Retooled Chevy Impala aims to shed rental-king image
With the 2014 Chevy Impala, GM aims to grab retail market share from the Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon and others in a large-sedan market that's been shrinking for years.
Photo credit: GM
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NEW YORK -- General Motors today unveiled the long-delayed redesign of the Chevrolet Impala at the New York auto show, hoping to transform a rental-fleet stalwart into a showroom head turner.
The next-generation Impala, the 10th version of the nameplate introduced in 1958, is an effort to take the car decidedly more upscale and accelerate retail demand while dialing back fleet sales. The 2014 Impala will mark the car's first redesign in eight years and its first platform change since the late 1990s.
The Impala has soldiered on despite being a few years past due for a redesign, a victim of deep cost cutting during GM's bankruptcy and restructuring. Last year's U.S. sales of 171,434 far exceeded those of its large-sedan competitors but were lubricated by fleet sales, which accounted for roughly three-quarters of its volume.
"This is GM staking out their claim for this large-car segment with a significantly better product," said Aaron Bragman, an IHS Automotive analyst. "This is not a fleet special. You're looking at a higher-priced car, a higher-positioned car, a higher-margin car."
Automakers rarely unveil a car a year before it goes on sale, for fear of pulling the rug out from under the current model. But when most of the car's buyers are fleet operators, not individuals, that's less of a risk.
When the redesigned Impala arrives in showrooms roughly a year from now, GM executives believe it will erase what even they acknowledge is the last remaining blemish on Chevy's car lineup in terms of quality.
GM is aiming to take retail market share from the Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon and other rivals in a large-sedan market that's been eroding for years as buyers have migrated to SUVs and crossovers.
"It has been a bit dormant in the full-sized category," acknowledged Chris Perry, vice president of global marketing for Chevrolet. "But this entry … I think it is going to re-spark some interest in the full-sized sedan."
Backing off fleets
GM expects the redesigned Impala to "play a different role than it has" in Chevy's lineup, Perry says. Translation: GM expects its fleet sales to drop.
That could put a big dent in Impala's overall sales volume. IHS Automotive expects the Impala's U.S. sales to plunge by more than half to 84,138 in 2014, from an expected 178,209 this year.
That's because the price likely will go up sharply and fleet sales will fall, says Christopher Hopson, IHS's manager of North American sales forecasts.
Chevrolet's Perry wouldn't provide a sales forecast for the 2014 model but acknowledged that fleet sales likely will decline. He said Impala pricing will be in line with key competitors such as the Avalon.
The price could climb considerably from the current car's sticker of $26,585 including shipping. The Maxima's sticker price is $32,840 and the Avalon's $33,995, also including shipping.
Keys to a higher sticker
To help command a higher price, GM is counting on a much bolder design and advanced technology that could appeal to younger and more upscale buyers.
The redesigned Impala's exterior sports a sleeker, sweptback profile, with a long nose and short rear deck. A wider grille and power dome hood show some sportiness. Wrap-around headlamps and front fascia and chrome accents give it a more premium look than the current car.
The powertrain lineup includes an Ecotec 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine coupled with GM's eAssist mild hybrid system, which will produce 182 horsepower and is expected to get 35 mpg on the highway.
It will also come with GM's new Ecotec 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, returning 195 hp, as well as a 3.6-liter V-6 with an estimated 303 hp. All the engine choices will be mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Smaller, still-competitive segment
AutoPacific Inc. expects the large-sedan segment to shrink further as a percentage of the overall U.S. market, to 2.9 percent in 2017, from 3.6 percent in 2011.
IHS analyst Bragman said the large-car market remains competitive despite its shrunken size. Toyota is showing a new large sedan here this week, and Hyundai recently launched an Azera with its first redesign since 2005.
Chrysler Group recently refreshed its Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. Ford is planning a facelift for the 2013 Taurus.
Photo credit: GM
Darren Post, vehicle line director for the Impala, said that the styling changes and ample technology inside the car, such as adaptive cruise control, will help GM "shift the distribution to younger buyers."
"People probably think 'rental car' when they hear the name 'Impala,'" Post said. "They're going to walk into the showroom and see something that looks aggressive and sporty. And then when they sit in it, they're going to say: 'Wait a minute, is this a luxury car?' "
Inside, GM has deployed a package of acoustic measures to deliver a quiet cabin, including the use of active noise cancellation on the four-cylinder versions. That feature, found in some Cadillac models, uses microphones and sound waves to counteract unwanted noise.
GM also will pack the Impala with several optional safety features typically found on luxury cars. A forward collision-alert system, lane-departure warning and a collision-mitigation system that alerts the driver of an impending crash and applies the brakes are among the features that are a first for a Chevrolet nameplate.
The Impala will come in three trim levels: LS, LT and LTZ. It will be built at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant, where the Chevy Volt and Malibu also are assembled, and at its factory in Oshawa, Ontario, where the current car is made.
Chevy's revamped lineup
The redesigned Impala will round out a revamped car roster that makes Chevy's lineup virtually unrecognizable from that of even three years ago.
The Cruze compact replaced the lackluster Cobalt in fall 2010 and has quickly become the brand's top-selling car at 231,732 units last year. One size smaller is the Sonic, with monthly sales nearly triple those of the Aveo it replaced last fall.
This summer, Chevy will get its first presence in the mini-car market with the U.S. launch of the Spark. GM also is rolling out a redesigned Chevy Malibu, the car that started the brand's sedan revival with its redesign for the 2008 model year.
Photo credit: GM
Despite the makeover of Chevrolet's passenger car lineup, the Impala continues to be a millstone for GM. Partly because of aging models such as the Impala, the automaker ranked 12th out of 13 automakers in the April issue of Consumer Reports based on road test scores, quality and reliability. The influential magazine deems the Impala "dated and unimpressive," citing trunk space as its lone plus.
Concedes Perry: "There's no doubt that the vehicle we have now has done less than play the flagship role."
Delayed by bankruptcy
GM's 2009 bankruptcy is mostly to blame for how long-in-the-tooth the Impala has become. At one time, GM envisioned moving the car to a rear-wheel-drive platform and planned a launch for the 2011 model year.
After the decision to move it to a version of GM's Epsilon platform, which also underpins the Buick LaCrosse and upcoming Cadillac XTS, the Impala's redesign took a backseat to the Cruze, Sonic and other higher priorities as GM emerged from bankruptcy.
In coming months, Chevrolet could hedge its bets by introducing a rear-wheel-drive sedan to its lineup to counter Chrysler's success with the Charger and 300.
Last month, GM said that Chevrolet's NASCAR teams will replace the Impala with a new nameplate for 2013 that will closely resemble a production version also planned for sale in U.S. showrooms.
That's led to speculation that Chevy is planning a rwd performance sedan such as the Chevy Caprice, which is made by GM Holden Ltd. in Australia and imported to the United States for sale as a police vehicle.
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.