We're looking out over the San Diego cityscape from a penthouse high above the street. It's dusk, and the lights wink on among the thicket of tall buildings silhouetted against the sky. It's one of those vertigo moments ... not because of the view but because of the 2014 Chevrolet Impala a few feet behind us. How did this car get up here?
It's not the physical challenge of putting a 201.3-inch sedan in the small patio area of a penthouse on top of an apartment building that makes us feel wobbly. It's the idea of such a stunt with a Chevrolet that seems unhinged.
You know, Chevrolet. The car company that makes plain but honest cars with all the glamour (Corvette aside) of farm implements. Yet when you flat-out ask Impala chief engineer Todd Pawlik what's the most important thing about the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, he says, "It's the way it looks."
Remaking the corporate architecture
Sure, the 2014 Chevrolet Impala is the newest entry in the full-size, front-wheel-drive sedan segment, but there's more at stake than the usual boasting about sales numbers compared with the Ford Taurus or Toyota Avalon. The 2014 Impala is about being the best, the kind of commanding statement we don't expect from a company famous for looking sideways and shuffling its feet when ambition has been called for. As we walk out of the Andaz hotel onto F Street the morning after the penthouse unveiling, the Impala greets us with the same kind of character as the comprehensively refurbished, 90-year-old hotel itself, a modern presentation strengthened by traditional elements. Built on the Epsilon II platform that began with the Opel Insignia and which has produced striking cars in long-wheelbase form from Buick and Cadillac, its statement of Chevy tradition comes from the swelling line of the rear fenders, a design flourish introduced with the very first car to carry the Impala name in 1958 and best expressed in the wonderful 1965 model.
You can tell the 2014 Impala is right after driving the first 50 feet. The car moves away from the curb all at once, with the confident, forthright and yet reassuring feel that Bentley and Rolls-Royce engineers have told us is the signature of a fine motorcar. Epsilon II has worked for Chevy engineers because they have been able to cherry-pick all the best bits Buick and Cadillac have developed and refined. This includes a 305-hp, direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6 that revs so crisply, plus the six-speed automatic transmission that quickly locks up its torque converter to enhance fuel efficiency (EPA-rated 19 mpg city/29 mpg Highway for the V-6).
Go big or go home
As you'd expect in a large car, the Impala's cabin is all about spaciousness. It delivers 105 cubic-feet of passenger volume, with 45.8 inches of legroom in front and 39.8 inches in the back. The low cowl and receding wings of the dash enhance the sensation of space, while the use of high-strength steel in the A-pillars enables them to be twisted slightly to increase the driver's field of view.
The interior is rich with standard convenience features, like the increasingly usable MyLink interface (an improved version of Cadillac CUE). An 8-inch touchscreen lets you click, swipe and drag the screen icons, connect up to ten devices through Bluetooth, and display the optional 3D navigation system. Optional leather trim is laid conspicuously thick on the dash surfaces, and while this effect seems slightly take-me-to-the-country-club gorgeous in a color that contrasts with the upholstery, it's very Euro when executed in a complementary color.
Michigan-size people fit in the rear seat, and the doors have been bowed outwards slightly to increase shoulder room by placing the locks at the rear of the window sill. The car is very quiet thanks to double-pane acoustic glass for the windshield and front side windows, plenty of acoustic baffles within the body structure, and a pretty slippery 0.30 Cd that controls wind noise.
Driving in the spirit of harmony
It is the way the 2014 Chevrolet Impala drives that really sets it apart. The suspension action is wonderfully hydraulic, as if GM engineers have discovered shock damping at last. The car smoothly blends the transitions between acceleration, braking, steering and cornering in a very impressive way. This is no sports sedan, yet it represents a responsive yet stable platform for fast cross-country driving.
We hammer the V-6 through the gears as we pass a service truck on the two-lane road to Campo and the transmission shifts quickly and smoothly, although there are no manual control paddles. The stiction-free, Camaro-style electric-assist steering is precise. The front suspension with its reinforced strut towers quickens response from the tires, which come in 18-inch, 19-inch and 20-inch dimensions. The car also rides with more equanimity on the 19s and 20s than we've seen from some premium cars. We like the P245/45R-19 98V Goodyear RS-As best.
There are plenty of business facts in this car's story, including the forthcoming availability of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder model that is expected to make 21 mpg City and 31 mpg Highway, plus a mild-hybrid that will make 25 mpg city/35 mpg Highway. Pricing ranges from the $27,535 LS with the four-cylinder engine to the $36,580 LTZ with the V-6. The mid-price LT models between these two extremes will represent 55 percent of the volume.
Quality takes a big effort
When chief engineer Pawlik describes his team's challenge in sustaining close tolerances in the complex fit between the hood, the fender and the elaborate LTZ-style headlight cluster, sweat pops out on his forehead. This makes us even more impressed with the car's quality. His is the same kind of sweat equity that has put the 2014 Chevrolet Impala in a penthouse on top of a building in downtown San Diego.
That and one of the large number of giant construction cranes that are all over the city these days. The publicity stunt only cost $5000, we overheard. Of course, as the car was dangling about 100 feet above the street, the breeze off the fogbank over the ocean apparently made the car sway enough to make your heart stop.