An American Icon Is Reborn

Photo courtesy of General Motors

2014 Chevrolet Impala LTZ.

When I was a kid, one of the most popular 4-door sedans in almost every middle-class neighborhood was the Chevrolet Impala. They were everywhere, and if you were part of a “Chevy family” (back when people tended to be brand loyal with their car purchases), a trip to the new car dealership often meant the latest Impala finding its way into your driveway.

The sales figures bear this out. In 1965, Chevrolet sold just over 1,000,000 Impalas, a record which has not since been achieved by any production car in America. Up through the early 1970s, sales were still very strong. But then the OPEC oil embargo and the import brands gaining strength meant that the Impala’s glory days were over.

It was a bit of a bumpy road after that. By the mid-1980s, the higher-trim Caprice became the sole full-size Chevrolet, really just a formality, as the Caprice was always the same car as the Impala anyway. The name got a brief reprise from 1994 to 1996, as a sporty variation on the soon-to-be-extinct full-size Chevrolet, and the Impala SS is considered collectible by many today.

Model year 2000 saw the return of the Impala name, but in a rather ho-hum front wheel drive sedan. Yes, it wore the familiar leaping antelope logo from the early days, but it was obvious that the car was nothing like its predecessors. Updated in 2006, it remained a rather lackluster car, getting to the point that 70% of them were destined for fleet use.

Now, Chevrolet is injecting new life into the Impala name, with an all-new full-size sedan that’s positioned to be the flagship 4-door in Chevy showrooms. It’s larger, more stylish and much more advanced than the outgoing one.

The overall size and shape are not too far off from the new large Cadillac XTS. The two cars share the same platform, although obviously the much more expensive Caddy gets much more luxury and features.

The new Impala is not a luxury car, but it’s luxurious enough, especially when fitted in top-line LTZ trim. The two-tone leather interior in the example I drove was quite stylish, keeping in line with other GM interiors of recent years. The company has really upped its game in that regard, for sure.

It’s also not a performance car, but it performs well with the 3.6 liter V6 under the hood. (General Motors is now using this very capable engine in everything from the Chevy Camaro to various Cadillac models.) Power is smooth and instantaneous, shifting through a 6-speed automatic transmission. A 2.4 liter four cylinder will also be available shortly after launch, for the ultra-frugal among Impala buyers.

If you’re looking for a return to the performance days of the early Impala SS (not only in the 1960s, but also in the 1990s resurrection), this Impala is not your car. Chevrolet will be launching a new sedan – called simply SS – to handle that task late this year.

So if this new Impala isn’t a full-blown luxury car and it isn’t a real performance car, what is it? It’s a very functional, very capable large car to proudly carry the Chevrolet badge. The Malibu has been designated the mid-size choice of the brand’s lineup, and now the Impala is here to be the larger 4-door.

Styling-wise, the car is handsome, though not head-turning. Essentially, the new Impala is a direct competitor to the Toyota Avalon, which was redesigned for the 2013 model year. Large and comfortable, the Impala, like the Avalon, plays it conservative.

Safety features abound, of course. And one interesting feature could be considered part of personal safety. The large touchscreen (which incorporates the MyLink integration with your phone and other systems) has a function called Valet. It’s rather like one of those hotel safes with the push-button combination lock. If you have to hand the car and your keys over to someone at a restaurant or hotel, you can lock your valuables in a compartment, set the code, and it won’t open until you’ve re-entered the code. While set, it also disables the optional navigation system, so a dishonest valet can’t look to see where your house is.

The Impala will be hitting showrooms in a few weeks, and has a base price of $27,535. That’s for the base LS trim grade, and the mid-grade LT (which will be the majority of Impalas built) starts at $30,760. Choose the LTZ and hit all the option boxes, and the price goes to north of $40,000.

Will the Impala return to being the dominant family car that is was in the mid-1960s? Hardly. But it does offer a sensible choice with lots of room inside, just as it did back when all those “Chevy families” were putting new Impalas in their driveways.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave