One of the most interesting things to come out of the recent Chevy Impala launch – aside from the fact that GM thinks it can sell the thing for $40,000 – is that the current, unloved Impala will live on as a fleet-only special called the “Chevrolet Impala Limited.” To that, I say: great idea.
I’ve been a proponent of fleet-only cars ever since the 1997-2003 Chevrolet Malibu was rebranded the Chevrolet Classic, a name which would’ve been appropriate when it debuted. In fact, I think there should be even more fleet-only cars – an idea that’s unpopular in the automotive industry, but highly praised between my ears. Allow me to explain.
The Fleet-Only Car World
Today, GM is the lone brand in the fleet-only game. In addition to the new Impala Limited, they have three other models:
1. The Chevrolet Caprice, which is only sold to police departments, who flip it on eBay to guys who inexplicably can’t wait for the SS.
2. The Chevrolet Captiva Sport, which – despite bring a rebadged Saturn Vue from five years ago – is still better than virtually every current car-based Jeep.
3. The Chevrolet Malibu Classic. Yes, the “Classic” name lives on in the form of last year’s Malibu, which can be sold to rental car companies instead of today’s Malibu so that renters can transport rear passengers with legs.
While GM is the sole brand offering fleet-only models today, that hasn’t historically been the case. As everyone on TTAC knows, the Ford Crown Victoria was fleet-only for its final few years on the market. And the entire Chrysler Corporation was fleet-only from about 2003 until December of last year.
Advantages of Fleet-Only
The most obvious benefit of fleet-only models is that you don’t torpedo the resale value of the rest of your lineup. Here’s an example: last year, GM sold 37,000 Captiva Sports, each of which will eventually be available at your neighborhood CarMax. They also sold around 218,000 Equinox units. Some of those may have even been sold outside of Detroit. Southfield, for example.
If GM didn’t have the Captiva Sport, the Equinox number would’ve jumped to somewhere around 255,000. That’s way too many units. The ensuing used-market flood would’ve plunged resale values, which in turn would plunge new-car values. Economists refer to this as The Chrysler Effect.
Chevrolet would then have two choices: boost sales by lowering credit standards and adding incentives, or redesign the thing. And I think we all know which one they’d pick.
But with the Captiva Sport, the Equinox can stay in relative balance with supply and demand. Which, in GM terms, means two grand cash back or zero percent interest for 48 months.
The other benefit of fleet-only sales is, quite simply, keeping the factories running. We all know the automakers have to sign long-term, high-volume deals with the unions, or else the world risks a strike and the very real possibility that we may have to go a few weeks without the Chevrolet Sonic. Even if GM makes no money on all those Captiva Sports, it’s better than losing money by idling the plants and paying the workers anyway. Economists call that The Mitsubishi Effect.
Disadvantages of Fleet-Only
Of course, fleet-only sales do have one massive disadvantage.
Let’s say you’re John Smith and your personal car is a Camry. You’re landing at the Des Moines International Airport, so named because occasionally a flight from Toronto to Los Angeles makes an emergency landing there. (Actually, there is one single non-stop flight from Des Moines to Cancun, which is essential to the airport because otherwise they’d have to change all the signs.)
You show up at the Enterprise counter to claim your rental car and the perky woman behind the counter informs you that you’ll be driving a Chevrolet Impala with the same tone she’d use to announce that you’ve been bumped to first class, or that you’ve won a year’s supply of dish soap.
You walk out to your car, which turns out to be an Impala Limited. You throw your bags in. And nine miles later you decide that you never, ever, under any circumstances ever want to come into contact with any Chevrolet product ever again. You silently pat yourself on the back for buying a Camry.
This could be a slight problem for a brand that’s trying to add new buyers.
As with most things in life, the key is moderation. Fleet-only cars are a great idea, but only if they’re not terrible. While it makes for easy jokes, the Captiva Sport is the perfect execution of a fleet-only car: it’s not so bad to look at, it’s not so bad to sit in, and it’s not so bad to drive. And it doesn’t harm Chevy’s reputation, since the average person hasn’t even heard of it until they go to CarMax, where they’re parked three-deep on every horizontal surface.
The Impala Limited, however, is the exact opposite, so I hope it doesn’t last long. There are a lot of John Smiths in this world, and they’re buying Camrys every day.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.