It's time to put to rest the well-entrenched consumer notion that Japanese cars are just naturally better than American cars.
Granted, the United States automakers dug their own hole, giving us years of not-so-great cars, allowing the Japanese to win over American buyers with superior products. But the playing field has nearly been leveled, and despite continuing consumer bias against American-brand cars, the U.S. automakers are ready to earn your trust and your business once again.
For example, for model year 2006, both General Motors and Ford have a number of excellent family cars that can hold their own in styling, performance and, most importantly, quality in comparison with their Japanese-brand competitors.
One of those is the subject of this week's test drive, the Chevrolet Impala. We actually tested both the 3.9-liter V-6 powered LTZ model (base price $25,830 plus $660 freight) and the all-new SuperSport performance version, whose prices begin at $27,130 (plus freight).
But for this review, the new Impala SS will be the focus. This vehicle offers the first V-8 in an Impala and even in a Chevy car since the 1996 demise of the full-size Caprice and its Impala SS variant, both of which were produced in GM's Texas plant in Arlington. Along with the addition of the V-8 engine and SS version of the Impala for 2006, the entire Impala line benefited from a substantial makeover, which served to make an already good vehicle even better.
Among the changes are revised exterior styling, including new front and rear fascias, headlights and taillights; new 3.5-liter and 3.9-liter V-6 engines with variable valve timing for the base LS, midlevel LT and uplevel LTZ models; new 16-, 17- and 18-inch wheels; restyled interiors, with available leather seats, as well as a new instrument panel, flip-and-fold rear seat, and several audio systems; and, for safety, standard side-curtain air bags and OnStar communications system.
The SS model gets these improvements, along with a small-block 5.3-liter (325 cubic-inch) V-8 engine rated at 303 horsepower and 323 foot-pounds of torque. But before you start jumping on GM for rolling out yet another V-8 powered vehicle at a time when fuel prices are rising, consider this: the EPA fuel-economy ratings for the Impala SS are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.
The highway figure is higher than that of the 3.9-liter V-6 in the Impala LTZ we tested (19 city/27 highway) because the V-8 engine comes with the new cylinder-displacement technology that is showing up on a lot of new vehicles. This computer-controlled system shuts down four of the eight cylinders during highway cruising to help boost fuel economy.
Granted, the current EPA ratings on most vehicles are higher than what most drivers normally experience, but with careful driving, even a V-8 powered Impala can get decent mileage on the open road.
Of course, that means obeying speed limits, eliminating jackrabbit starts, and just keeping as gentle a touch on the accelerator as possible. But with such care, you can still drive a roomy, comfortable car without having to put up with a gas-guzzling engine. For those who don't particularly want or need the extra power of the V-8 or even the midlevel 3.9-liter V-6, the base engine for 2006 is a 3.5-liter V-6 with 210 horsepower and 214 foot-pounds of torque. The mileage ratings for this one are quite impressive for a vehicle that the EPA classifies a "large car": 21 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway.
This engine represents an increase of 30 horsepower over last year's base 3.4-liter V-6 in the Impala, and would be adequate for most people's needs. The 3.5-liter is standard in the base LS ($20,330 plus freight) and midlevel LT models (beginning at $20,830 plus freight).
The 3.9-liter engine, which is standard in the LTZ model as well as the 3LT version ($23,730 plus freight), cranks out 242 horsepower and 242 foot-pounds of torque. All of the Impalas, which have front-wheel drive, are connected to a four-speed automatic transmission. In this respect, they are a bit behind most of the competition, most of which have five- or six-speed automatics. The extra gears offer improved fuel economy.
SS models get some special touches besides the V-8 engine. Included are such features as a performance suspension, W-rated P235/50R18 tires and five-spoke 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. The suspension has a hollow front stabilizer bar and solid rear stabilizer bar to increase stiffness and reduce body roll, helping give the SS model better high-speed stability.
Other SS extras, besides special SuperSport badging, include dual stainless-steel exhaust tips, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, electronic traction control, tire-pressure monitoring, tilt steering wheel with audio controls, eight-way power driver's seat, dual-zone air conditioning, fog lights, and a special SS rear spoiler.
