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Nashville Scene Runaway

Chevy makes hoopla over 21st Century Impala

By Marc Stengel

AUGUST 9, 1999:  I had lots of these little toy Matchbox cars when I was a kid. I'd save up lawn-mowing money and plead with Mom to take me over to Phillips Toy Mart. As soon as I returned home, I'd scarcely have examined my loot before I proceeded to paint them all. Purple metallic and blush peach two-tone, stuff like that. I remember one of the first to get Stengelized in this way was a '59 Chevy Impala. You know the one--had those fabulous horizontal, flipper-like fins at the rear. I still have that Matchbox car. Except for the awful paint scheme all smudged and brush-streaked, it's in great shape. Might even be worth some serious dough--in original condition, of course.

I have a vague suspicion that some of the folks at Chevrolet feel the same way--about their Impala, I mean. From its very debut in 1958, the car with the leaping gazelle--oops, impala--on the hood was a runaway success story. "Over a billion miles served" is how Chevy's stats mavens figure it. In 1965 alone, Chevy sold 1,068,614 Impalas to set an annual, single-model sales record that no other car has ever bested. But by the early '80s, over-familiarity had long since bred contempt for the bloated, fuel-swilling land raft the Impala had become. In one of those capricious moves that GM manages so well, Impala excused itself in '86 to make way for a nearly identical Caprice sedan. To confuse the issue even further, a "factory custom" Impala SS appeared in '94, wearing Caprice clothing that camouflaged a Corvette small-block under the hood. After its own two-year run, the rear-drive Impala SS was loosed back into the savanna. And so why not, as the logic goes, re-re-debut the 2000 Chevrolet Impala as a skinned-over, front-drive Lumina?

It is probably only the grumpy nostalgist who gnashes over Chevy's shameless recycling of the model names of yesteryear. Times have changed; nobody who's actually, actively buying cars these days even remembers Dinah Shore's lyrical invitation to "see the USA in your Chevrolet." But you can well bet that no sentient creature of any generation would deny Impala's stunning advance into the 21st century. For comparison, the '72 Impala stretched beyond 18 feet, delivered 170 horsepower from a 350 cu.-in. V8, and slurped an average 8 miles per gallon. The 2000 model measures 16.6 feet, boasts a 3.8-liter (232 cu.-in.) V6 making 200 horse, and averages 26.5 mpg. Now, that's a runaway.

Meanwhile, the new Impala canters confidently into a car category that has become a free-for-all. As a base model, it seats six; sport buckets up front make it five for the up-level LS model. That puts Impala squarely opposite such best-selling rivals as Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Taurus, and Buick Century. In fact, the "Mid-Range" category hosts 20 different contenders, as defined by the trade paper Automotive News. In '98, it took combined sales of the top three models to beat the '65 Impala's million-unit sales record. In other words, the overall pie has gotten smaller even as the crowd of thumbs seeking plums has grown larger.

To make its impression among the throng, therefore, the new Impala depends upon distinctive--maybe even unusual--styling combined with the homely virtues of function and value. The sporty LS model is downright jaunty, with its standard five-spoke alloy wheels and rear spoiler (which can be eliminated as a "delete option"). Headlights perch behind Plexiglas binnacles in a landing-lights interpretation of candlepower. The result is a distinct smirk graven across the front of the car as the Impala attempts to stare down its rivals. Even more notable is the sweep of ruby lens material that spans the rear of the car. With turn signals flashing, brake lights glaring, and running lights burning, the Impala at night risks citation for impersonating an officer's emergency vehicle.

The Impala's exterior styling creates the distinct impression that this nameplate's 40-year image has grown up, turned hip, and gotten smarter. Still, there remains something slightly brazen and hot-roddish just under the surface. So it may come as something of a mild surprise to open the doors and reveal within...a family sedan. Just the same, here is one of Chevy's best-arranged, most orderly interiors in decades. Particularly nice is the logical sweep of dash instruments and controls. Knobs, buttons, and sliders provide intuitive, immediate mastery of the audio system and the dual-zone HVAC.

The only hiccup will be for drivers unfamiliar with new Radio Data Systems (RDS) technology. The Impala provides RDS capability standard, which allows selection of radio programming by category (talk, traffic, country, jazz, etc.). Where RDS hasn't yet caught on among broadcasters, as in Middle Tennessee, the feature can be confusing. RDS broadcasting, however, is transforming the airwaves of the major metros. So give it time, and take comfort in the fact that RDS also works invisibly in the background to reset the Impala's clock whenever you change time zones.

The LS Impala's impressive standard equipment list includes a side airbag for the driver (in addition to dual fronts). There are also four-wheel disk brakes with ABS and traction control. By means of a neat techno trick, the ABS sensors also make instantaneous comparisons of each wheel's rotation speed. If one seems to be rolling faster, its tire's air pressure may be low, as a dash-mounted warning light promptly suggests.

Ride and handling complement the Impala's domestic interior--call it a spirited ambler instead of an awesome sprinter. GM's tried and trusty 3800 V6, however, is plenty strong and crisply responsive at low throttle in traffic. Better yet, for daydreamers anyway, take a look under the hood. See that? Yes, it is clear space, which has been rarer than antelope ivory ever since automakers started shoe-horning motors into small cars. So do you think they're true, all those rumors about stuffing a V8 or supercharger into some future Impalas? Hmmmm.

For now, you can just bet Chevy doesn't want to mess with it. They need to make sure this Impala sells the way it is before doing any more tinkering with a now thrice-born reputation. And if the 2000 Impala should indeed attract the sales popularity its price and function merit, a chance to run away with a few new laurels might actually brighten a few old memories.

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