There are people who believe that you can learn all about a car in a trip to the test track, but we are not among them. We believe in the road, and we don’t mean just the road to the grocery store, either. So when the 2014 Chevrolet Impala came into our hands, we started thinking about a road of some serious distance, a drive that others lack the imagination, enthusiasm, and dedication to make.
And as we looked out the window here on Highland Drive and thought about a road that matched the American character of the reborn Chevy Impala, we realized that we were practically looking right at it. The Great Lakes! Five, huge, interconnected bodies of water like no others in the world! We’ll drive around each one! 7000 miles! Eight states and Canada, too! Road maps, road food, and roadside attractions!
So this is the Great Lakes Circle Tour. Five editors (and their friends), five lakes and thirteen days. One great American sedan in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. Some new roads, some new adventures, and some new insight into an important new car.
At Automobile Magazine, we go the distance. It turned out to be so much fun that we’re thinking about making T-shirts.
Great Lakes Circle Tour: Lake ErieIf there's a body of water, the real estate around it is expensive. This cardinal principle of real estate value is an easy enough formula for a house overlooking an ocean, but what happens when your waterfront property is in a gritty, post-industrial locale, and your water is Lake Erie? It set us thinking as we left Ann Arbor in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala.
Just like the cities around Lake Erie, the Chevy Impala is a prime symbol of the ups and downs of American industry. Once a revered nameplate at General Motors, the Impala languished in the 1990s and 2000s, eventually becoming GM's shining star only on rent-a-car lots. But no more, since the 2014 Chevy Impala rides the same Epsilon II platform as the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS. It also shares its torquey, direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6 with these cars. And Impala bodywork so featureless and anonymous in past generations has now grown so sleek and dramatic that it almost deserves description as "sultry."
If there was a comeback kid in GM's stable, it would be the new Chevy Impala. And to see if the cities of Lake Erie were equally rejuvenated, we programmed our destinations into the Impala's MyLink infotainment system and started to drive.
Cleveland: Burn On, Big River, Burn OnWe knew that a post-industrial city like Cleveland would have some grit to it, but we weren't prepared to see it as soon as we hit the city limits. We pull off I-90 almost immediately, taking a quick series of rights until we hit 3rd Street. All of a sudden we're puttering through a deserted neighborhood of quarries and industrial buildings, and then we park in the middle of a New Deal-era drawbridge over some water leading to the Cuyahoga River. There’s not a boat or barge in sight.
It's a deserted neighborhood, but one fortunately in proximity to Cleveland's ongoing revitalization. Just up Literary Avenue is Bergen Village, a neighborhood filled with mid-century triple-deckers yet now also home to shiny new condos. In a sign of the early stage of Cleveland's renaissance, the condos start "in the low $200s," an amount of money that would net you a walk-in closet back in Ann Arbor.
Cleveland's return from industrial ruin has come in fits and starts. Yes, it's the site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the neighborhood known as the Flats is clawing back from port town to nightlife attraction, but the process is still slow. We can't help but notice the sidewalks are empty.
Impala: Mid-century or Modern?At about $37,000 as tested, our top-spec 2014 Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ (with the 305-hp V-6, LED running lights, big 19-inch wheels, and MyLink connectivity) sits squarely in the crosshairs of another traditional-style front-wheel-drive sedan with a V-6, the Hyundai Azera. While the Azera is down some 12 horsepower to the Impala (293 hp to 305 hp), its powertrain feels smoother.
Erie: Water Is PowerWe're less than a mile from Erie's sparkling convention center (a prime piece of waterfront property), when we pull over for photos of the Chevy Impala next to a quaint historical building. Only when we climb back in the car do we realize that the building is an old pumping station. It seems a bit prosaic to say it, but this is a reminder that the Great Lakes – and the water in them – have meant a lot more to America than just a place to get a tan on weekends.
This is a theme that's repeated in each of the cities we visit, Where there's water, there are pumping stations and power plants. Looking up at Erie's towering water-works building, we note that such expensive-looking government buildings would sadly be the subject of disapproval these days.
Erie also provides another good lesson in the fine line between "revitalized neighborhood" and "yet-to-be-revitalized neighborhood." We detour down Bayfront Parkway on our way out of downtown and end up in the shadow of a massive, burned-out factory at 12th Street and East. It's a scene with which most Detroiters are familiar, but one we're a little stunned to find here.
