This is the second installment of a five-part series chronicling our Great Lakes Circle Tour in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. We started with Lake Erie. Tomorrow we’ll circle Lake Huron. Thursday we skirt Lake Michigan. On Friday we’ll let you know how many moose we spotted as we traced Lake Superior’s shoreline.
“War-torn” probably isn’t the first term anyone would use to describe the region around Lake Ontario, but that’s exactly what it was two centuries ago. The War of 1812 involved a confrontation between the United States and colonial Canada. British and U.S. fleets patrolled the deep waters of Lake Ontario, fighting fierce battles along the shores. And so we felt as if we had set out to invade Canada in our own American cruiser, a 2014 Chevrolet Impala.
Rochester: Bankruptcy and its Aftermath
We start out in Rochester, New York, the largest American city on the lake. Several battles were fought at the mouth of the Genesee River, which runs through the city and spills into Lake Ontario. (It also gives its name to a popular brand of beer.) When we roll through, Rochester seems less concerned with Canadian raiders than with the fate of Kodak, the bankrupt company that once powered the local economy.
Fortunately for Chevrolet, the U.S. auto industry has proven more resilient than film photography. Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, points out that the new Impala is one of the first products developed entirely after GM’s trip through bankruptcy, and this car does feel like a fresh start. Although Chevy has wisely stuck with the Impala nameplate, this car looks and feels nothing like the dumpy, warmed-over Chevy Lumina with which we’ve lived for the past decade. Let’s hope Rochester fares as well as GM has.
Impala: Drive, He Said
After hitting an old Chevrolet dealership that’s been turned into a coffee shop, associate web editor Ben Timmins and I head toward the lakeshore on Kings Road. It’s the sort of windy, challenging old road you randomly find in upstate New York. The Impala plays along without much enthusiasm, its nose pushing over the front tires whenever the cornering loads get too high for its liking. Basically the car is tuned by its tire selection, so you pick 18-, 19- or 20-inch tires depending on your preference for sporty handling. We’ve tried the 20s and find that the 19s on this car deliver a better balance of good handling and refined ride comfort.
Although the Impala has more than enough power from its 3.6-liter V-6 and now rides on a capable platform — the same basic setup that serves the Cadillac XTS — it clearly doesn’t want to be a sport sedan. It’s much happier when we reach the section along the lake, which gently curves and crests. Here the ride is smooth and comfortable but not floaty, and the light-effort steering provides just enough feedback to connect your hands to the road.
Fort Oswego: Life on the Border
Our first stop is Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. British forces overwhelmed and destroyed the fort in 1814 (the current structure dates back to the 1840s). It takes some finagling to be able to drive the Impala up to the gate. “They make us ask lots questions, what with Al Qaeda and everything,” one of the fort’s caretakers explains apologetically. He suggests we visit Sackets Harbor, a tiny village that during the war served as a major base for the U.S. Navy.
When we arrive there, a chill wind is blowing off the lake. Looking out at the choppy water and ominous sky, it’s not hard to imagine a British fleet appearing over the horizon, as one did on May 29, 1813. The Americans held on, killing some fifty British and Canadian soldiers and burying them in unmarked graves throughout the area, where they remain to this day.
Impala: Cabin Fever
After filling up on gas and filling a beer growler for later with locally brewed War of 1812 Amber Ale, we climb on the highway to get to the Canadian border before rush hour.
The Impala’s interior impressed us at first, but it does so somewhat less as we cover these monotonous miles. The design emulates themes from expensive luxury cars, and the steering wheel looks like one from a Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the wraparound dash recalls a Jaguar XJ’.
Yet the execution reminds you that this car has been built to a price. The cut-and-sewn leather is neither cut nor even leather in most places, while the reasonably attractive simulated wood clashes with seemingly random swatches of grey plastic. The dashboard panels also come together somewhat haphazardly. Yes, we must admit that this car does not have the exquisite detailing that you find in a $100,000 sedan from Germany or England. (Should we be shocked?)
Kingston: Canada, Oh Canada
Americans have always thought of Canadians — particularly those in Ontario — as simply eccentric neighbors. When conflict broke out in 1812, war hawks in the U.S. government assumed Canadians would gladly join our cause if only we encouraged them by sending in some militiamen. As we cross the border and survey familiar chain stores, we indulge in similarly provincial thinking. “It’s basically fancy America,” quips Timmins.
Our thinking changes some when we drive further into Kingston, Ontario, which served as the staging area for British forces during the War of 1812. Even now, the town retains a European feel. No one seems terribly concerned about Al Qaeda here, as scores of people are biking and walking around Fort Henry, which still hosts an active military college. In fact no one stops us from driving right up to the gate.
Impala: Steering Electrically
While the steering action feels a little vague just as you move the steering wheel off center, this electric-assist steering is actually very good. The effort is light, yet the action is pretty direct. Slowly some reality is creeping into the calibration of electric-assist steering, which has been adopted throughout the car industry to improve fuel efficiency and also ensure compatibility with stop/start engine management.
Just like the Chevy Camaro, the Impala incorporates internal programming that compensates for the way that crossroads or even a highly crowned road can make any car seem to drift in its lane. Sensors in Chevy’s system detect the load on the steering and adjust the effort level so the driver can maintain a straight path with less input. It’s one of those things where a steering algorithm can finally help you instead of hinder you.
Toronto: War on the Ice
We meander west and arrive in Toronto after nightfall. Conflict with the United States is again brewing, since game seven of the playoff series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs is underway. Crowds have gathered in bars and even on the street to watch the broadcast.
The 2014 Impala’s fresh, upscale design represents the U.S. well in this bustling, fast-growing metropolis. With its sweeping expanse of sheetmetal and masculine, Camaro-like nose, the new Impala finds the brashness that large Chevrolet sedans haven’t had since the 1960s.
The knock against Toronto is a certain lack of culture amidst the sprawling forest of office buildings and expensive condos, in comparison with Chicago or New York, at least. Questions about substance also apply to the Impala. It might be hard for some to justify spending nearly $40,000 on what still is a front-wheel-drive sedan, when competitors like Chrysler and Hyundai offer V-8s and rear-wheel drive for the same price. Of course, this would mean that prestige would be more important than fuel economy or traction on an icy highway, but we have heard that some people think this way.
Touring Lake Ontario
The next morning, we track back east for a brief tour of the GM factory in Oshawa, Ontario, that builds the 2014 Chevrolet Impala along with the Camaro, the Cadillac XTS, and the Buick Regal. That’s right, the Impala is actually Canadian (well, it’s also built in Hamtramck, just outside Detroit). Good thing we didn’t try to explain all this back in Sackets Harbor.
We pass though Toronto one last time on our way home and stop along the lake in Coronation Park. A small sign politely recounts the American invasion that took place here. Nowadays it’s a quiet area where people ride bikes and walk their dogs. That’s what we call progress. So, too, is our stylish, comfortable Chevrolet Impala. It’s not perfect, but it’s much improved. Think of it as once again a (Canadian) American touring sedan worthy of its name.
The Statistical Record: Lake Ontario
Start: Monday, May 13 — 8:00 a.m.
End: Tuesday, May 14 — 4:15 p.m.
Miles traveled: 551
MPG observed: 24
Forts/battlefields visited: 4
Shots fired (by a camera): 270
Impalas built in Oshawa in 2012: 120,000
Final score of Boston Bruins/Maple Leafs playoff game: 5-4, Bruins
Best things about Chevrolet Impala: It looks like an Impala should look; surprisingly fast
Worst things about Impala: Interior execution doesn’t live up to the design, handling doesn’t live up to straight-line performance