2003 Chevrolet Impala
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Story and photos by Russell Purcell

The bread-and-butter sedan with loads of flavour

When I was first offered the opportunity to test drive the latest version of Chevrolet’s venerable Impala, I am sure that I rolled my eyes. As a ‘true’ car guy, the desire to float around in a big American sedan is usually absent, unless it is the rare occasion where I need to hail a cab. However, the Impala, Chevrolet’s ‘bread-and-butter’ sedan, proved to blow most of my preconceived notions out of the water.

I can remember the cushy feel of the sloppy suspensions common to big family sedans of the past absorbing speed bumps and potholes with aplomb, floating down the highway as if on a cloud, oblivious to what was happening at road level. Sounds great if comfort is your sole priority, and the ability to catch a few winks while on a long road trip is an important consideration, but for the sake of safety and fun it would be nice to feel what the car is doing. Modern automotive manufacturers, especially those based in Europe and Japan, are very good at designing suspensions and chassis that act to relay information about things such as road-holding and traction to the driver through both steering feel and the seat-of-the-pants. This is something that generation after generation of big American sedans failed to do, with over-assisted steering, brakes and mushy shocks and springs.

Well the new generation of big American sedans seems to have had these issues addressed, and Chevy’s Impala is a great example of this remarkable transformation.

The car

2003 Chevrolet Impala

2003 Chevrolet Impala

2003 Chevrolet Impala

2003 Chevrolet Impala
Click image to enlarge

A quiet cabin, loads of room, and predictable road manners make the Impala a good choice for families that like to stretch out, but don’t see the need for a SUV or minivan. With a few modifications, the basic Impala platform has been around since 2000, and is a favourite for fleet service whether it is as a police patrol car, taxi cab, rental rig or company car. As a result, they have to be reliable, and the Impala has proven to be that in spades.

My Impala LS tester arrived with a very stylish outer body, spoiled only by the ever-trendy trunk-mounted wing and a gimmicky-looking tail light shroud (both optional) used to transform the large reflective band common to lesser Impalas into a set of twin, round lamps, hinting at the styling of its Corvette relative, and an Impala styling cue from the past.

Once inside you will immediately notice the relatively tall and wide expanses of glass that combine to offer all occupants excellent visibility. Although the Impala is really a mid-sized car, the roomy feel conveyed by the roofline and windows make it feel much more like a full-sized car. The perception of room is often all that is needed to make a car feel more comfortable. It sure works here.

Under the hood

For 2003 Chevrolet offers consumers the choice of two power plants for the Impala, both of the V6 variety. The base unit is a 180-horsepower 3.4-litre V6, while the top-of-the-line LS models sport a 3.8-litre V6 that generates a healthy 200-horsepower. Neither engine features anything ‘trick’ or cutting-edge with regards to components or architecture, but both are perfectly suited for this vehicle. My test vehicle featured the 3.8-litre motor, and I must admit I was not wanting for power. Power delivery was very smooth, and the torque band seemed to fall right where it was needed.

Shifting duties are handled by a confident and smooth 4-speed automatic transmission. Surprisingly there are no gear indicators beside the lever itself to indicate gear selection. Instead this information is displayed up on a digital display underneath the speedometer. Why not both?

Acceleration comes on strong, especially with the more powerful 3.8-litre engine. Chevrolet claims the Impala makes the trip from 0 to 100 km/h in just under 8-seconds, which is quick for a car of this size.

On the road

When pushed hard the Impala reacts well, although slippery seating surfaces had me sliding with the lateral forces, more so than the car. Body roll is minimal for a car of this type and for this alone the engineers deserve a raise. The larger engine option is partnered with a tweaked ‘sport’ suspension and a quicker steering ratio, blessing the Impala with a surprisingly responsive ride and almost agile handling.

Chevrolet engineers worked hard to isolate engine vibration and increase structural rigidity. This was accomplished through the development of an extruded aluminum engine-cradle sub-frame. A magnesium dashboard bulkhead locks the steering shaft down tightly to the sub-frame, effectively negating any unwanted movement. This link between the steering column and the steering gear provides the driver with much improved on-centre feel at the wheel.

I did find the traction control system (part of the LS package) to be overly sensitive, although this might just SEEM to be the case, as a large yellow indicator light appears whenever the system is called into play. Most vehicles equipped with such devices allow it to work in the background, without the flashing fanfare. A large button on the side of the gauge cluster allows the driver to turn the traction control off, and I was impressed to see that it will reactivate on its own when the car is restarted.

