Remember when the Chevrolet Impala was so big and wide that you could land a helicopter on it and still have room for a large dance band?

You can't buy a new Impala like that anymore. Thankfully.

But what you can get today is a nicely styled front-drive sedan that looks midsize-manageable from the outside but is big-car cavernous on the inside. And if you get the LS model -- the tested Impala in this case -- the standard 3.8-liter V-6 power plant lays down 200 horses with barely a yawn.

For those who think safety first, the 2002 Impala pulled down the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's highest ranking (five stars) in both front- and side-impact testing.

All for a starting price of $23,925. Keep in mind that this is the starting fare for the fancier Impala LS. The base Impala sedan with the only slightly less enthusiastic 3.4-liter V-6 (180 horsepower), many of the same standard amenities as the LS and the same level of impact safety starts at $20,325.

For people used to seeing bottom lines of $28,000 to $30,000 on similarly equipped sedans, the Impala is a pleasant surprise.

From a distance, the Impala -- an impala is a medium-size, reddish-coated antelope native to Africa, for those of you out there who have been wondering for years what in the heck the name meant -- might not blow you away. From 100 feet away, it looks similar to other sedans on the road, particularly General Motors-built sedans.

Up close, it's a different story.

It's hardly the square box others have called it; exterior lines are downright sporty, with front and rear exterior light assemblies particularly pleasing to the eye. With the LS, a spoiler on the rear decklid enhances the sporty appearance.

When I took passengers out for a spin in the Impala, those sitting in the back seat invariably expressed surprise, with comments such as: "Holy cow, my knees don't touch the front seats. ... Look at the room back here. ... Gosh, this car didn't look this big from the outside."

Case closed. Interior roominess is no problem in the latest generation of Impala.

Front seats were luxury-level comfortable, situated before an uncomplicated dashboard and easily understood controls.

General Motors Corp. has had plenty of time to tweak and perfect the "3800 Series" engine found in the Impala LS and other GM products. And it shows. The engine performed all chores well, and though an LS will not snap your neck off the line, it has more than enough juice to get you down the road in a hurry.

Not only that, the 3.8-liter motor on the LS boasts one of the top fuel-economy ratings in the V-6 class -- 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway.

Most of the critic hits I've seen directed at the 2002 Impala seem to have been along the lines of it isn't a Lexus. Well, yeah!

It also doesn't cost $50,000.

The Impala seems to be the perfect answer for those questioning the wis dom of buying a large, American-made sedan. If you're feeling guilty about buying American in a world of stylish imports, Impala should help you get over that needless guilt.

And if there's even a shred of guilt still remaining, the cost savings you derived from purchasing an Impala should be enough to destroy it.

Throw on top of all this the fact that the Impala has a little bit of history going for it. It's the best-selling passenger car in Chevrolet history.

That, my friends, is saying something.

It might not corner like a Mercedes. It might not have the technological finery of an Infiniti. And it might not tear off the line like a muscled-up Acura.

But the Impala has enough going for it to make it a must-see on your wish list of possible sedan purchases.

Chevrolet Impala at a glance

Make/model: 2002 Chevrolet Impala LS.

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, front-drive, full-size sedan.

Base price: $23,925 (as tested, $26,815).

E fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city; 29 mpg highway.

Transmission: Electronic four-speed automatic with overdrive.

Steering: Power rack and pinion.

Brakes: Power four-wheel discs with anti-lock.

Suspension type: Four-wheel independent with MacPherson struts, coil springs and stabilizer bars front and rear.

Interior volume: 123.1 cubic feet.

Trunk volume: 18.6 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 17 gallons.

Curb weight: 3,450 pounds.

Front track: 62 inches.

Rear track: 61.1 inches.

Height: 57.3 inches.

Length: 200 inches.

Wheelbase: 110.5 inches.

Width: 73 inches.

Tires: P225/60R16N blackwall touring.

Final assembly point: Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.