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Impala: Building On A Solid Foundation

The Chevrolet Impala is a stealth-like car.

The Chevrolet Impala is a stealth-like car. Who—outside of GM HQ, where this fact is undoubtedly celebrated with much glee—is aware of the fact that with 2004 sales of 290,256 vehicles, the midsize comes in in third place behind Camry and Accord in sales? Impala? In addition to which it must be noted that the vehicle in question was one that was introduced in 1999 as a MY 2000 vehicle, which is to say that when it hit that number for '04, it was by then a rather, ah, mature product. Chevy marketing manager Mark Clawson observes that the Impala buyer is a loyal one, and clearly this is borne out by the numbers. Ed Peper, general manager of Chevrolet Div., says that in the GM lineup, Chevy is a "foundational brand," the business of which is "critical to GM." So one has to believe that the sales of Impala are of more than passing concern to the people at Chevy (they've sold 1.2-million of them since '99).

BUILT-IN QUALITY. So, when you're doing the '06 with the comparative success of the previous-generation model behind you and some new products on the market since that's been released (e.g., Ford Five Hundred; Chrysler 300), what do you do? Try to provide a package that is refined and improved, not something that would be, as the Chevy tagline has it, "An American Revolution." It's more of an evolution. Clawson admits that when it comes to, say, the cubic feet of available cargo room the Five Hundred has it beat. And although the Impala SS is back with a 5.3-liter small block V8 under the hood, the HEMI available for the 300C has it beat. Still and all, there are other factors going for it...like the fact that when it comes to the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey, the '05 Impala beat the Accord, Altima, Five Hundred, and 300...and, Ron Dershem, assistant vehicle chief engineer observes with reasonable pride, this marked the fifth consecutive year that the Impala bested the Camry in I.Q.S. In addition to which, the GM Oshawa Assembly Plant #1 where it is built received the Silver Award for quality in the most-recent J.D. Power I.Q.S. (coming in second to Oshawa Assembly Plant #2, which is right next door); the GM Oshawa Assembly Plant #1 is cited in The Harbour Report North America 2005 as the benchmark plant when it comes to productivity, requiring 15.85 labor hours per vehicle, taking over from the perennial leader in that category, Nissan's Smyrna, TN, assembly plant (Ron Harbour, president of Harbour Consulting (www.harbourinc.com; Troy, MI), stated: "Oshawa's achievement is stellar.").

Sales, loyalty, quality, and productivity—a respectable achievement on all counts. But they worked to make things better for the '06. 

IMPROVING THE DESIGN. According to designer John Manoogian, when approaching the '06 they had three things to solve: improving the interior; providing a "clean, contemporary design" that would still look like a Chevy; and improve the vehicle overall. The '06 Impala has what they're calling "the new face of Chevy." This is characterized by having the dual split grille, top and bottom. The headlamps are pulled back into the fenders and within the housing are three individual lighting units. Around back the tail lamps are discrete triangular units, not the full-plastic masque that's on the previous model. Yet within the new red housing the circular lamps characteristic of the Impala (and considered to be an all-around Chevy cue) are discernable. The A-pillar is moved forward 50 mm, the overhangs are shortened 80 mm, and the car has bigger wheels and tires (the base model comes with 16s; the top-of-the-line SS gets 18s; Dershem comments: "18-in. tires on an Impala? Pretty amazing.") so that the vehicle appears more substantial and planted. Inside the materials are much improved, with reduced gloss on the plastic components and even real metal for the metal door release handles. The double-hump IP configuration is said to harken back to early Corvettes.

STRONG, SILENT TYPE. Noise, vibration and safety were among the key concerns of the Impala engineering team. So they did things ranging from lengthening the jounce bumpers to styling the flat-blade windshield wipers. They stiffened the boxed upper frame rail assemblies and the ties between the upper and lower rails; Dershem describes the use of high-strength steel in the vehicle structure as "extensive." "Quiet Steel" laminate (see: Hush: Improving NVH through improved material) is used at the front of the dash to not only quiet the interior, but to help provide additional strength. The side glass is 5-mm thick to help attenuate noise.

There are three engines, the aforementioned V8 (303 hp @ 5,600 rpm; 323 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm and Displacement on Demand to provide 18/28 mpg) and two sixes—a 3.5-liter that provides 211 hp @ 5,800 rpm and 214 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm; a 3.9-liter that provides 242 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 242 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. According to Dershem, these latter two engines are the first with an overhead valve design that use variable valve timing.

All in all, it's probably a value story more than anything. The base model has a starting MSRP of $21,990; the SS starts at $27,790. Which continues to make Impala a fundamental of GM's foundation brand.