This is the penultimate installment of a five-part series chronicling our Great Lakes Circle Tour in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. We started with Lake Erie. Day two brought us around Lake Ontario. Then we hit Lake Huron. Tomorrow, we’ll conclude with Lake Superior.
Lake Michigan isn’t really a lake. In fact, Lake Michigan is an inland sea, the fifth largest in the world, smaller than only the Caspian Sea in Asia and Lake Victoria in Africa, plus Lakes Superior and Lake Huron. It’s like standing beside an ocean, as the water extends to the horizon and the shore stretches as far as the eye can see to both the north and south.
Likewise, the 2014 Chevrolet Impala is probably not the kind of car you think of when you hear its name. For the last few decades, the Impala name has conjured up images of mediocrity. The 2014 Impala aims to change that impression thanks to styling that is of the modern idiom, an interior that is both ergonomic and welcoming, and a sophisticated chassis that shrugs off road imperfections.
Ludington: Post Card Come to Life
The starting point for our trip around Lake Michigan is Ludington, some 230 miles from Ann Arbor and about midway up the western shore of the lake. Ludington is the quintessential town on Lake Michigan, complete with a city-owned beach park, a harbor and marinas for boating enthusiasts and fishermen, historic lighthouses, Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, a state park with miles of sand dunes. It even has a car ferry — the SS Badger — that from May to September crosses the lake two times a day, fueling the town’s tourist industry.
After seeing the Badger off, we head up US-31and then, just past Manistee, turn onto scenic M-22, which runs along the lake to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and past the soaring sand dunes of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Reconnecting with US-31 brings us through the resort towns of Traverse City, Charlevoix, and Petoskey until, in Emmet County, we turn onto M-119, a narrow two-lane route that is popularly known as the Tunnel of Trees.
Here a mixture of hardwoods and evergreens line the winding road and provide a lush canopy that filters the sunlight on a good day or serves as an umbrella that protects us from a light rain like today. On this spring day, the forest floor is alive with countless numbers of blooming trilliums, a certain sign that spring has arrived here, since less than a month ago it was still knee-deep in snow.
Impala: Post Card Come to Life
This spring also signals a rebirth for the Impala. Gone is the stodgy ninth-generation Impala which, to be fair, still managed to sell well. In its place is a sleek, modern sedan.
Unfortunately the winding road through the Tunnel of Trees doesn’t bring out the best in the Impala. The electric-assist steering system does not engender confidence in tight corners where precise wheel placement is needed, as the effort level seems too light for us.
Likewise, the way the brake engagement is not as progressive as we’d like, as even light pedal pressure sometimes brings an abrupt response. At least the brakes will last a long time, as the Impala features GM’s new brake rotors, which are meant to last no less than 80,000 miles, resisting rust and brake shudder as they age.
The U.P.: Trees, not People
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is sparsely populated, by humans anyway. It’s heavily populated by trees. More important, the roads are mostly devoid of traffic. Even so, the speed limit on U.S. Route 2, which traces the northern shore of Lake Michigan, is a sedate 55 mph. It’s like driving in the 1970s, just after the gas crisis.
We follow Route 2 to Manistique, and from there head south to the Garden Peninsula and Fayette Historic State Park, where the preserved buildings of a late-nineteenth-century iron-smelting town overlook Big Bay du Noc.
It’s near the end of the day, and the soft light reflects off the water as the old buildings bask in the warm, late-afternoon glow. We’re taking pictures of the old furnace complex when we hear a commotion behind us. A fisherman has just reeled in an impressive pike that measures nearly four feet. My husband then launches into a story about his own pike-fishing days back in his native Sweden. It seems that everyone — even the man whom I’ve know since 1979 and who has never handled a rod and reel in my presence — has a fish story.
Impala: Off-roading in Comfort
The Chevy Impala has redeemed itself this afternoon with relaxed on-road demeanor and comfortable seats. We’re also getting unexpected fuel economy, as the onboard trip computer indicates 29 mpg.
