Chevrolet's Impala is a full-size car without flash, extravagant features or risky styling. Even so, it's a rare six-seater that's a consistent top-seller; in 2008 it was the eighth best-selling car in the U.S. Of course, many of those sales can be attributed to fleet sales. More about that later.
The model I drove was a 2009 Impala LT, which is a step up from the base LS. While the Impala LT got the job done and was a comfortable sedan, there really isn't anything there to get excited about. As an overall package, it lacks style, originality and individualization — basically anything a person could get passionate about; you won't take this car home to show off to your neighbors. Competition like the 2009 Ford Taurus, Dodge Charger, Toyota Avalon and Chrysler 300 offer flashier features, like advanced multimedia systems with navigation, all-wheel drive and aggressive styling in the 300 and Charger.
Of course, what the Impala lacks in uniqueness it makes up for with an impressive size-to-dollar ratio, as the Impala is priced lower than other full-size sedans.
I drove the 1LT, but the LT trim level is available with 1LT and 2LT option packages. Upper-scale trims include the LTZ and V-8-powered SS. It's also important to note that the tester was a rental car. Compare the 2009 to the 2008 model here.
The Fleet Question
Not to say that fleet sales don't count, but what makes a car a fleet favorite isn't the same as what makes a car a favorite for consumers. There are also some downsides: When a model has large fleet sales, especially to rental companies, its residual value is hurt because those cars typically enter the used-car market quickly, and with lots of miles on them.
Models well-known to be rental cars tend to get less respect in the market, too. The entry-level 2009 Impala LS is predicted to retain just 35 percent of its value after three years, according to ALG. A competing 2009 Toyota Avalon XL holds 45 percent of its value — the best in its class — while the cars with the best residual value overall retain more than 60 percent of their value after three years.
Something fleets and consumers may have in common, however, is appreciation for the Impala's heaps of cargo and passenger room and its impressive gas mileage ratings in lower trims — all for a relatively low price in the full-size segment; it starts at $23,790.
The Impala's interior is extremely basic in design and execution. There aren't any "wow" features on the inside — or outside, for that matter — but everything is executed with the utmost simplicity, like radio and climate controls that are extremely easy to use.
The materials inside aren't uniformly impressive, but the interior was free of squeaks and rattles. The top half of the dash has a soft material that's pleasing to the eye and touch. The lower half of the dash on the model I tested used molded plastic below simulated wood trim that reeked of cheapness with its ill-fitting panels. The Taurus offers better interior execution, but the Impala's quality is on par with that of the Charger and 300.
A trick up the Impala's sleeve is that it seats six, which (surprisingly) is a feature we're asked about. For $195, the center console can be replaced with a column shifter, and a front bench seat can be added — with a third seat belt. Not many new cars offer this combination.
On the Road
With its cushy yet supportive cloth seats and equally soft suspension, riding in the LT on the highway is as comfortable as sitting on your family room couch watching NASCAR's version of the Impala SS make laps on a Sunday afternoon. This is great if you spend all day on the highway and like to float at 65 mph. Otherwise, the ride didn't inspire confidence while cornering. Even entering a highway on-ramp at normal speeds led to body roll; any faster, and the front tires started sliding under the strain. The LTZ and SS, with their stiffer suspension and lower-profile tires, may make a better fun-to-drive case.
The solid feel at highway speeds was impressive, as was the almost Lexus-quiet cabin. Not so Lexus-quiet, however, was the suspension, which emitted thumps and whacks into the interior over bumpy roads.
The LT's 211-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 easily achieved its 29 mpg highway rating over a 350-mile round trip. EPA ratings are 19/29 mpg city/highway for the 3.5-liter that comes in LS and 1LT trims. The more powerful 233-hp, 3.9-liter V-6 in 2LT and LTZ trims is rated 17/27 mpg, and the 303-hp, 5.3-liter V-8 in the SS gets 16/24 mpg.
Features & Pricing
The Impala doesn't offer much beyond the core features, including power windows and locks, air conditioning and a multi-disc CD player. Technology geeks should look elsewhere, such as Ford's voice-activated Sync system in the Taurus, Chrysler's MyGig in-dash hard drive in the Charger and 300, or Toyota's voice-activated navigation system in the Avalon. An MP3 jack is standard on the Impala, but the USB input that even some GM cars offer —- which allows you to control your MP3 player or flash drive using stereo controls — is missing.
Also missing are in-dash navigation and all-wheel drive. The competition offers these higher-end features. The only way to get factory-installed navigation in the Impala is through OnStar's Turn-by-Turn option, which is part of the Luxury Edition that costs $2,465. The navigation feature is free for one year, but after that you'll have to pay monthly or annual fees. With a traditional in-dash or portable system, there are no fees.
While in-dash navigation systems depreciate quickly and can decrease a car's overall resale value — plus, some systems are hard to use — all-wheel drive is very useful if you're in a climate that needs it. All Impalas are front-wheel drive, like the Avalon, while the Taurus is front- or all-wheel drive and the Charger and 300 are rear- or all-wheel drive. Rear-drive cars are generally better balanced and drive more sportingly, while large front-wheel-drive cars like the Impala, Taurus and Avalon aren't best-suited for performance driving.
Starting with the LS trim at $23,790, the Impala undercuts its nearest competitor, the Charger, by $1,045. The 1LT I drove includes remote start, a driver information center with mileage readouts, and upgraded 16-inch alloys for $24,645. Higher-end models include a more powerful V-6 and V-8 in the SS, as well as sportier suspensions and wheel combinations.
Be sure to check for incentives on the Impala; at the time of publishing there were hefty offers available, including up to $1,500 cash back plus $1,000 loyalty cash if you already own a GM vehicle, or zero-percent financing for 60 months on 2009 models. If you take the current incentives on the Impala into consideration, you could likely get into one for the same price as a much smaller car.
An electronic stability system is included as standard equipment on many cars, but the Impala doesn't offer stability control — even as an option — until the more expensive 2LT, LTZ and SS trims, where it's standard. The Taurus and Avalon include a stability system standard, and the Chrysler and Dodge make it optional on less-expensive trim levels. You can find a list of the Impala's standard safety features here.
The 2009 Taurus and Avalon earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation, which means they scored Good in front, side-impact and rear crash tests. The Impala, meanwhile, scored Good in the side impact test but just Acceptable in the front test and Marginal in the rear. The Charger and 300 rate Good in the front test but Poor in the side impact (without optional side airbags) and Marginal for rear impacts.
Impala in the Market
The Impala is a workhorse that doesn't offer much excitement but does offer practicality and value, thanks to its low entry-level price and its large size. While it can get by with this simplicity now — given there isn't much in the segment to get excited about — once the redesigned 2010 Ford Taurus, with its attractive exterior and high-quality interior, becomes available this summer, the Impala and others in this segment will have a lot of catching up to do.