GM’s Sporty Impala Makeover Aimed at Exiting Rental LotsTim Higgins
General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Impala sedan, long relegated to the rental car lot, is making a surprising U-turn back to relevance thanks to a racy redesign that borrows from sports car stable-mates Camaro and Corvette.
The 2014 Impala debuting next month is everything its predecessor is not. The early buzz among car reviewers is that the reincarnated Impala is exciting to the eye, upscale to the touch and a good value starting at $27,535.
With a face lifted from the Camaro and a dual-seat cockpit copied from the Corvette, the Impala promises to bring the big sedan back to its halcyon days when it ruled the American road.
“The car looks expensive,” said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst based in Boston. “There’s a little Camaro in the V-shape of the front end that looks proud and a little menacing. And it has a nicely crafted interior.”
GM is counting on the makeover to restore the Impala’s status as Chevy’s flagship, allowing it to exit the rental lot and enter more American garages. The big cruiser is emblematic of GM’s effort to reinvent itself as a legitimate contender in cars, a category it had short-changed for years in favor of pickups and sport-utility vehicles. The revamped Impala is aimed at boosting profit margins on cars by selling more to regular retail customers and fewer to fleet buyers.
It also may have an unintended consequence: The restyled Impala could upstage its showroom sibling, the Chevy Malibu, GM’s struggling entry in the huge and hotly contested mid-size sedan market dominated by Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry.
Since coming out of a government-backed bankruptcy in 2009, GM has found success with Chevy small cars, the Cruze and Sonic, drawing a new generation of buyers to American sedans that had long been rejected by Baby Boomers. The Malibu has been an exception. The Camry has outsold the Malibu by more than two-to-one this year.
The contrast the new Impala creates between Chevy’s cars is bound to cost the Malibu some customers, even though it starts at $4,730 less than the Impala, Wolkonowicz said.
“The difference in appeal is huge,” Wolkonowicz said. “The Impala is the best sedan GM has introduced since the Cruze. The Malibu is just a lackluster effort. There was no love lavished on that car.”
GM is rushing out a redesigned Malibu, which is scheduled to hit the streets in the third quarter, two people familiar with the effort said in January. The changes include giving the front-end a facelift to resemble the new Impala, said the people, who had asked not to be identified discussing internal plans.
In the meantime, GM cut the Malibu’s price by as much as $770 and is looking for some positive rub-off from the well-received Impala.
“We think the Impala is going to help the sales of Malibu because it’s going to bring in an audience looking for a passionate car,” Chris Perry, vice president of Chevrolet U.S. marketing, said in an interview March 12 in San Diego where the company showed journalists the new Impala. “You always see cross-shopping in the dealership.”
The Impala once inflamed the passions of millions of American car buyers. Introduced as a concept at GM’s 1956 Motorama traveling car show, the Impala embodied the power and grace of the speedy African antelope for which it was named. With winged tailfins and teardrop taillights, the Impala became the top selling car in America in the 1960s, peaking at more than 1 million in 1965, Wolkonowicz said. By contrast, Camry was the top selling car in the U.S. last year with 404,886 sales.
“The Impala of 1958 to 1970 was simply the hottest and best looking full-sized American car that you could afford,” said Wolkonowicz, who noted a 1965 Impala coupe started at $2,667. “It was the best buy on the American road. It was something special for the common man.”
The Impala remained a top seller through the 1970s. Large cars, though, began losing the American family in the 1980s as minivans and sport-utility vehicles replaced them. GM dropped the Impala from the Chevy lineup in the late 1980s, brought it back briefly in the mid-1990s and dropped it again in 1996. Resurrected in 2000, the Impala sold well to car rental fleets and police departments. Sales peaked last decade at 311,128 in 2007, according to researcher Ward’s Auto.
By last year, Impala’s U.S. sales had fallen to 169,351, down 46 percent from 2007 and about one-sixth of the car’s mid-1960s zenith. Only three in 10 sales last year went to individual retail buyers, who pay more and provide bigger profits. Rental car companies purchased most of the Impala models GM produced, Perry said.
