The Chevrolet Impala is a mid-size sedan packing nearly full-size family room. It even feels like a big luxury car. The Impala handles well and accelerates quickly when equipped with the optional 3.8-liter V6.
By any other name, the Impala would be an impressive, significant car. But Chevrolet chose to honor an icon of the 1960s, not only with the Impala name, but with key visual cues as well. Impala is calculated to push the nostalgia button for a certain generation.
From 1958-65, Impala meant the flashiest full-size Chevrolet, a real working-man's Cadillac, tame in its base form but offering performance options to match its aggressive looks. After '65, the sporty Impala was subordinated to the more conservative-looking Caprice, and eventually the name disappeared from the Chevrolet lineup.
Like its namesake, today's Impala is tame and practical with base-level equipment. However, when ordered with the optional 3.8-liter V6 the Impala is quick. The Chevy Impala feels more responsive than the six-seat sedans from Toyota, Dodge, Ford and Buick. The Impala offers competent suspension tuning, distinctive looks, and plenty of interior room.
XM Satellite Radio is available as an option this year and the 2003 Impala comes in new exterior colors with new five-spoke alloy wheels.
Impala ($20,235); Impala LS ($24,025)
The Chevrolet Impala looks bigger than it is, thanks to its upright windows and roof pillars and relatively long greenhouse. The Impala is significantly shorter (9 inches) than a Dodge Intrepid, yet it's slightly larger in total interior volume.
The Impala's most distinctive styling cues are its headlight and taillight clusters, which use a unique combination of round lights clearly visible from behind trapezoidal covers. It's an aggressive look for a Chevy sedan, so you'll easily spot an Impala in traffic. If you don't like the boy-racer spoiler on the deck lid of the LS, you can delete it for a $175 credit.
The Impala is noticeably roomy inside, with 122 cubic feet of interior volume. Again, credit the high roofline with relatively vertical sides. The Impala's designers also carefully rearranged the rear bulkhead, and moved the seats slightly outboard. The noticeable distance between the driver and the front-seat passenger contributes to the impression that the Impala is huge inside.
Base models come with a three-passenger split bench seat in the front; LS models come with two individual front seats, although by checking off the right options you can put buckets in the base model or a bench in the LS. Or you can opt for a leather-accented bench seat. Because it comes with six-way power, lumbar support, and a side-impact air bag, it costs $1390 on base models and $625 on LS.
At first glance, the individual seats look flat, like semi-benches, but when you sit in them they provide good support for the thighs and back. They feel like bucket seats. But the front-center passenger has to straddle the split between the seats. A slight hump down the center of the floor accommodates the exhaust; but it also hampers legroom for the front-center passenger.
It's easy to orient yourself inside the Impala. Controls are logical, work smoothly, and are easy to see. They follow the function of those in the smaller Chevy Malibu, but they're bigger. Individual temperature controls allow the driver and front-seat passenger to create their own microclimate.
The Chevy Impala boasts more interior volume than the Dodge Intrepid, but the Impala's rear seat area is shorter on useable legroom. Still, the Impala is better in this respect than the Ford Taurus or the even the full-size Ford Crown Victoria. The Impala's rear seating position is comfortable and relatively high, which makes it easy to get in and out. There are three shoulder belts in the rear, as well as LATCH child-seat tethers. In the LS, the rear seat is split 60/40 and folds down to allow bulky items to protrude from the trunk, handy for trips to Home Depot.
The headliner is nicely padded, to meet the Federal head-injury standards. A seat-mounted side-impact airbag is standard on LS and available as part of several option packages on the base model.
The Impala feels like a big luxury car, even compared to a Ford Crown Victoria or Toyota Avalon. The Crown Vic seems unrefined when you drive it back-to-back with the Impala. The Toyota feels bland by comparison.
The view out of the Impala is good, helped particularly by the small quarter windows that split the rear pillars. The creases on the hood are useful for judging just where the front of the car is, which in turn is handy for parking a big car in compact spaces. The rear deck lid seems high, however, so care is required when backing up.
Handling is surprisingly quick and sharp. This is not the wallowing, live-axle barge from the 1960s. One reason is the Impala's extruded aluminum engine-cradle subframe, a first for the industry says Chevrolet, which isolates vibration while allowing for a more rigid structure. A monster dashboard bulkhead made of light and strong magnesium further enhances to the Impala's rigidity, giving the car a robust feel. The engine cradle and dashboard structure lock the steering shaft down tightly, so there are no excess wiggly movements. Chevy says a novel link between the steering column and the steering gear contributes to better on-center feel at the wheel. Both Impala models benefit from anti-roll bars front and rear, hardware associated with sports sedans.
On the road, the steering provides good feedback, better than the Toyota Avalon's steering. The LS we tested felt particularly precise, with its quicker steering ratio.
Likewise, the brake pedal feels firm and responsive. Braking is smooth and steady, and we applaud Chevy's decision to use discs at all four wheels, even on the base model.
Acceleration is brisk, especially with the more powerful 3.8-liter engine. Chevy claims the Impala can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds, quick for this class. There's just enough torque steer, felt as a slight tug on the steering wheel whenever you stomp on the gas pedal, to remind you that this is a front-wheel-drive car.
The Impala is used for police duty and the police package includes higher-ratio gearing from the Pontiac Grand Prix for quicker acceleration.
The Chevrolet Impala delivers excellent value among mid-size sedans, with decent handling, immediately recognizable design cues, and a long list of amenities. It honors the heritage of the original Impala, without reviving the old car's excessive bulk. But even for a younger generation who never knew the older car, the Impala name will still stand for a great family-car value