2004 Chevrolet Impala
2004 Chevrolet Impala Expert Review: New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
More performance, more nostalgia with new Impala SS.
The Chevrolet Impala is a roomy and practical car, a mid-size sedan that handles well, yet rides more like a big luxury car. Acceleration with the optional 3.8-liter V6 is more than adequate. But for those who want more, Chevrolet has added a supercharged Impala SS model for 2004.
The Chevy Impala is calculated to push the nostalgia button. By any other name, it would be an impressive, significant car. But Chevrolet chose to honor an icon of the 1960s, not only with the Impala name, but with key visual cues.
From 1958-65, the Impala was the flashiest full-size Chevrolet, a real working-man's Cadillac, tame transportation in its base form, with performance options available to match its sleek styling. Among those performance options, starting with the '61 Impala, was the SS, or Super Sport, package, featuring unique, sporty trim inside and out. When ordered with a big-block V8 and heavy-duty brakes and suspension, an Impala SS was a formidable luxury-performance car.
Like its namesake, today's base Impala is tame and practical, but the optional 3.8-liter V6 makes the Impala quick. The supercharged 3.8 that comes with the new SS model makes it quicker still. In any form, the Impala feels more responsive than the six-seat sedans from Toyota, Dodge, Ford and Buick. All Impalas offers competent suspension tuning, distinctive looks, and plenty of interior room.
Impala provides contemporary safety as well, with a five-star rating (the highest possible) from the Federal government in both front and side impacts.
Three models are available: Impala ($21,485), Impala LS ($24,585), and Impala SS ($27,385). The base Impala runs with a 3.4-liter V6 rated at 180 horsepower. The more up-market LS comes with GM's proven and highly competent 3.8-liter V6, producing 200 horsepower. The new SS uses the same 3.8-liter V6, but boosted to 240 horsepower by a belt-driven, positive-displacement supercharger.
All models come with an automatic transmission, air conditioning with separate controls for driver and passenger; AM/FM/cassette stereo; four-wheel-disc brakes; a rear window defogger; power locks, windows, and mirrors; remote keyless entry; tilt steering; front and rear anti-roll bars; P225/60R16 tires, and stainless steel exhaust.
The LS adds anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, a sport touring suspension, aluminum wheels, fog lamps, a tire-pressure monitor, bucket seats with a center console, a six-way power driver's seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear deck-lid spoiler and cruise control.
The supercharged SS comes with a performance suspension, P235/55WR17 tires, a heavy-duty automatic transmission, leather seats, graphite interior appointments and lots of unique trim and identification, inside and out.
A long list of Preferred Equipment Groups add amenities at every level, and special appearance packages are available to add further distinction to the LS or SS. ABS is available as a stand-alone option ($600) with the base 3.4-liter engine. A driver's-side side-impact airbag ($350) is available on all Impalas. The 3.8-liter engine is available as an option ($995) on the base model, and comes with the touring suspension, tire-inflation monitor, and ABS; with the bigger engine, however, you are required to order a fairly expensive Preferred Equipment Group, so at that point it may make sense to spring for the LS. XM Satellite Radio ($325) is optional on all Impalas. OnStar is available as a stand-alone option ($695), but comes with several packages.
The 2004 Chevrolet Impala looks bigger than it is, thanks to its upright windows and roof pillars and relatively long greenhouse. The Impala is shorter (by about 4 inches) than a Dodge Intrepid. The Impala matches the Intrepid in most front-seat dimensions, but comes up a little short in the rear.
The Impala's most distinctive styling cues are its headlight and taillight clusters, which use a unique combination of round lights clearly visible from behind trapezoidal covers. It's an aggressive look for a Chevy sedan, so you'll easily spot an Impala in traffic. Body-color side moldings (new for 2004), aluminum wheels and a small deck lid spoiler help distinguish the LS from the base model.
On the SS model, the rear light covers are masked in body color, so only the round lights show through. This conjures memories of the 1960 ('62-'63 particularly) Impalas whose round taillights were set in bright metal panels.
The reborn SS also wears a lowered front fascia with integral fog lights, unique 'diamond-cut' wheels, dual stainless exhaust tips, and a racy airfoil on the rear deck lid. And the SS comes in any color you like, as long as it's black.
The Impala is noticeably roomy inside, with 123 cubic feet of interior volume. Again, credit the high roofline with relatively vertical sides. The Impala's designers also carefully shaped the rear bulkhead, and moved the front seats slightly outboard. The noticeable distance between the driver and the front-seat passenger contributes to the impression that the Impala is huge inside.
The seats have been re-styled for 2004, with new upholstery for most models. Base models come with a three-passenger split bench seat in the front, with individual seats and a console offered as an option. At first glance, the individual seats look flat, like semi-benches, but when you sit in them they provide good support for the thighs and back. They feel like bucket seats. LS and SS come standard with the individual seats and console. Leather is an option with any of these combinations, even the bench seat in the base model.
The bench seat provides theoretical room for a sixth passenger, but there's a slight hump down the center of the floor to accommodate the exhaust, and it hampers legroom for the front-center passenger.
