Chevy Impala LT – basic with lots of added-value

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We seldom get a car to evaluate in base trim level and with no options. Manufacturers usually send us an example of their top-level vehicle or at least a loaded-up version of a mid-level car.

They like to show off the top of the line — put their best foot forward — for all the obvious reasons. They always want to please the person evaluating and then writing about the car.

So it was an unusual but rewarding week behind the wheel of a 2006 Chevrolet Impala in base LS form. It’s a “plain Jane” to use a phrase from the past; yet gratifyingly different.

It’s probably the car you would get if renting one at the airport. And it’s probably the car you will see when checking out advertised offers that seem too good to be true.

Actually, to keep the record straight, our Impala LS came with one option, antilock brakes for $660. Base price of the LS and base price of a full-sized Impala (one in the same) was $21,990. The test car had a bottom line of $22,650. This of course was before GM’s new Value Pricing and any incentives. We believe the base price has been reduced $1,000 and ABS price has been reduced by $60. Check Kelley Blue Book ( or Edmunds ( or your local dealer for the most recent accurate pricing.

Even at $21,990, the base LS is $1,020 less than the starting price of a 2005 model. And with incentives, the Impala LS can be purchased at most Chevy stores for under 20 grand making it a solid alternative to modestly equipped 4-cylinder models of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, and the base offering of the popular Chrysler 300. In fact, the 300 offers more of an apples-to-apples comparison because it is also classified as a large car by the EPA.

The Impala has three cubic feet more trunk space than the 300, 18.6 to 15.6, and more interior room with the exception of rear-seat legroom where the 300 wins with 40.2 inches compared to 37.6 inches.

The new Impala has been reworked and restyled for 2006, the first makeover since it re-entered the scene as a 2000 model. And we found it to be a spacious, well-built sedan with good performance even with the base engine that should please the person on a budget who is looking for a big car that can transport up to six passengers.

The base Chevy is propelled by a relatively energetic 3.5-liter V-6 generating 211 horsepower. We found it surprisingly receptive, willing to jump off the line, and exuberant enough to offer confidence-inspiring passing in the 40-to-60-mile-per-hour range.

Chevrolet says the small V-6 will take the Impala from 0 to 60 in a respectful if modest 8.4 seconds while yielding a respectable 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 on the highway.

We can’t help but feel that if General Motors would replace its ancient 4-speed automatic with a 5-speed version, performance and gas mileage across its lineup would improve. All Impalas make do again in 2006 with the 4-speed setup.

Just to compare, the base Chrysler 300 starts at $24,200 and is propelled by 190-horsepower V-6 mated to a 5-speed automatic. The transmission does make a performance difference.

What we like about the new Impala in base form is its generous equipment that does not force its owner to make sacrifices in areas that will come to his attention every day.

For instance, the LS comes with air conditioning, 8-way power driver’s seat, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, power windows and locks, keyless entry, AM-FM stereo with CD player and automatic headlamp control. It also features faux wood accents on the dashboard and center panel.

The LS is also equipped with front and side-curtain airbags. We wish Chevrolet would have thrown in the antilock brakes, but $660 is a small sacrifice for ABS with traction control.

Our LS test car is one of the few with a bench seat capable of holding three across up front with the shifter on the column. When the center position is not in use, cupholders can be folded down out of the seat back of the center section. This is a real throwback to simpler times — most Impalas today are outfitted with a center console and two separate seats.

Chevrolet did a good job upgrading the Impala with decent looking cloth, more upscale plastic materials, switchgear that feels reasonably good to the touch and is easy to use, solid fit and finish and a quiet interior. If the new car is still not quite up to Honda and Toyota standards, it’s getting darn close.

We particularly liked the three round climate control knobs that have a nice feel and are designed to tell the driver exactly how to adjust the temperature, direction and fan speed.

An information center is provided for driving details and another is provided on the radio to give the driver his pick of the clock or the radio station readout.

One neat feature, which may be exclusive to the Impala, is a flip-and-fold rear seat. The rear seat cushion can be propped upward to uncover what can be considered a secondary trunk complete with grocery-bag hooks. And the rear seatback can be folded down in traditional manner to expose a flat pass-through increasing the size of the trunk to one of the biggest in its class.

The exterior redesign may have succeeded for most people, but we wish General Motors had taken more of a design risk. It has softer and more rounded lines than the previous Impala. It’s conservatively handsome, but looks pretty ordinary in its stance.

We liked the four prominent round taillights of the previous edition, which set it apart from everything on the road. The new taillight design looks like a dozen cars already out there. At least there is no longer a width wide plastic appliqué strapped to the rear.

If GM didn’t want to take styling chances with the Impala, we understand, because the Impala was the third best-selling car in America in 2004 with nearly 300,000 units leaving showrooms. Chevy did not want to do anything too far out of character to upset Impala sales. It is a wonder that we have any design progress.

We’ve provided details of the LS, but in truth most people will opt for a higher trim level and perhaps a bigger engine offering.

So here’s the rest of the 2006 Impala story. The remaining trim levels are LT, starting at $22,520; LTZ beginning at $27,530; and the SS starting at $27,790 (once again check for new Value Pricing).

The LT with some options, including Chevy’s new 3.9-liter V-6 generating 240 horsepower, will probably be the most popular choice. The LTZ comes with the 3.9-liter engine as standard equipment.

And the SS with an all-new-for-2006 5.3-liter 303-horsepower V-8 is the most exciting of the lineup. It can take the Impala from 0 to 60 in a breathtaking 5.7 seconds according the manufacturer’s statistics. The downside, of course, is that the V-8’s power is sent through the front wheels and a 4-speed automatic. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Moreover and most importantly Chevrolet has done some good things with the Impala that should insure its place in the large-car segment for several years to come.