Impala: American QualityThe interior features offered by the Chevy Impala and Hyundai Azera are the same – satellite radio, smartphone connectivity, GPS navigation, heated/cooled seats, and the list goes on. Yet Azera has ekes out a victory when it comes to build quality and interior appearance.
The Impala has a few interesting architectural forms within the cabin and it's headed in the right direction (which is to say, far away from the anonymity of its predecessor). Yet the sophisticated wrap-around design of the dash is writing checks that Chevy’s suppliers and assembly plants can’t entirely cash, as we note more than a few panel gaps and turn up our noses at the color palette.
Compared to the Chevy Impala, the Hyundai Azera’s interior plays it more conservative but does it with better execution.
Buffalo: Red-light District"If there's a red light in the middle of Buffalo and you run it, what if nobody's there to see you? Is it still illegal?"
The Impala idles at a deserted downtown intersection and its right turn-signal indicator blinks as we look up at a sign that says, “NO TURN ON RED.” Before we have a chance to really ponder the answer to the question of traffic crimes with no witnesses, the red light turns green and we proceed.
It's about 9 p.m. on a Monday night, but David Zenlea and I are having trouble finding nightlife, perhaps because we’re more used to Boston and Chicago than hard-working cities in the rust belt. Truthfully, we're having trouble finding life at all.
To be fair, Buffalo looks the part of a city from an architectural standpoint. The downtown area is stuffed with stately looking buildings and wide, one-way streets. There's culture – we see it when we detour to SUNY Buffalo and its ring of modern art museums – but there isn’t a whole lot of people around to enjoy it. Neighborhoods like the Cobblestone District are quaint pieces of architectural resurgence, but Buffalo might be lagging behind Cleveland and Erie in its return to grace, since most of this shiny new neighborhood is still a construction zone, a piece of gentrification that has yet to fully gentrify.
We slide the 2014 Chevrolet Impala into a parking spot along Amvets Drive (next to yet another pumping station) and make a few photographs as the sun sets. The scenery is beautiful, and so are the photos. Satisfied, we fire up Yelp on a phone and look for an open place that serves wings, thinking that Buffalo's downtown area would be full of them. But the list of open wing joints is thin, and the GPS directs us to a regional chain in the suburbs. We briefly feel defeated, but this being Buffalo, the wings are delicious.
Impala: Gentrification by ElectrificationThe 2014 Impala features the newest generation of Chevrolet MyLink. It basically builds where the systems in the Chevy Traverse and Chevy Cruze systems left off and more closely emulates the Cadillac User Experience (CUE), albeit without the Caddy's high-tech touchscreen.
Music/radio heads will want to download Pandora and Stitcher Internet Radio (you might also have luck with TuneIn, although this app has been only recently added to the roster) for your entertainment purposes. Keep in mind that both will use cellular data (although you may be able to download podcasts through Stitcher), a feature that you may or may not be able to use in Canada (check with your IT person). On the other hand, SiriusXM should work all throughout the GLCT route.
Touring Lake ErieSo it's a win for the Hyundai Azera, right? Nope. Climb out of Chevy Impala, stand back to look at it, and you’ll see that it's no contest. The Hyundai Azera's oversize-Sonata styling theme is fine, but the Impala's exterior is bold and charismatic – extroverted, if it's possible for a car to be such a thing. Our Impala's crystal red tint-coat (a $395 option) is worth every penny. This car is very photogenic, and even after driving for hours, we regularly climb out of the car and find ourselves impressed by its looks.
The same goes for the Impala’s V-6 engine. While the Azera's 3.3-liter V-6 might win when smoothness is the name of the game, the 3.6-liter GM V-6 impresses with its mid-range grunt and musical engine note.
And that's the crux of it. The cities along Lake Erie have a ways to go before they reach the notoriety of America's major metropolises, and the Chevy Impala has a ways to go before it matches the refined execution of a Toyota Avalon or even the Hyundai Azera. Yet the Impala has a kind of pedigree and charisma that the Avalon or Azera can't match, and we find the same qualities in the cities we tour while behind the wheel of this Chevrolet.
The Statistical Record: Lake ErieStart: Sunday, May 12 – 6:15 a.m.
End: Monday, May 13 – 7:15 a.m.
Miles traveled: 656
MPG observed: 25
Music: "Chocolate," The 1975; "Pompeii," Bastille
Photos Taken: 1129
Calls to OnStar: 2
Best things about 2014 Impala: exterior looks; engine sound at 4000 rpm.
Worst things about 2014 Impala: color values of gray interior choice; vague steering just off center.