Aging Impala holds back Chevy makeover
Last month, General Motors North American President Mark Reuss touted the next-generation Malibu as "the next step in a complete transformation of the Chevrolet passenger car lineup in less than two years."
Uh, not quite. One car has been left behind: the Impala.
In Consumer Reports' annual ratings this spring, GM's average test score improved from 65 to 67, placing it 12th among 13 ranked automakers. The magazine cited the Impala as one of the "lackluster cars" that dragged down GM's score.
The Impala is built on a platform that dates back nearly 20 years. Its V-6 pushrod engine has less punch than many modern four-bangers.
The next-generation Impala isn't expected until 2014. That will make it eight years since it was last restyled and re-engineered -- and 14 years removed from a full redesign. Meanwhile, the Ford Taurus, a key competitor in the large-sedan segment, is getting a makeover for 2013, less than four years after a redesign.
"There's no doubt that the Impala is longer in the tooth than we would traditionally run a vehicle," said Rick Scheidt, Chevy's vice president of marketing.
The aging Impala reflects GM's bankruptcy hangover. A rear-drive version that had been scheduled for the 2011 model year was scrapped as part of the deep cost-cutting of 2008 and 2009. Redoing the front-drive version then took a back seat to the rest of the car lineup.
The Cruze compact and Malibu mid-sized sedan were given priority because they're higher volume vehicles and are sold globally. The priority GM put on the subcompact Sonic, set to replace the subpar Aveo in late summer, now looks prescient amid $4-a-gallon gasoline.
The buzz around those cars is building as GM pivots to reposition Chevy as a not-just-trucks brand. It's also heightening the anticipation around the next iteration of the Impala.
Chevy's emerging car lineup "is the best we've ever had," said Duane Paddock, owner of a Chevrolet dealership in Kenmore, N.Y., which sold 3,731 new Chevrolets last year, including nearly 2,000 cars. "You add a luxury Impala, and we've got every piece. And that's where the market is going. It's going to cars."
A freshening later this year should help the aging Impala soldier on for a few more years, and soften the next flogging from Consumer Reports.
The 2012 Impala will get a new 3.6-liter engine to replace the current choices of a 3.5- or 3.9-liter, a Chevy spokesman confirms. A six-speed transmission will replace the outdated four-speed. Some styling changes are planned, too, including a new grille and dual exhaust pipes.
The current Impala still sells, although sales are heavily lubricated with discounts and fleet business. In March, about 75 percent of Impala sales went to fleets and rental-car companies.
Deep retail discounts have created an overlap problem with the Malibu.
"Impala and Malibu compete for the same audience right now just based on the deal," said Rich Diver, owner of Diver Chevrolet in Wilmington, Del., which sold 1,200 new vehicles last year.
The next-generation Impala should solve that problem. Bryan Nesbitt, Chevrolet's executive director for exterior design, said brand bosses are conscious of the need for spacing between the Malibu and Impala.
"You have to reconcile that within a four-sedan showroom and be clear on whose position is what," Nesbitt said.
He also hinted that the future Impala will fill a different role than that of today's big, budget-priced car.
"We've seen this transition happening, where it's harder and harder to justify the scale of a vehicle without paying for it," Nesbitt said. "This idea of a giant box that you can get for a very low price becomes harder to solve."
The next-generation Impala will move to the longer version of GM's Epsilon platform, which underpins the current Buick LaCrosse and the upcoming Cadillac XTS. Shorter overhangs in the front and rear should save weight.
Several dealers who were shown an image of the next-generation Impala at a meeting in Las Vegas earlier year said it bore some resemblance to the LaCrosse.
Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive, said that as the next Impala goes larger and more upscale, "The Malibu can then take up the mantle of the larger, mass-market vehicle with global appeal."
Brand execs are mum on plans for the Impala. But their commitment to the Chevy flagship is clear.
Chevrolet sales boss Alan Batey puts it this way: "When we do finally show the thing, I think it'll blow the doors off."
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.