Extras on our car included a package that added leather interior, heated front seats and a six-way power passenger seat ($1,075); Bose premium audio system with eight speakers ($495); XM satellite radio with three months of service ($325); and an upgrade to polished-aluminum wheels ($295).
Total sticker was $29,980, including freight and options.
After driving the LTZ model with the 3.9-liter V-6 earlier, I was already quite impressed with the newest Impala, and I could easily live with that car and that engine. But nothing beats the feel of a small-block Chevy V-8 under the hood of a car with such a name as Impala, and the stiffer suspension also adds a lot to this car's handling. If you can afford an SS model, and want a vehicle that, despite having front-wheel drive, takes you back a few years to your youth, the Impala SuperSport might be the car for you.
And you can still put five adults inside quite comfortably, something that's hard to do with some of the popular Japanese midsize sedans. The Impala has a midsize exterior, but the interior is roomy enough to earn the vehicle that large-car designation.
The unique flip-and fold rear seat in the Impala flips forward to allow access to a storage area beneath the seat. And with the seat folded down, the cargo area expands from the trunk to the back of the front seat. With just the seat cushion flipped forward, there are grocery-bag hooks on the top.
Chevy says the new Impala instrument panel wraps around into the door panels and has a "double-hump design that is reminiscent of early Corvettes." Wood or brushed-aluminum trim are standard on all models except the SS, which comes with what GM calls a "technical-pattern" trim panel.
The Impala name goes back to 1958, when Chevy introduced it as the top-of-the-line version of its full-size sedan, which that year featured rounded front and rear fenders (a year before the introduction of the radical rear fender wings on the 1959 models). For 2000, GM revived the Impala name on a new larger-than-midsize sedan with front-wheel drive and V-6 power.
The Impala has been catching on of late as a police and taxi vehicle, although some police agencies have spurned it because of its front-wheel drive.
Chevy introduced a SuperSport model of the latest Monte Carlo (essentially a two-door version of the Impala but with unique exterior styling) in 2000, then added an SS Impala for 2004 with some sporty styling cues and a supercharged version of the Impala and Monte Carlo's 3.8-liter V-6 engine.
What was missing, of course, was a V-8. It seemed almost criminal to roll out SuperSport cars with V-6 engines, and the 240 horsepower of the supercharged V-6 was less than that of the normally aspirated V-6 engines in some of the Japanese midsize sedans, such as the Nissan Maxima, Acura TL and Infiniti G35, for instance.
GM says the new V-8 models -- including a 2006 Monte Carlo SS with the same engine -- will compete in the segment that includes the hot Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, which are offered with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 and traditional rear-wheel drive. The Impala and Monte Carlo are built at GM's Oshawa No. 1 plant in Ontario, Canada, which has undergone more than $350 million in upgrades to produce these new models, GM says.
G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; email@example.com.
- - -
2006 Chevrolet Impala
The package: Full-size, four-door, five-passenger, V-6 or V-8 powered, front-wheel-drive sedan.
Highlights: Chevrolet resurrected the best-selling full-size car nameplate in automotive history for the Impala in 2000, and has significantly restyled the car for 2006 -- and also has added a V-8 engine for the first time in a Chevy sedan since 1996. It's available in the Impala SuperSport model.
Negatives: Four-speed automatic transmission is a bit dated.
Overall length: 200.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,553-3,712 pounds
Engines: 3.5-liter, 3.9-liter V6; 5.3-liter V-8, all normally aspirated.
Power/torque: 210 hp./214 foot-pounds (3.5-liter); 242 hp./242 foot-pounds (3.9-liter); 303 hp./323 foot-pounds (V-8).
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock standard except on base model.
Trunk volume: 18.6 cubic feet
Major competitors: Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Toyota Avalon, Ford Five Hundred, Mercury Montego, Pontiac Grand Prix, Nissan Maxima, Kia Amanti, Hyundai Azera
Fuel capacity/type: 17.5 gallons/unleaded regular
EPA fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city/31 highway (3.5-liter); 19/27 (3.9-liter); 18/28 (V-8).
Base price range: $20,330-$27,130 plus $660 freight.
Price as tested: $29,980 (SuperSport model, including freight and options).
On the road rating: **** (out of five)
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.