- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

Not everyone is a certified car nut, ready to spend the last disposable dollar on a new set of wheels featuring all of the latest technology.

Many people — perhaps even most — want nothing more than reliable, reasonably priced transportation that fits their needs. They don’t feel the need to buy a vehicle that says something about their station in life or one that trumpets their perceived good taste to others.

If they happen to be in the market for a family car, a Chevrolet Impala may just meet their requirements.

This is a roomy, comfortable and competent sedan that makes no waves on the road. Even with an extensive makeover for the 2006 model year, its styling remains bland, although not objectionable. It contains no breakthrough technology, inspires no lust and seeks no attention. You could almost say it is hiding in plain sight.

Yet, with sales expected to near 300,000 sales this year, it is General Motors’ top-selling vehicle and the third-best-selling car in the United States, trailing only the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

By mid-September of this year, according to Chevrolet, total sales of 220,000 were up 20 percent over 2005. Retail sales were up 24 percent and fleet sales showed an 18 percent increase.

And, with General Motors’ new for 2007 five-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty that includes courtesy transportation and roadside assistance, Chevrolet is hoping the Impala may become even more attractive to the practical motorist.

The Impala comes with three engine choices — two V-6s and one V-8 — divided among its four trim levels. But it’s the cars that offer the base engine — the base LS and the better equipped LT models — that are the most popular, accounting for 60 percent of sales.

And that is where I come in. The test car was a 2006 Impala LT with the 3.5-liter, 211-horsepower engine and four-speed automatic transmission. With room to fit five comfortably, a spacious trunk and an extensive list of standard features, it had a surprising base price of only $20,830.

But price wasn’t the only thing about the Impala that I found pleasantly surprising.

The engine, with its relatively modest output, turned out to be something of a Mighty Mouse. It moved the 3,637-pound sedan briskly from a stop, had adequate passing power and could easily cruise all day at speeds much greater than the legal limit.

The V-6 design may seem antiquated to many, but it features the first use of variable valve timing in an overhead valve engine. The result is a powerplant that is acceptably smooth and reasonably quiet, even under heavy acceleration.

It’s also economical. The EPA rates fuel efficiency at 21 miles per gallon of regular gasoline in the city, 31 on the highway. I averaged between 19 and 28 mpg in a week of urban and highway driving.

In addition, the engine will run as happily on ethanol as it will on gasoline.

The four-speed automatic transmission, seemingly outdated in this era of five-, six-, seven- and even eight-speed automatics, worked just fine. Upshifts were smooth and downshifts were lag-free.

The touring suspension, independent at all four wheels, was neither harsh not overly soft. Its settings work well for a motorist not given to spurts of enthusiastic back-roads barnstorming.

The brakes, vented discs in the front and solid discs at the rear, were certainly adequate. On the car I tested, the antilock feature with traction control was a $600 option. For 2007, it will be standard on all but the base LS Impala. C’mon, Chevy, make it standard on the LS, too. Safety features should not be expensive options.

My one disappointment was the rack-and-pinion steering. It put the Chevrolet where it was pointed, but it gave little feedback from the road. In addition, it should have a stronger on-center feel. On the highway, I found myself making repeated corrections to stay safely in the middle of my lane.

Inside, the environment was a mixture of the good and not-so-good. The seats were acceptably comfortable and the dashboard, instrument panel and door panels were of acceptable quality.

But, the upholstery was right out of the fleet playbook. It may be sturdy, but that nondescript “mouse fur” practically shouts “cheap.”

Standard safety features on the Chevrolet Impala LT include driver and front-passenger dual-stage air bags, side-curtain air bags, daytime running lights, a child-seat latch system and an emergency trunk release.

Standard convenience features include dual-zone air conditioning, cruise control, eight-way power driver’s seat, power windows and door locks, a remote starter system, stereo sound system with CD player, OnStar emergency and communications service (for one year), and driver information center with trip computer.

Options on the test car were those antilock brakes, XM satellite radio with free service for three months ($325), rear flip-and-fold seat ($275) and upgraded sound system ($195).

Add everything up, including the $660 destination charge, and the price comes to $22,885.

If price and practicality are at the top of your car shopping list, don’t forget to stop by your Chevrolet dealer. You might be pleasantly surprised, too.

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