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The 2014 Chevrolet Impala is a fleet car no more, says Ken Kelzer, executive chief engineer and GM lifer. (General Motors)
The 2014 Chevrolet Impala is a fleet car no more, says Ken Kelzer, executive chief engineer and GM lifer. (General Motors)

Brand Strategy

Chevy on track to regain its former glory Add to ...

When I was seven years old, the new minister at my family’s church used the last of his preordained savings to buy a sparkling, light-green 1965 Chevrolet Impala, the two-door version. He loved that car. Smiling and beaming like a tall, bald cherub, he would steer his Impala around town, visiting his house-bound parishioners, delivering the sacrament, giving comfort to the weak, the sick, the aged and, yes, the dying.

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A decade later, I had left the church, but I would regularly see Father Carson still driving his beloved Impala. He had been a successful businessman before the church called on him to live a life devoted to sacrifice and giving, rather than competing and acquiring. Beyond the car, his life was devoid of material thrills. But that Impala was a comfort and a joy in a life bent to the needs of others. He was no pope with glittering robes and gold mitres; he was just a good man doing good works.

Indeed, he led a simple life with few luxuries and was true to the teachings of his church. Except for that Impala. It was his one concession to desire. I suppose I’d be presumptuous and even silly to suggest his Impala made him a better man, but it surely served his purpose and calling as the Episcopal minister of a small, and by no means rich, parish.

When I was 20 and left my hometown to head to university, he was still driving that 13-year-old car. And still smiling.

I am sure you can root around and find other similar stories. You might have one yourself. After all, General Motors built and sold millions of Impalas over decades and decades. In the mid-1960s, GM sold nearly a million Impalas in a single year. The car was a glittering gem in the GM crown through the late 1950s and 1960s and then the crown grew dull and the gems began to fall out, one by one, the Impala among them.

Perhaps Father Carson kept smiling because he knew his fourth-generation car was the one from what many believe is the best Impala era of all (1965-1970). By the mid-1970s, the Impala had morphed into something horrible and ungainly. Then came the downsized Impala from 1977-1990 and it was remarkable only for its chrome when new, and all the rust when it aged.

In the mid-1990s, Chevy played with a whale-like Impala (the Impala SS). In the early 2000s, the Impala became a mid-size replacement for the lamentable Lumina and that’s where we are today as the 2014 Impala arrives in dealerships, the 10th-generation Impala. For three-decades plus, GM has essentially dissed the Impala, turning what was once Father Carson’s pride and joy into a rental car and a cop car.

Ah, but the 2014 is a fleet car no more, says executive chief engineer Ken Kelzer, a balding, effervescent GM lifer who seems barely able to contain his excitement. GM, he says, has higher aspirations for the 10th-gen Impala than, well, the company has had for decades.

Like the ’65, however, it remains targeted at middle-class buyers – sales managers who just got a promotion or a bonus – who want a good-sized sedan with a bit of luxury for around $30,000 (the 2014 starts at $28,445); though with extras and options, it’s possible to push the final price closer to $40,000.

Meantime, Chevy will keep building the old Impala to satisfy cops, renters and taxi drivers. The idea, says Kelzer, is to separate the new Impala from the old and, along the way, push Chevrolet in a new, far more aggressive direction. Truth is, the Impala is the new Chevrolet embodied and the new GM, too – or at least that’s the message Kelzer and his colleagues are trying to impress upon me here at the launch.

The Impala, says Kelzer, is the result of a revamped new-vehicle development process that is far faster, far less complicated and far more focused on getting desirable cars to market than anything he’s ever seen in nearly 30 years at GM. What’s the difference between now and then, back in GM’s pre-bankruptcy days?

“I’d call it informality with responsibility,” he says. “We’re responsible for our programs and for our jobs, but there’s an informality in how we work with the company’s leadership. If I walk by Mary’s office [Barra, the head of global product development], she calls me in and wants to know if I need anything.”

She also sends him texts and e-mails at all hours of the day and night, even on vacation, to ensure he’s keeping on top of the models for which Kelzer is responsible (he’s head of all GM’s mid-size and large-car programs).

The Impala is profitable, he adds, but it’s not going to save the company all alone. But Chevy could do that job – and with the Impala being the brand’s flagship sedan (the Corvette Stingray is the overall halo car for the brand, as we all know) – this large sedan says everything about Chevy and GM’s future.

Based on its looks, the ultra-quiet ride and a long list of technologies – including the fancy Chevy MyLink infotainment system – Chevy might just be headed in the right direction which, of course, will astound critics, skeptics and apparently Republican presidential nominees.

The facts do play a role here in denying the naysayers their satisfaction. Chevrolet, as GM officials constantly remind us, is the world’s fastest-growing major automotive brand. Last year, Chevy sold more than 4.95 million vehicles and it was a record. Of the 9.2 million vehicles GM sold around the world, more than half were Chevys. Chevy matters and the brand is not only big, but growing: 1.85 million sold in the United States; 139,000 sold in Canada; 643,000 sold in Brazil; 627,000 sold in China; 205,000 sold in Russia, 125,000 sold in South Korea; and 92,000 sold in India.

GM rightly sees Chevy as its mainstream brand for the world. The “Find New Roads” tag line is global, too. The jingoistic “An American Revolution” slogan of the past decade is dead and gone, reflecting a more outward-looking vision for GM.

Advertising can get attention, but it’s the products that matter most. And this is shaping up to be a big year for Chevy.

The Impala is just one in a list of new Chevys that includes the Trax small wagon just launched, the sexy Corvette Stringray coming late this year and the Silverado pickup due to hit showrooms this fall. They are joined by new Chevy models such as the Cruze and Sonic compacts, the new Colorado small pickup, the Spark and Spark EV small cars and the Orlando compact wagon. Of the bunch, only the Orlando seems to be a disappointment in its design and execution.

Kelzer says GM’s chief executive, Dan Akerson, and the company’s North American Chief, Mark Reuss, are both the real deal in terms of pushing the company – and in particular Chevy – back to something resembling the glory years of the 1960s and 1950s. He knows and they know that GM needs to increase its sales and gain back a lot of lost market share.

“We squandered the market position we had in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s,” Akerson recently told trade journal Automotive News. “Now we have to get it back,” he said, adding that putting Chevrolet back on car shopping lists in America and overseas is central to GM’s strategy.

I’d argue the new Chevy starts with the 2014 Impala. Would Father Carson approve?

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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