Not too long ago, the full-size sedan was still an unflattering imitation of the land yachts of the Seventies. Even if it hailed from South Korea or Japan (via Kentucky), the average dreadnought put plush ahead of perky, bobbing and floating in the most matronly, smothering way possible.
Now, the Azera's found its light, the Taurus is back as an SHO, and even Toyota's Avalon has a sport steering mode. Count the 2014 Impala in with the converts. It's latched on to the trend, emerging with the best front-drive dynamics of the lot.
We've only driven two of the three available engines--the base four-cylinder and the optional six-cylinder--but there's a third engine available as well, with a mild-hybrid system incorporated. Base versions of the 2014 Impala carry a 196-horsepower 2.5-liter four teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission, sending power to the front wheels. That setup is rated at 25 mpg combined (21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway).
The base 2.5-liter four performs well enough under most driving conditions. When accelerating out of corners during some damp and intermittently rainy weather on our road test, proved surprisingly eager to spin its inside front wheel. Four-cylinder Impalas use active noise cancellation that sends sound waves through the speakers to cancel out engine noises that customers find disturbing. This lets Chevy program the engine to run as slow as 1,150 rpm with a locked torque converter—a behavior that used to be called “lugging”—without occupants hearing noises that might make them think something was wrong with the car.
Only in situations where swift acceleration was suddenly needed—from, say, 30 to 60 mph--did we find the four-cylinder Impala lacking in power. It felt as if the car should have shifted down to an even lower gear for better acceleration, but had a gear missing. The engine revved nicely as high as 6500 rpm, but the car simply didn’t gather speed as swiftly as we would have liked.
For even better fuel economy, the Impala Eco model uses a 2.4-liter four fitted with GM's eAssist mild-hybrid system. It can't move the car on electricity alone, but recaptures otherwise wasted energy to charge up a small lithium-ion battery in the trunk--and uses it to provide additional torque to the engine when needed, reducing downshifts to keep the engine operating at its more economical low speeds. It's rated at a remarkable 29 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 35 mpg highway). We haven't been in an Impala Eco, but the same powertrain in its platform mate, the Buick Lacrosse, works best when driven relatively gently. While you can feel the motor clutching in and out under some circumstances, it's relatively well muffled. Driven more aggressively, the transitions become more obvious.
For smooth, strong power with a 0-60 mph time in about 6.8 seconds, plus a nice raspy exhaust note as a bonus, you'll turn to GM's latest 3.6-liter V-6. The carryover powertrain is rated in the Impala LT and LTZ at 305 horsepower, with a big flat torque band and throttle response that avoids the overzealous, hair-trigger responses of some of its brethren. It's as energetic as any Impala we've driven over the past decade--and it's likely to stay on top of the Impala hierarchy, the arrival of the rear-drive Chevy SS sedan makes an Impala SS less likely.
The six-cylinder Impala is slightly lower in fuel economy than the best full-size sedans. At 21 mpg combined (18 mpg city, 28 mpg highway), it's 2 to 3 mpg lower than the Avalon and Azera. On the other end of the scale, the Impala Eco's 29 mpg combined is far below the Avalon Hybrid's commendable 40-mpg rating.
All Impalas get a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode activated by a click switch on the shift lever--where no one will use it, since the tall console makes it an awkward motion. It's also not a "sport" mode, in that the timing of the shift doesn't change. The transmission isn't as seamless as the GM benchmarks of the past. Because the torque converter's set up to lock up more often in the name of fuel economy, a jumpy foot can trigger what feels like half-shifts as the converter unlocks. It's still ready to react quickly to the right amount of pedal.
The Impala's built from the same body structure and suspension design as the Buick LaCrosse, and it shows. The premium setup lays out front struts and a multi-link rear end with digressive damping that's stiffer against small bumps, more relaxed against larger ones, with body lean put on a leash through rebound springs. The body's stiffer, from passenger cell to shock towers, to neutralize unwanted shimmy.
What that means is an Impala completely unlike the one just before it. The control over ride motions is subtle and exceptional given where it's come from, whether you're on the stock 18-inch wheels and tires or the optional, more noisy 20-inchers shod with Bridgestone Potenzas. Belt-driven electric steering complements the ride with accurate tracking and without gratuitous, artificial weight. The Impala has balance and all-around composure that the Taurus, Avalon and Azera miss by a factor here and there. It's comfortable, without lapsing into lazy.