If you want to judge a restaurant, don’t order the chef’s specialty. Go for the hamburger or the omelet. If the man in the funny hat prepares these prosaic dishes with the same passion he puts into his Suprème de Turbot Rôti aux Asperges Vertes et à l'Ail en Chemise, you have a winner. The same applies to cars. If you want to judge an automaker’s prowess, check their basic models. Scope the ones with standard engines and base interiors that hide in the back of the lots. A few miles behind the wheel tells you more about the manufacturer’s passion for product than anything their spinmongers could ever publish. Which brings us to the Impala LS.
Again, forget the Impala SS. That’s the fancy one with a V8 engine and a $28k price tag that tells you precious little about Chevy’s gestalt (save the fact that they don’t mind putting 303hp through the front wheels). Clock the LS– if you can find one. Oh there are plenty of them out there. It’s just that the model’s design is inoffensive to the point of invisibility. Admittedly, the new Impala looks better than the old Impala, but it’s not a patch on the really old Impalas or all the great Bel-Airs from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Why did GM’s designers settle on an update of a late-90’s Chevy Lumina? That design defined generic in 1998. Park the Impala next to a Dodge Charger or a new Camry and the Chevy disappears.
On the inside, more vanilla. The cabin is slathered in plastic with all the warmth of a German headmistress, accented with shiny petrochemicals that are less wood-evocative than a pine-scented air freshener. The three-passenger front seat lives up to its billing– provided one of them is an amputee. There’s a choice of fuzzy fabric upholstery in three dull colors, whose main advantage is that it keeps you from sitting directly on the foam. A center stack hangs down like a gigantic uvula, chiding you for being too cheap to spring for the higher-priced model (that includes the console). It’s easy to understand why the 2006 Impala was selected as Fleet Car of the Year by Automotive Fleet and Business Fleet magazines. The cabin sacrifices comfort and style for longevity and price.
Other than bland, the one word that describes the Impala’s driving experience is “adequate.” Adequate power from its pushrod 3.5-liter V-6 for keeping up with traffic. Adequate comfort for mindless interstate cruising. Adequate steering, handling and braking for avoiding accidents. Adequate sound insulation to keep road noise from interfering with the adequate AM/FM radio. After a few miles driving– I mean “operating” the Impala, you begin to manipulate the controls with all the emotional engagement you normally lavish upon your toaster. You find yourself wondering if the engineers who designed the Impala ever drove a base-model Accord or Camry– of any vintage.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot to recommend the entry level LS compared to its price/class competitors. The trunk is roomy enough to hold all your sales charts, sample cases, rolling luggage and whiskey bottles. And that’s about it. Side curtain airbags and one year’s OnStar-enabled Big Brotherhood are standard, but buyers more concerned about avoiding accidents than recovering from one have to stump-up an extra $600 for ABS and traction control. Don’t even ask for wheels larger than 16” (which come complete with bolt-on wheel covers), a sunroof, satellite radio, automatic climate control, remote starting or bucket seats. Those luxuries are only available on more expensive models.
No amount of money will buy you a modern transmission. The competition may offer five or six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, but the Impala buyer’s only option (which equates to no option) is a 1980’s-era four speed Hydra-Matic. It handles the changes well enough, but it’s not exactly what you’d call a paragon of cog swapping precision. Of course, this deficiency is something of an American tradition: the Impala is made by the same company that continued selling two-speed Powerglide automatics into the 70’s, when others had moved on to three and four-speed designs.
This Impala illustrates why Chevy (and by extension GM) lose market share daily. Instead of engineering a world-class product, they’re content to produce something that’s not even more than merely adequate. Then they try to dress it up in expensive trim packages and million-dollar ad campaigns and pass it off as something special. Unfortunately, a pound of chopped ground round is still a burger when it goes downtown. Eventually, even the least fastidious die-hard sees the advantages of a no-cost taste upgrade. Before long, everyone’s eating at the place up the street where the quality is higher and the fare more fulfilling. The Impala can run, but it can’t hide from restaurant reality.