More important, we reach Escanaba fourteen hours after our early-morning departure with none of the frazzled nerves that sometimes result from a long road trip. In fact, we’re so relaxed we’ve almost forgotten about our little off-roading excursion.
A word of advice: When you’re using a comprehensive road atlas, think twice before trying to take a short-cut on that little squiggle in the corner of the map. Before you know it, you’re on a rutted two-track, then you’re on a rutted two-track with loose sand, and the next thing you know you’re driving over a sand dune.
Door County: On Wisconsin
After a quick stop at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, we head for Door County, known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Door County is located on a finger of land that juts into Lake Michigan with Green Bay (the actual bay, not the city) to the west and Lake Michigan proper to the east. The bucolic countryside is covered with cherry orchards and farmland and is dotted with picturesque towns that have names like Egg Harbor and Fish Creek.
On the Green Bay side of the peninsula at Egg Harbor, we stop at Shipwrecked, the only microbrewery in Door County. According to the legend on the menu, it’s also a former hangout of 1920s gangster Al Capone. We enjoy a light lunch and a glass of lemonade (no beer today; we’re driving) on the outdoor patio and then make our way to the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula.
In the town of Bailey’s Harbor, we note that the thermometer has dropped by some 30 degrees F since our lunch stop. Since no weather has moved in, we attribute it to the cold winds blowing off the lake. Note to self: When visiting Door County in the spring and fall, stay on the Green Bay side.
Impala: The Car as Art
Since yesterday morning, we’ve had the roads pretty much to ourselves, so it’s back to reality when we finally reach the outskirts of Milwaukee, the second largest city on the shore of Lake Michigan. To escape the traffic, we exit I-43 and head toward the lake, then turn south until we reach the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by well-known Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Upon the museum’s opening, he said, “I worked to infuse the building with a certain sensitivity to the culture of the lake — the boats, the sails, and the always changing landscape.”
The designers of the 2014 Impala were faced an equally exacting task, charged with elevating the full-size sedan from a commodity into a car that can compete in both style and substance with the likes of the recently redesigned Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera. We find that they’ve generally succeeded — the lines of the new Impala are thoroughly modern, infusing the Impala with a sense of style that it was lacking for so long.
But it’s not just styling. The Impala has the entire package — a comfortable ride, spacious front and rear seats, a large trunk with a good-size opening, and a powerful, 305-hp V-6 engine that is well-matched to its six-speed automatic transmission.
Chicago: The Second City
Day three brings us to Chicago, the jewel of Lake Michigan, a city that boasts world-class restaurants, a vibrant night life, and plenty of places where you can just be a tourist. We pursue photo opportunities at Soldier Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Shedd Aquarium, stop by the Lincoln Park Zoo, and do a quick drive-by of Wrigley Park before heading for Navy Pier, where you can grab a bite to eat, take a boat tour, and even ride a Ferris Wheel.
By now it’s late afternoon, and we have to cut our itinerary short so that the Impala can start on its last leg of the Great Lakes Circle Tour. No Indiana Dunes, no South Haven, Saugatuck, or Holland.
No worries, though. We’ve managed to put more miles on the 2014 Impala in three days than most owners will in a month, and we’ve come away convinced that it will do well in the marketplace as its newfound sense of style and intelligent packaging promise to lure buyers who would previously have never considered an Impala.
The Statistical Record: Lake Michigan
Start: Friday, May 18 — 8:00 p.m.
End: Monday, May 20 — 7:00 p.m.
Miles traveled: 1393
MPG observed: 28.7 mpg
Listened to: “Car Talk” and “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” on NPR; SiriusXM radio contributed Classic Vinyl, the Bridge, and NHL playoff hockey (Red Wings versus Blackhawks)
Best Road: M-119 from Harbor Springs to Cross Village
Wildlife observed: 4 wild turkey, 6 deer, 1 pike, countless dead raccoons, and about a million mosquitoes.
Best things about 2014 Impala: styling, seats, trunk space.
Worst things about 2014 Impala: steering feel, navigation touch screen.