- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

Chevrolet dressed up and powered up its most popular car this year, giving the Impala line more upscale interiors, improved convenience features and mightier engines.

Best of all, pricing for some models is decreased, and there are more Impala versions offered, including the V-8-powered, top-of-the-line SS.

The base 2006 Impala sedan with 3.5-liter V-6 has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $21,990, a full $1,020 less than the $23,010 cost of a 2005 base with V-6.

Ranked as a large car by the Environmental Protection Agency but often cross-shopped with midsize sedans by consumers, the Impala competes in the family sedan category. Among its competitors are cars classified as large: the 2006 Chrysler 300, which starts at $24,200 with V-6, and the 2006 Hyundai Sonata, which starts at $18,495 for a four-cylinder model and $21,495 for a V-6 model.

Compared with just three trim levels last year and only V-6 engines, this year’s Impala comes in four grades — LS, LT, LTZ and SS — and has the new, 303-horsepower V-8.

Too bad, though, that despite new headlamps and taillamps and some mild restyling, the Impala is rather bland on the outside and is certainly nothing like the expressive Chrysler 300. This dullness extends even to the 2006 Impala SS which, among other things, wears a rear spoiler and 18-inch wheels and tires.

Indeed, some consumers who were able to immediately recognize earlier Impalas because of their four prominent, round taillights will find its rear appearance less distinctive and more like that of a mainstream sedan from a Japan-based carmaker. The interior, however, impresses.

Radio and ventilation controls are a streamlined, easy-to-use arrangement from a new generation of components going into many vehicles from Chevrolet parent company General Motors Corp. A low cowl means even a 5-foot-4 driver like me can see easily over the Impala dashboard and onto the hood.

Dashboard materials in the test car had an upscale look compared with earlier Impalas. Yes, the dashboard is covered with plastic, but the plastic has a pleasing feel, and the grain of the plastic and the lack of a cheap-looking sheen make for an attractive appearance.

The thick front seats — with optional leather in the tester — were mostly comfortable, though I wished for some contouring on the flat driver seat cushion to help me stay in place behind the wheel of the SS. I also wished that the carpeted cover of the support or brace bar behind the driver seat in the test car was more professionally finished. As it was, the fabric was puckered and pulled awkwardly and was the first thing I noticed as I settled into the back seat.

Front-seat head restraints — with “SS” stitched prominently onto them — are height adjustable and lock into place, just as they should.

The three backseat head restraints are fixed in place, so they don’t get in the way when someone puts the seatbacks down to extend long cargo from the trunk. In addition, these fixed rear head restraints appeared to be large enough to catch and hold my head if there’s a crash.

The SS is a five-seat car, though other Impalas offer five or six seats. Even the middle person in back gets a shoulder belt.

This year for the first time, all Impalas come standard with curtain air bags.

But stability control — which is standard on every Sonata — isn’t offered on the Impala. Even antilock brakes, which also are standard on the Sonata, are an option on the base Impala.

The 5.3-liter V-8 in the tester provided ample power for passing or just cruising with ease. I enjoyed the strong, deep engine sounds that came each time I pressed the accelerator and, on occasion, I squealed the SS tires at startup. Peak torque is 323 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm.

This power brought on a bit of torque steer in this front-drive car several times. Torque steer is the jerking of the steering wheel to one side or the other as strong power is delivered to the front wheels at startup.

The V-8 in the SS includes Displacement on Demand technology that automatically shuts down four of the engine’s eight cylinders in certain situations when full power isn’t needed. This can occur when the car is cruising, and the driver isn’t likely to notice the change.

Nor is the driver likely to notice when the engine automatically returns to full V-8 operation. Chevrolet officials said this on-and-off system can help give the Impala SS an 8 percent fuel economy improvement over what it would have had without DOD.

The Impala’s new six-cylinder powerplants also are competitive in fuel economy.

The base, 211-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 earns a rating of 21/31 mpg, which is third best in the EPA’s category of large cars with six-cylinder engines. This engine produces up to 214 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Impala’s midlevel engine — a 242-horsepower, 3.9-liter V-6 generating 242 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm — is rated at 19/27 mpg.

All Impalas have a four-speed automatic transmission, which does not include a shift-it-yourself, manumatic mode.

The underlying front-wheel-drive platform for the Impala hasn’t changed, but suspension tuning has been adjusted for better ride comfort and handling.

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