It's easy to orient yourself inside the Impala. The instrument panel gets more gauges as you step up from the base model to the LS to the SS. Exclusive SS instrumentation includes a boost gauge to monitor the supercharger, and the SS instrument panel is trimmed in graphite.
In all Impalas, individual temperature controls allow the driver and front-seat passenger to create their own microclimate. The controls have been redesigned for 2004 for a more contemporary look. Chevrolet claims that airflow is better, too, in both heat and air-conditioning mode, although we hadn't noticed that it was lacking before.
The Impala's rear seating position is comfortable and relatively high, which makes it easy to get in and out. The Impala has good shoulder room in the rear seats, but doesn't have as much headroom or legroom as a Ford Taurus or Dodge Intrepid. There are three shoulder belts in the rear, as well as LATCH child-seat tethers. In models with individual front seats, the rear seat is split 60/40 and folds down to allow bulky items to protrude from the trunk, handy for trips to Home Depot.
XM Satellite Radio is nice to have around town for listening to the 24-hour news and sports broadcasts, or for staying tuned into your favorite types of music (classical, jazz, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s), and there's no need to change the stations as you drive across the country.
OnStar works well as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the button and a human operator responds, to provide directions and other assistance. OnStar always knows the location of your vehicle. The staff will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls. Or you can press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. They can unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside. They can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover.
The 2004 Chevrolet Impala feels like a big luxury car, even compared to a Ford Crown Victoria or Toyota Avalon. The Crown Vic seems unrefined when you drive it back-to-back with the Impala. The Toyota Avalon feels bland by comparison.
The view out of the Impala is good, helped particularly by the small quarter windows that split the rear pillars. The creases on the hood are useful for judging just where the front of the car is, which in turn is handy for parking a big car in compact spaces. The rear deck lid seems high, however, so care is required when backing up.
Handling is surprisingly quick and sharp. This is not the wallowing, live-axle barge from the 1960s. Yet the ride is well-damped and does a good job of filtering noise, vibration and harshness. One reason is the Impala's extruded aluminum engine-cradle subframe, which isolates vibration while allowing for a more rigid structure. A monster dashboard bulkhead made of light and strong magnesium further enhances to the Impala's rigidity, giving the car a robust feel. The engine cradle and dashboard structure lock the steering shaft down tightly, so there are no excess wiggly movements. Chevy says a novel link between the steering column and the steering gear contributes to better on-center feel at the wheel. All Impala models benefit from anti-roll bars front and rear, hardware associated with sports sedans.
On the road, the steering provides good feedback, better than the Toyota Avalon's steering. The LS we tested felt particularly precise, with its quicker steering ratio.
Likewise, the brake pedal feels firm and responsive. Braking is smooth and steady, and we applaud Chevy's decision to use discs at all four wheels, even on the base model.
Acceleration is brisk, especially with the more powerful 3.8-liter engine. Chevy claims the Impala LS can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds, quick for this class. There's just enough torque steer, felt as a slight tug on the steering wheel whenever you stomp on the gas pedal, to remind you that this is a front-wheel-drive car.
The Impala is used for police duty and the police package includes higher-ratio gearing from the Pontiac Grand Prix for quicker acceleration.
The Impala SS is quicker, but we weren't all that impressed with the acceleration. The supercharger on this engine is a positive-displacement unit, which means that it pumps a fixed volume of air for each engine rotation; so there's no throttle lag, and performance does not drop off rapidly at low speed, as is often the case with a turbocharger or centrifugal supercharger. The Impala SS develops its peak torque of 280 pounds-feet at 3600 rpm. To handle that increased power and torque, the SS comes with powder-metal (rather than cast) connecting rods and a heavier-duty four-speed automatic transmission.
Compared to garden-variety Impalas, the SS also rides on stiffer springs, stiffer anti-roll bars, even stiffer mounts for the rear suspension. And of course its tires are wider, with lower and stiffer sidewalls. Even so, the SS suspension is well damped and filters out vibration and harshness. Overall, though, the Impala SS feels like the big, heavy car that it is, and I managed to heat up the brakes while driving hard on a twisting back road.
The 2004 Chevrolet Impala delivers excellent value among mid-size sedans, with decent handling, immediately recognizable design cues, and a long list of amenities. It honors the heritage of the original Impala, without reviving the old car's excessive bulk. The new SS model recalls the original Impala's image of low-cost high performance as well. But the LS seems to be the best package, well-equipped, comfortable and roomy.
Chevrolet Impala ($21,485); Impala LS ($24,585); Impala SS ($27,335).
Options As Tested
Preferred Equipment Group 1SB ($780) includes AM/FM RDS cassette and CD stereo, steering wheel audio controls, heated exterior mirrors, electrochromic inside mirror with reading lights, carpeted floor mats; Driver Information Center ($295) includes trip computer with outside temperature and compass, HomeLink transmitter, theft deterrent system; Comfort Seating Package ($445) includes 6-way power adjuster for front passenger seat and heat for both front seats; leather upholstery ($625) ;OnStar ($695).
Chevrolet Impala LS ($24,585).
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