I come to not to bury the W-body Impala, but to praise it.
With the NYIAS introduction of its replacement, we can now legitimately call Chevrolet’s pocket battleship of a full-sizer the “old model”, although if we are speaking truthfully, it virtually qualified as the “old Impala” when it was introduced thirteen years ago. At the time, it seemed like more woeful evidence of General Motors’ ineptitude, a quick mash-up of a Lumina with powerplants so ancient there are probably cave paintings somewhere in Altamira documenting an early TSB campaign for them, complete with pictograms of how to use a wooly mammoth to power an engine hoist.
A funny thing happened along the way, though: the Impala started to find things. First it found a place. Next, it found character. Finally, and not everyone will agree, it found redemption.
The new-for-2000 styling, best described as “anonymous middle-aged Georgia white trash”, didn’t promise much, and the interior, best described as “Malaise left in the dryer to shrink”, couldn’t even deliver on those meager hopes. The reviewers of the day pounced on the newborn Impala the same way African lions did. It was an also-ran from the start, hobbled out of the gate, destined to suffer through a typically Methuselan and pathetic GM product lifecycle before gracelessly retiring to second-tier salvage yards across the country. Naturally, there would be some sort of horribly embarrassing facelift halfway through to point out just how obsolescent the car was. There was even a minor possibility that the Impala would somehow “pull a Fiero” and become decent, mildly desirable transportation right before the order came down to cancel production. Regardless, the story was bound to be tragic at best, tragicomic at worst.
I was there at the Detroit Auto Show when the 2000 Impala made its debut. Not as a journalist, of course; I was merely a former car salesman with the vestigial tail of professional interest in volume-market sedans. It was mounted on a vertical display within sight of the also new-for-2000 Pontiac Bonneville. I naturally, and wrongly, assumed that they were platform twins because they shared numerous detail touches, including horribly outmoded-looking recessed headlamps. From the front, the car had an odd mixture of aggression and pathos about it. Compared to the Impala that had gone before, the Orca-esque B-body Impala SS, this looked like… nothing in particular. The interior wasn’t anything to write home about, either: the plastics were typical GM and for those of us who were used to European seating positions the front bench seemed deliberately uncomfortable. Only the tail had any merit: Chevrolet had finally returned circular taillamps to the lineup. Naturally, GM’s inability to do anything right meant that these evocative, jet-exhaust-esque details were submerged within a sea of low-grade semi-transparent plastic that would likely cloud over before the warranty, which wouldn’t cover said clouding, expired.
The Impala appeared to be some sort of generic full-sized car, except it wasn’t truly full-sized, not at two hundred inches stem to stern, not when Ford had just revamped the Crown Victoria yet again, not when the Chrysler LH cars made it look weak, timid, and — yes! — small. Worse yet, in the engine bay, where the Ford had the controversial but still inarguably American mod-motor V-8 and the Intrepid offered an ultra-modern, import-humiliating 24-valve V-6, GM couldn’t be bothered to install anything better than the old “3800″. Blech.
Did you know anybody who bought a new 2000-2005 Impala? I certainly never knew, or even met, anyone who did. Yet the Impalas multiplied on the Midwestern streets, fleet beige strippers and frustrated-dad Supercharged SS models in chintzy gloss black. They became company cars, inner-city cop cars, second-choice taxis. They were never a car that anyone seemed to want, but yet people ended up driving them, riding in them, owning them. They were all around, wedge-shaped cockroaches in the American cupboard.
Looking out the window of my generic corporate office here in Dublin, Ohio, I can see three Impalas of that generation in the parking lot. Silver, silver, dark blue. They’re at least eight years old now, but they still look clean, decent, and unrusted. Isn’t that also like a cockroach? Durability regardless of aesthetic appeal? It turns out that the General’s glacial efforts had finally refined the old GM10 into something that would last, particularly if the original owner had ponied-up for the 3800 engine. The trim didn’t fall off. The interiors turned nasty and grimy, but everything still worked. Impalas started to earn respect, back there in the middle of the Noughties.