The ABS brakes are optional on the base Impala, but come as part of the LS package when you order the larger motor. They seem resistant to fade, more so than those on many larger cars, and pedal response is very good. Many American cars seem to set up the brake pedal so that the slightest touch applies the majority of force to the brake system, causing a sudden torso-tossing jolt for passengers if unexpected. This is not the case with the Impala’s setup. Braking forces come on smooth and steady, as the big four-wheel discs help get the speed quickly under control.

Brand identity

My test vehicle was decked to the nines, ordered with the LS Sport Appearance Package that adds performance enhancements such as brake cooling ducts and a strut-tower brace, as well as safety items like a tire-inflation monitor and seat-mounted side-impact airbags.

Impala logos emblazoned on the inside door panels and vertical ribs on the seating surfaces hint at the name’s history, but the rest of the interior design seems a bit mismatched. Switchgear is for the most part, in all the expected places and works very well, but every one of them seems to be of a different shape, texture or size. The HVAC controls utilize twin vertical sliders fitted with fingertip controls no bigger (or thicker) than your pinky nail. I bet these won’t prove to be very durable over the long haul. I was amazed to see the light switch mounted on the dash, an old-school plunger type pull stalk, as modern vehicles usually mount this switch on the steering column. This seemed out of place with the swoopy dash cap and inlaid carbon-fibre effect trim.

Room for the whole gang

The base Impala can accommodate up to six passengers as it comes equipped with a front bench seat. Moving up the Impala food-chain will net you a pair of comfy bucket seats, but at the cost of a passenger. Rear leg and head room seemed reasonable, but it is important to remember that the Impala is still just a mid-size car, so don’t expect to pile 5 CFL players comfortably in this car. The big trunk however, may be able to handle said football players’ equipment with ease, especially when the 60/40 split rear seat is folded down.

A pair of large storage compartments reside up front, one in the headliner that is perfect for items such as remote controls, maps or cell phones, another immediately in front of the shift lever, large enough for a Kleenex box or gloves. The LS model replaces the front bench seat with a pair of bucket units, allowing installation of a centre console with storage for CDs and tapes.

Bells and whistles

Chevrolet has equipped all Impalas with a long list of standard features including dual-zone air-conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette stereo, four-wheel-disc brakes, power locks, windows, and mirrors, aluminum wheels and a remote keyless entry system. Opting for the LS package adds cruise control, ABS, traction control, Onstar, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and front bucket sport seats with 6-way power adjustment for the driver. Further options include a power sunroof and a choice of up-rated audio equipment including the availability of XM Satellite Radio.

The return of the big sedan

When Chevrolet discontinued production of the full-size Caprice sedan police forces and cab companies lost one of the old standbys. GM officials hoped that the law enforcement buyer would move up to a SUV like the Tahoe or Yukon, as that was the trend with Joe Citizen. However, most agencies just doubled their orders for the competition, the Ford Crown Victoria. Lately, I have noticed the Impala appearing in greater numbers in both cab and cruiser form, as even Ford seems set on weaning the fleet managers from the larger cars and into the Taurus line. Now with Chrysler’s Intrepid back in the law enforcement game, things could shake up. In short, the large sedan seems to be making a come back, and Chevrolet is well placed to capture its fair share of the demand for such cars with the Impala, as GM’s mid-size platform is well-proven and relatively easy to produce.

The verdict

For consumers wary of getting behind the wheel of a SUV or worried about the ‘soccer mom’ stigma that comes with ownership of a minivan, then a roomy sedan like the Chevrolet Impala is a reasonable alternative. The well-informed shopper will immediately recognize the value offered by the Impala when they compare it to its imported competition. While a similarly-equipped Japanese sedan can be had for about the same money, most models fall a little short with regards to both passenger and cargo space verses the Impala. On the other hand, the Impala’s many European challengers will cost thousands more. As for its American counterparts, consumer selection may come down to long-held personal preferences with regards to personal history with each company, as all three offer quality products in this category. Luckily they all look distinctive, making individual selection a little easier.

The Chevrolet Impala is a well thought out package that offers a convenient size, competent road handling and loads of features at a reasonable price.

Technical Data: 2003 Chevrolet Impala

Base price $26,020; LS $30,160
Price as tested $31,235
Type 4-door, 5 or 6-passenger full-size sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 3.4-Litre V6, OHV / 3.8-Litre V6, OHV
Horsepower 180 @ 5,200 / 200 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 205 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm / 225 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission Four-speed automatic
Curb weight 1540 kg (3390 lb.) / 1575 kg (3465 lb.)
Wheelbase 2808 mm (110.5 in.)
Length 5080 mm (201.0 in.)
Width 1854 mm (73.0 in.)
Height 1456 mm (57.3 in.)
Trunk space 498 litres (17.6 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.0 l/100 km (26 mpg), 12.2 l/100 km (23 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg), 7.4 l/100 km (38 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km

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