“We’re going to flip that,” Perry said. “It’s 70-30 now; it’s going to be 30-70 with this new car. This is mainly going to be a retail car.”
Perry declined to give sales goals for the Impala. Wolkonowicz said sales are bound to decline as Chevy focuses the new Impala on retail customers, who are harder to woo in large numbers. Researcher IHS Automotive estimates sales of the new Impala will fall to about 95,000 in the U.S. in 2014 as GM cuts low-profit fleet sales.
To lessen the loss, GM will keep the current generation of the Impala alive for an extra year as a fleet-only model. Dubbed the Impala Limited, GM is extending its run because fleet sales are “a profitable business that we don’t want to give up,” Perry said.
The big sedan market has become a tough sell as car buyers downsize to more fuel-efficient models. The U.S. full-size sedan market declined 42 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to IHS. In 2000, American car buyers had 15 different large car models from which to choose, IHS said. By last year, there were only seven entries, including the Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon.
The redesigned Impala may have a better chance with retail buyers because it will outshine the Malibu in the Chevy showroom, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for Santa Monica, California-based auto researcher Edmunds.com.
About 12 percent of Malibu shoppers in January considered buying an Impala, according to Edmunds. That’s similar to the amount of Malibu shoppers who also looked at the Nissan Altima, Ford Motor Co.’s Fusion, Honda Accord or Chevy Cruze.
“Initially, the Impala will be a threat,” to the Malibu Caldwell said in an interview.
The new Impala is one of 13 new Chevrolets being introduced this year in the U.S. as GM turns over 89 percent of its lineup by 2016. It’s critical to GM’s effort to refresh offerings that grew stale following its bankruptcy and to claw back U.S. market share, which fell to an 88-year-low in 2012.
“For us, it’s the final piece of the puzzle in the transformation of the Chevrolet passenger car lineup,” Perry said of the Impala.
Toyota overtook GM last year to become the world’s largest selling automaker. GM’s net income fell 33 percent last year to $6.19 billion, from a record $9.19 billion in 2011. The company’s operating profit in North America last year dropped 3.3 percent to $6.95 billion.
“Now, it’s a matter of getting consumers that maybe had not considered Chevy in the past to consider Chevy,” Larry Dominique, executive vice president of Santa Monica-based auto researcher TrueCar Inc., said in a telephone interview.
With the Impala redesign, the first since 2005, GM designers sought to restore its status as Chevy’s flagship sedan, Perry said. It’s appointed with upscale touches such as slim projector headlights and “ice blue” ambient lighting that glows beneath chrome strips in the interior.
“The design is what makes it look more premium,” car critic Todd Lassa wrote in Motor Trend magazine in September. “As Chevy’s flagship, it should command much higher average transaction prices, with the resulting margins helping to offset inevitably lower sales volumes.”
The new Impala “has a more refined and satisfying driving experience, with a quiet and nicely finished interior,” Consumer Reports wrote in its April 2013 edition. In the same issue, the Yonkers, New York-based magazine criticized the Malibu for its “cramped” back seat and recommended the Camry and Accord.
The Impala will offer three engine choices, including a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with GM’s fuel-saving eAssist system that uses an electric motor to help power the wheels under certain conditions. The Impala powered by a 303-horsepower V-6 will arrive in showrooms first, followed by more fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines later this year, GM said.
The eAssist version of the Impala will get 35 miles (56 kilometers) per gallon on the highway, GM said. That’s close to the most fuel-efficient version of the Malibu, which gets 37 mpg in highway driving.
While GM would like the new Impala to steal sales from outsiders such as the Taurus and Avalon, the automaker’s greatest challenge will be preventing it from cannibalizing too many Malibu sales, TrueCar’s Dominique said.
“From what I refer to as a perceived quality point of view,” said Dominique, the new Impala “is a step up from the Malibu in a lot of ways.”