MIKE COLIAS

Why sales of the new Impala must come the hard way

Automotive News | March 12, 2013 - 10:59 am EST

Mike Colias covers General Motors for Automotive News.
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SAN DIEGO -- Here's a prediction for a headline you're likely to see this fall: "Impala sales slide."

Not because the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, redesigned for the first time in eight years, is a bad car. It's a leap over its predecessor and should be plenty competitive with the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus and other big sedan rivals, based on my driving impressions from a media event here. The vehicles hits showrooms in April.

Total Impala sales are likely to drop because General Motors is trying to execute a 180-degree turn from the rental-car special that the once-proud nameplate has devolved into over the past decade.

Nearly three in four of the 169,351 Impalas sold last year went to fleet buyers and rental agencies. Chevy marketing chief Chris Perry told me GM wants to flip that percentage and have about 70 percent of sales come at retail and 30 percent sold for fleet and rental, with a heavy emphasis on more-profitable corporate buyers.

"Fleet will go down, but retail will go up," Perry says.

The strategy almost surely will result in lower sales volumes. Just do the math: To hit the 70 percent retail target and still keep pace with last year's overall sales, Chevy dealers would need to sell around 120,000 Impalas to individual buyers.

Large sedans just don't hit those lofty levels anymore. Combined fleet and retail sales of the Avalon last year were 29,556; Maxima sales were 59,349; Ford sold 74,375 of the Taurus.

GM execs are pursuing a brand-building strategy, willing to sacrifice volume for better profitability and the boost to the Chevy brand of selling an eye-catching flagship sedan.

But an increase in retail sales won't come easy. GM has loaded the Impala with technology and features -- cooled seats, 20-inch wheels and adaptive cruise are just a few of the high-end goodies available. In most trims and feature packages, the 2014 Impala will sticker for $4,000-$7,000 more than its predecessor.

That means Chevy could lose many of its most loyal buyers: Value-conscious older folks looking for basic transportation. It'll require Chevy dealers to go out and find a new breed of Impala customer.

I'm sure there are more than a few Chevy sales managers who are eager to try.

The 2014 Impala goes on sale in April.

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