Between the Lines: Road & Track on the Chevy Impala

The Chevrolet Impala embodies everything that s wrong with GM. It s not a bad car; it s just not a great one. The Impala struggles vainly to make a marque in a class filled with deeply-entrenched, top-notch competition. Road & Track s First Drive review of the new Chevrolet Impala embodies everything that s wrong with buff books. It s not an obsequious review; it s just not an honest one. Road & Track struggles vainly to maintain fading street cred in a new media world filled with editorially liberated content. In that sense, it s ironic that Shaun Bailey s apologia begins by harkening back to less demanding times...

Back in the 1960s, Chevrolet s Impala made sales records with sharp-styling, 6-person capacity and V8 power. Today s Impala is linked to the past only by its leaping antelope emblem. Although modern Impalas are completely different animals, Chevrolet s objective to provide classy, spacious and practical transportation has not been lost.
Bailey s lead displays all the emotionally repressed worthiness of corporate sales copy. The second sentence s focus on the big Chevy s leaping Impala seems carefully designed to tie-in with Chevrolet s current ad campaign, which animates the car s animism. Even if it s an unfortunate coincidence, Bailey s assertion that the new Impala has no significant connection to Impalas of yore is patently false — as he points out in the third sentence.

Immediately after this dull, dissonant start, Bailey deploys a familiar trick of the why good reviews happen to bad cars trade: stacking the deck.

The new Impala offers more of what the modern consumer wants: reliability, fuel economy, practicality, passenger space and a good air-conditioning system. Performance and the thrill of tackling a back road are not high on the list. The Impala and its competition are about the Interstate; room for the kids in the back seat and being a responsible adult. And the newest Impala is scads better that the previous-generation car and now a true competitor to the Honda Accord and Chrysler 300.
You can almost hear the page-swishing sound of thousands of enthusiasts bailing on Bailey. They don t need me to read between the lines on this one. They know exactly what happens next: the Impala scores highly in R&T s highly rigged competition. Besides, what enthusiast wants to wade through a car review as a responsible adult ? Luckily, Bailey dropped a curious crumb for OCD pistonheads: an insistence that a good air conditioning system rates higher on the modern (if elderly) buyer s list than performance. Hmmm.

In paragraph three, we learn that the new Impala is based on the old platform. So much for the no link to the past theory. Paragraph five serves-up an entire spinning platter of unintentional yucks, of the piercing-glimpse-into-the-obvious, damned-by-faint-praise variety. Bailey lauds the Impala for having separate knobs for volume and tuning (there s that pesky link to the past again), reveals that leather adds to the interior s appeal and discloses that the audio input jack is convenient for connecting any external audio device such as an MP3 player. So now you know.

Unfortunately, reality bites. When Bailey is forced to confront the Impala s engine issue, he resorts to another trusty avoidance technique: bait and switch. The moment after he mentions the base models ancient, asthmatic pushrod V6, the critic launches a discussion of the Impala SS and its V8. Of course, the leap lands Bailey straight in the front-wheel drive torque steer minefield — which he negotiates with all the blind bravado of a GM PR flack.

Although the Impala SS isn t rear-wheel drive, it s still a sporting sedan. Larger anti-roll bars, 18-inch wheels with 235/50R-18 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires and stiffer springs see to that. The exhaust burble and rapid rate of acceleration let others know it, too.
Oh please. It takes more than a burble, some bolt-on bits and a few [unmeasured] accelerative bursts to convince readers that GM has transformed its plain vanilla wrong-wheel-drive sedan into something intoxicating enough to impress anyone, ever. Bailey knows this, but before he fights his predictable rear-guard (front drive) battle, he feels obliged to tell us that the Impala s standard air con coped in weather with a heat index of 120 degrees. (Hence the initial AC mention.) And they say GM lags behind the competition. Anyway, back to defending the indefensible
Though it s not exactly a competitor to Chrysler s SRT products, it s every bit as sporty as a Honda Accord or Chrysler 300C. Body roll is well controlled and tire noise is kept at bay while cornering hard. Front-wheel-drive burnouts are simple, but, thanks to traction control, not accidental.
Bailey s use of the word exactly is a perfect illustration of the reason why enthusiasts have lost faith in R&T. Anyone who reads a car magazine knows that the Chevy s SS isn't in the same performance universe as Chrysler s rear-wheel-drive 300C SRT-8. By making the comparison and throwing in the qualifier with such condescending insouciance, Bailey sacrifices any remaining credibility. To wit: where s the evidence for his assertion that the Impala can run with the Accord or 300C? The fact that the Impala produces minimal tire noise while cornering? And does anyone else think that a man who uses the words "scads" and kept at bay isn't the best person to judge the relative merits of front vs. rear burnouts?

In case you think my depiction of Bailey as a fusty, fork-tongued elitist is OTT, check out his conclusion:

While enthusiasts understanding the redeeming qualities of rear-wheel drive, the majority of consumers do not care. Does that mean R&T readers should ignore the Impala? Absolutely not. It s a fine car for your more normal friends and family; you know, the ones who would never consider forgoing the highway for that time-consuming (though much more fun) twisty two-lane stretch. But when you take them to the Chevy dealer to check out the new Impala, make sure you take a test drive of the new SS yourself.
Here s an idea: let s not, and say we didn t. Instead, let s spare a moment to mourn the passing of GM, and those who spend their precious moments on planet Earth bending over backwards for The General s benefit.

[Jalopnik s Between the Lines column parses the rhetoric of the automotive industry, and the media that covers it, from the point of view of that kid at the back of the class with ADD, a genius IQ and a thirst for mayhem.]

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