The Impala “has to play an incredibly important role for a really high-value family car that, No. 1, looks a lot more expensive than it is – both interior and exterior – and also performs in a way that is unexpected,” he said.
It’s also an example of what Mr. Reuss believes GM must do to beat its rivals in the hyper-competitive North American vehicle market.
“We’re not going to put a car on the road without five really important reasons why someone is going to come in [to a dealership], get out of the car they drive and buy something from General Motors,” he said.
Landing on the cover of Consumer Reports was not the goal when the project to redesign one of the storied names in Chevrolet history began in the fall of 2009, Impala chief engineer Todd Pawlik and members of his team pointed out during an afternoon spent discussing the vehicle in a design studio adjacent to the sprawling GM Tech Center in Warren, Mich., north of Detroit.
But they did want to make a leap forward.
“As we determined what our reason for being was, well it couldn’t just be a vanilla car because then our profitability would end up kind of where the current Impala was,” Mr. Pawlik recalled. They decided to differentiate it from the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima and others in the large-car category through striking exterior and interior design and a superior driving experience.
In order to stay within budget and still develop an eye-catching body, a cabin that stands out and a drive that they hoped would be best in class, Mr. Pawlik had to crack the whip on costs elsewhere.
Developing a new architecture – or basic vehicle underbody – would have been expensive enough to torpedo the program, so the new body was placed on top of the existing Epsilon architecture that also spawns Impala’s smaller sibling, the Chevrolet Malibu as well as the Regal, XTS and others.
The transmission, V-6 engine, washer bottles and almost all the underhood components, as well as the outside door handles and inside rear view mirrors are all borrowed from other vehicles.
“The customer can’t tell the difference and we save costs that way,” Mr. Pawlik said.
Developing all new tires to offer drivers their choice of three different sets of tires would have been another prohibitive cost. The team worked instead with a supplier to develop one new set as the fuel-economy choice and used two other sets that are offered on existing vehicles.
The team resisted the urge to roll legendary Impalas of the 1960s and 1970s into the design studio to inspire them.
But Mr. Pawlik said he tried to cast his mind back to the glory days of the car in the early 1960s – North Americans bought more than one million Impalas in 1965 alone, a staggering number for a single car – and determine what it represented.
It was the kind of a car a fire chief in a mid-sized city might drive, he concluded. “He didn’t want to feel pretentious, but he wanted to feel like he had made it.”
Memories of the car at GM are deep and well-rooted from the years between its introduction in 1958 and the late 1970s when Impala was the flagship of the Chevrolet brand and one of the most popular cars in the auto maker’s lineup.
Mr. Reuss recalled Impalas that were the family car during his childhood in the 1960s when his father Lloyd was rising through the management ranks at GM on his way to becoming president of the company in 1990.
Those were the days before oil embargoes, minivans and competition from offshore auto makers, when the driveways of North America were dominated by the land yachts assembled by what were then the Big Three.
Mark Reuss recalled that his father cut a piece of plywood to use as a bed in the back seat of the family’s Impalas so he and his sister could sleep on 12-hour drives from Detroit to visit relatives in southern Illinois.