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GM’s 2014 Impala: A transformed model guiding the auto maker’s future

Impala chief engineer Todd Pawlik focused on costs for the 2014 Impala.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

To understand how General Motors Co. is trying to exorcise the demons of its past, consider the trunk lid for the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Impala.

It consists of five pieces of metal welded together in a deft bit of styling sculpted by the design team led by John Cafaro, director of exterior design for Chevrolet. Typically, a trunk lid is three pieces of steel, sometimes even a single sheet of steel or aluminum.

"Maybe back in past history when we weren't doing cars as good as we should, we might have argued about this five-piece trunk lid," Mr. Cafaro said. "It might have been three-piece; we might have compromised the design. It looks good on a data sheet in somebody's computer, but in the showroom, you're non-competitive."

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Instead, his design became critical to the mission of creating an elegant American sedan that could revive the Chevrolet name, GM's most important brand, in the large-car segment.

The rejuvenation of the Impala is also crucial to the auto maker's escalating effort to design, build and sell stylish vehicles with features consumers want – and make a profit.

"We can talk about the Corvette all day long, but the Impala should be the halo car for Chevrolet," said veteran industry analyst Joe Phillippi, president of Auto Trends Consulting of Short Hills, N.J. "It's the vehicle that's going to make your brand statement, which historically was affordable quality."

GM for years focused on growth and market share but failed to produce bottom-line results. Before the financial crisis, the lumbering giant's high cost structure left it with massive losses despite strong sales. When the crisis hit, decades of mismanagement caught up with GM and it sank into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, saved only by a $60-billion government bailout.

So far, the revival of the Impala has been a shining moment for GM in its recovery from those dark days.

The 2014 model made the cover of Consumer Reports as the top-ranked sedan test-driven by the magazine's auto experts, the first time a U.S-made car has topped that list in 20 years.

Even better for GM, the new Impala is showing early signs of generating solid profits. Average transaction prices are tracking at about $8,000 (U.S.) higher than the previous generation of the car, which has been heavily discounted and essentially consigned to the North American rental fleet, where profits are minimal. With the new Impala, GM is putting showroom sales first and fleet sales second.

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GM officials said on a conference call earlier this month that Impala retail sales rose 76 per cent in August from year-earlier levels and about 80 per cent of the 13,274 cars sold in the U.S. market were 2014 models. The new model's price starts at around $27,000 and can go to $35,000 or more with added features.

The new Impala is also encouraging for Oshawa, Ont., where 3,000 employees working on three shifts are assembling the Impala alongside the Buick Regal, Chevrolet Camaro and Cadillac XTS. GM's Oshawa operation faces some uncertainty in the future, with one assembly plant set to close next year and the Camaro slated to end production there in 2015.

The challenge for GM now is to take the lessons learned from transforming the Impala and the way it is designed and developed and apply them to its entire lineup. That would enable the company to step up the pace of its recovery from bankruptcy protection.

A focus on cost control in recent years has already led to improvements. GM's profit was $4.86-billion last year and $2.2-billion in the first six months of 2013, a dramatic swing from the billions of dollars in losses racked up through most of the 2000s.

'A high-value family car'

As GM North America president Mark Reuss makes plain, the 2014 version of one of the most successful cars in GM history is more than just a new Chevrolet entrant in the large car market.

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"At the heart of Chevrolet was an affordable, aspirational family car – at the very heart of Chevrolet's success over the years," Mr. Reuss said in an interview.

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.

Mr. Pawlik believes times have changed and large sedans such as the Impala and its competitors' Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon and others are no longer family vehicles, but tend to be the cars of choice for empty-nesters.

That meant the Impala team didn't need to spend money developing a rear entertainment system or put a storage cabinet in the armrest in the middle of the rear seat.

But they did make one change that added space in the rear for those occasions when empty nesters drive somewhere with their friends.

The mechanism for the door lock causes the door to bulge out. Mr. Pawlik and his team moved it 2.5 centimetres to the rear to provide more shoulder space for rear-seat passengers.

Engineers initially resisted the move, saying " 'It's got to be here,' " he recalled. "Why does it have to be here?" was his reply.

They did want storage in the front seat and there was some dead space in the middle of the instrument panel behind the entertainment and information screen.

Then the issue of access to the storage compartment arose. But someone remembered that the Cadillac SRX has a screen that rises to open up space. So they borrowed that idea from Cadillac.

One of the competitor vehicles uses a light ring to illuminate a USB port in its storage compartment. Duplicating that would have cost more than $1 per vehicle, so there's a ring of paint around the Impala's USB port that is illuminated by the ambient light in the front seat.

The prime goal of all this effort is to turn around the equation so that at least 70 per cent of Impala sales go to retail customers and 30 per cent to fleet. The ratio for the 2013 model was the opposite.

To capture more retail buyers and those in their 50s and 40s instead of their 60s, Chevrolet held the price increase for the new model with the added features to about $1,000 in the U.S. market and $145 (Canadian) in Canada.

"This audience, they do their research," said Chris Perry, Chevrolet's vice-president of marketing. "They're not looking for the latest, great thing, but they do want something that they can believe in."

Impala now represents about 10 per cent of the full-sized sedan market, Mr. Perry said.

"Obviously, 30-year-olds are not going to buy this car," said Mr. Phillippi, the analyst. "But if they can get the 40-to-60 crowd into the showroom and get the chequebooks out, they'll do just fine."

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