2006 Chevrolet Impala
Nashville, Tennessee The outgoing Impala was a surprise success for Chevrolet. In 2004, it finished as the third-best-selling car in America, behind the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry-though that honor was achieved with substantial fleet sales and rebates. Furthermore, in 2005, the Impala finished ahead of both of those competitors in J. D. Power's Initial Quality Survey. But the Impala sold well because it's a big car for small money, not because of stellar interior design or compelling chassis dynamics. For 2006, the Impala has three new engines-including a V-8 in the SS-and new styling inside and out. The two V-6s (211 hp and 242 hp) both use variable valve timing-a first in an overhead-valve engine-and the SS's 303-hp, small-block V-8 features displacement on demand. The pick of the litter, though, is the 3.9-liter V-6. Even though it lacks the high-rpm refinement of a Japanese multivalve V-6 and, like all Impalas, must make due with only a four-speed automatic, it offers a wide torque band and good fuel economy.
The surprise disappointment in the Impala lineup is the SS, a car seemingly geared toward the NASCAR-watching family man who needs some space and craves the sound of a traditional V-8 but demands little ride or handling refinement. The V-8 is too powerful for the chassis-spirited stabs of the throttle yank at the steering wheel even at highway speeds-and the heavy engine hanging out ahead of the front axle wreaks havoc on the handling dynamics when you attempt to drive the SS quickly. All of this is further exacerbated by the steering's lack of on-center feel, a problem that plagues all Impala models.
The redesigned interior is a major improvement, with panel gaps, switchgear feel, and general layout better than past models. In fact, the cabin's only real drawback is the lack of automatic climate control and a telescoping steering wheel.
While the Accord and the Camry still offer more refinement and the rear-wheel-drive Chrysler 300C has a better-balanced chassis, the Impala, armed with engine improvements and upgraded cabin, shouldn't need so much help maintaining its number three spot this time around.
Price: $21,990 (base)Engines: 3.5L OHV V-6, 211 hp, 214 lb-ft; 3.9L OHV V-6, 242 hp, 242 lb-ft; 5.3L OHV V-8, 303 hp, 323 lb-ftDrive: Front-wheel