Of course, GM itself couldn’t be bothered to respect the Impala. The facelift, when it came, was an absolutely shameless rip-off of the then-current Honda Accord, from the Chinese-eye pyramid headlights and timid, rounded nose to the triangle tails that appeared simultaneously on the Accord facelift. Surely only the General could be stupid enough to copy a car that was already halfway through a four-year lifecycle! At least the Kia Amanti’s designers had had the sense to copy a long-lived Mercedes-Benz! It was as if the people at Chevrolet wanted, needed you to lose faith. They were like addicts showing up at a family party and puking all over the grandmother, hoping that Poppa Government would step in and give them the help they secretly needed.
Yet there was a ray of light! This time, the Impala had a small-block-Chevy! Finally! A Chevrolet with a Chevrolet engine! It was enough to bring tears to everyone’s eyes. Nor was the resulting car an abomination before the Lord, as one might have feared. The Impala SS was a really interesting car, and if it wasn’t really any faster than a V-6 Camry, so freakin’ what? The interior kept getting nicer. The 3800 variants continued to impress, and now even the base engine appeared to be something besides a boat anchor. The new styling may have been derivative, but in an era where the Japanese and Korean competition increasingly resembled the nightmare creatures of a deep-sea diving expedition, strangely proportioned and writhing to and fro with low-budget interpretations of flame surfacing designed to work in the transplant-factory stamping presses, the Impala started to have class. It looked restrained. Tasteful. Decent.
As the not-so-big Chevy reached the decade mark in production, a lot of people had heard about its virtues. One of them, oddly enough, was fuel mileage. In real-world situations, the torquey, low-revving 3800 and its 3.9-liter successor seemed to be able to match the four-cylinder foreign-brand competition. Forget the VolvoFords and DaimlerChryslers; they weren’t even close. Fleets which had originally purchased Impalas because they were cheap to buy were now taking a second round of them because they were cheap to own.
This wouldn’t be a General Motors story if the company didn’t get the car correct in the eleventh hour, and so it happened here. In the final year of production, the much-vaunted High-Feature V-6 finally arrived in perfected form, twisting out 303 horsepower in the final Impalas and returning economy that may not match the old 3800 but isn’t bad in its own right.
This was the Impala in its final days: Tasteful. Utilitarian. Spacious. Efficient. Affordable. Powerful. Reliable. Doesn’t that sound like what most Americans want in a sedan? Of course it does, which is why the wunderkind Malibu, with its pug nose, wacky interior, middling fuel efficiency, and miserly trunk space, struggled until the very end to match its sales numbers.
The Impala wasn’t a very good full-sized car. It wasn’t a very good prestige car. It certainly wasn’t a very good cop car or taxicab. What it ended up being was simply this: a good family car. Chevrolet could have taken some lessons from that.
Instead, the brain trust at GM has decided, once again, to demonstrate its complete ignorance of the market and to simply copy the class leaders. The 2006 Impala aped the Accord, but the new one is virtually a note-for-note homage to the departing Hyundai Azera. Riddled with Chinese lowest-bidder electronics and parts constructed in haste by suppliers who were recently pulled from the brink of extinction by the loving hands of the federal government, it probably won’t be as reliable as the old car. It doesn’t look like it has as much room for people or cargo as its predecessor. It will cost more, both to buy and to repair. The SBC won’t reappear, but there is a SYNC-alike touchscreen that rises precariously out of a soft-touched dashboard to wobble in the wind as you distractedly poke at it. The peregrination necessary to reach the General Motors display at the NYIAS wasn’t long enough to erase memories of the brand-new Toyota Avalon, which along with the new Azera renders this Impala the third-tier choice, outclassed before it even reaches the dealership.
The good news is that you can’t buy the new Impala yet. You can only buy the old one. Anyone who chooses to do so will find little cause, I think, to regret that decision. It may no longer be welcome at the auto show, but the last Impalas will find a home on the American highway for many years to come.