The last time I saw my family’s 1968 Chevy Impala, it was literally a burned-out shell of its former self, sitting stripped of all working parts on a street in the also-smoldering South Bronx in the early 1970s. Thieves had snatched it the night before. Over the years, the Impala nameplate seems to have suffered a similar fate. It was toast as a first choice for the family vehicle.
The 2014 Impala has apparently made a comeback as impressive as that of the New York City borough, becoming yesterday the first model made in the U.S.A. in more than 20 years to top Consumer Reports’ list of the best sedans in the market.
“It has been transformed from a woefully uncompetitive and outdated model that was to be avoided even as a free upgrade at the rental-car counter into a thoroughly modern and remarkably enjoyable vehicle,” the magazine says, according to CNNMoney’s Peter Valdes-Dapena.
“Engineers found the Impala rides like a luxury sedan, with a cushy and controlled demeanor, while delivering surprisingly agile handling, capable acceleration, and excellent braking,” CR’s editors write.
It’s a stunning turnaround. Just last year, CR gave it a test score of 63, in fact -- too low to be “CR Recommended,” according to a press release that also points out that the 2014 model is “too new for Consumer Reports to have reliability data, so it can’t be Recommended.”
The car “even outscored high-end luxury sedans such as the Audi A6 and Lexus LS460m,” writes the AP’s Tom Krisher. “With that ranking, the Impala’s starting price of $27,000 seems like a bargain. The Audi costs about $15,000 more. For the Lexus’ base price of almost $72,000, you can buy two Impalas and have change left over.”
Should we be reading more into this than just the gazelle-like rebound of the Impala? Yes, says CR.
“The Impala’s performance is one more indicator of an emerging domestic renaissance,” Jake Fisher, director of Consumer Reports automotive testing, says in a statement. “We’ve seen a number of redesigned American models -- including the Chrysler 300, Ford Escape and Fusion and Jeep Grand Cherokee -- deliver world-class performance in our tests.”
“The Impala is the latest in a series of complete overhauls that have demonstrated that GM is serious about producing competitive products in every segment in which they participate,” Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez says in a widely quoted assessment. “With the 2014 redesign, GM has been able to shed the Impala’s reputation as a forgettable value-priced fleet queen,” he contends.
Forbes’ Dale Buss points out that “the launch of this impressive new Impala was supposed to be a relative sideshow this year for GM.” There’s a new Chevrolet Silverado in the pickup-truck segment and a Corvette Stingray coming in the fall -- 18 new or revamped vehicles all told this year.
“The cavalcade of launches will transform the GM lineup from one of the oldest in the industry to one of the newest,” Buss writes. “And because so much of any shift in market share in the car business depends on new sheet metal, expect this fleet of new vehicles to do a bunch of good for GM in that department.”
Not everybody is as enamored of the 2014 Impala as CR, however. Writing in USA Today, James R. Healey calls it “a serious dog in the fight … [that] is far different from predecessors and could stand tall against rivals.” But it doesn’t, he says, giving it demerits for uncomfortable seats, an “unsettled” chassis (loose steering, stiff ride, jarring bumps and “too much torque sheer” on the V-6 model, meaning it pulls to the side) and concludes that it’s “good in many ways, but driving feel needs a sweetener.”
Our buddy David Kiley, who gave the Impala a hearty thumbs-up after a test drive in May, perceives a marketing problem, however.
“As nice a set of wheels as this car appears to be, it also perfectly sums up a problem that still bedevils General Motors and the Chevy brand,” Kiley wrote on AOL Autos in May. “While I enjoyed driving this sedan and admire its handsome looks and darn-near German-car-like handling, I keep asking myself how many car buyers want to make a car called a Chevy Impala, even one as nice as this, their primary personal ride.”
It’s a problem that frankly still haunts the Bronx as well. Once people get a certain image seared into their heads, it’s not that easy to change their perception no matter how much things have improved.