Rental-Car Reacharound: Call of the Mild - The Chevy Impala

Approaching the rental lot at the Manchester, NH airport, I was struck by the sheer abundance of Chevy Impalas. Seems the erstwhile Ford Taurus has finally met its match — so much for GM kicking its rental habit. With keys in hand, I set off to sample Chevy's latest full-size offering, a silver LS model with a mere 70 miles of abuse on the odo.

Popping the trunk presents a yawning chasm of space with room for either an entire family of Mafia informants or the bags of three accompanying adults. You'll have to excuse my enthusiasm. I used to own a Mazda Miata; trunk space still excites me.

In the cabin, there's a decidedly mixed bag of fits and finishes. A vast expanse of hard-black plastic unfolds like Arizona creosote. Fake wood trim does nothing for interior ambience, but does offset the liberal use of dark materials. The audio and HVAC control stack is familiar looking, but all the controls are right where you'd expect them to be (take note European carmakers). The seats are unexpectedly good, providing both comfort and decent back support, but offer limited power adjustments. Room in the back is adequate for two adults.

I should note that operating the column shift is a pain. Either I'm out of practice, or hopelessly uncoordinated, but I overshot whatever selection I wanted just about every time I tried. I want "D" it gives me "3."

Navigating our way onto I-93, a muted gasp from a rear passenger betrayed the Impala's driving dynamics on the very first turn (oops). The upshot: a quiet, comfortable and compliant ride with a disconcertingly vague front end and overassisted steering. However, at highway speeds it's a stable and very comfortable cruiser, with very little intrusion from road noise. The engine was a pleasant surprise, offering good low RPM torque, fuel economy and even (gasp) a lack of harshness — provided the revs needle remains shy of 5K. Around town, the 3.5-liter V6 gets the LS off the line with ease, and the cabin provides good visibility (unlike last week's HHR, but that's another story).

The Impala isn't a car of anyone's dreams. It won't inspire passion or jealousy (or pity) from fellow motorists, but it is a capable and roomy transport vehicle. During my working week with the Impala, it became apparent the model is a significant improvement over the previous generation, and light-years ahead of anything similar from Ford (and yes, I know that's damming with faint praise). If GM could work on the tightening up the front end, offer better-quality tires and give the column shifter a good talking to, the Impala would be a family bargain. Sure, depreciation due to rental-car dumping is an issue, but at a street price of around $18K, it's probably one of the better deals on a full size family sedan out there. [by Chris Hofflin]

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