reach the closest big knob to adjust the air conditioning. And the quality of its materials and assembly was better than expected.

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Just don’t ask me anything about the Impala’s center screen and functions. I’m a total idiot when it comes to modern car controls, and I had no use for it anyway. What I was looking for was a quiet drive after a long day in noisy jets. And the Impala exceeded my expectations in that regard, and then some. But I sure would have liked it to show me the view out back when I parallel parked it, with some trepidation. The camera is optional, but standard on the top-line LTZ.

The doors close with a nice kathunkk, and then one might as well have been sitting in a mausoleum, including once under way; this is an exceptionally quiet car, thanks to a lot of attention to acoustic details. I’m lacking the regular exposure to other new cars to make informed comparisons, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a quieter car. The 18″ tires make themselves heard only as the delicate patter of distant feet on expansion gaps, but otherwise there’s a kind of hush all over the Impala tonight as we make our way to Towson.

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The Baltimore Beltway isn’t exactly the place to wring out a new car, but from the moment we head off, its clear that the Impala has excellent dynamic qualities. The ride is very comfortable; Chevrolet has attained luxury car levels, without having to resort to the sophisticated suspension (Hiper-struts) used on its platform stablemates, the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS. Yet the Impala digs eagerly into on-ramps, and although the electric steering doesn’t provide the kind of genuine steering feel I prefer, it’s gotten to a pretty acceptable level.

The 305 hp 3.6L V6 and six-speed automatic are about as eager to please as the Enterprise folks, and I wasn’t able to catch the transmission in any serious lapses of judgement. There’s certainly plenty of motivation; in such a quiet car, the biggest problem–at least for me–is keeping the speed down. Fuel economy? Beats me.

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I’m not really qualified to compare the new Impala to its competition, seeing that I haven’t driven it. What exactly is its competition anyway? The Buick LaCrosse? Well, the Impala undoubtedly is more dynamic than it, and a better deal in the bargain (prices start at about $30k). A little bit of inter-brand competition, eh? And of course there are cars like the Azera, the Avalon, Chrysler 300, Maxima, and others.

On arriving back home, our pile of mail included the latest Consumer Reports, with a test of the Impala. I’d already heard about them giving it the highest rating of any current cars in it class, but then there’s this line: “Overall, the Impala is competitive with cars that cost $20,000 more, including the Acura RLX and Jaguar XF”. I guess we really did score a good upgrade.

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