I have been a relentless critic of General Motors over the years and never got off the fence as to whether its decades of inept leadership and beyond mediocre automobiles should be rewarded with a taxpayer-funded bailout.
But when the opportunity arose the other day to rent a 2011 Chevrolet Impala LT, I bit because it would provide an ideal comparison test: A 340-mile round trip from my weekday crib to the mountain retreat and back again over a route that is a combination of flat-out interstate, secondary roads and S-turn-filled mountainous byways.
The bar for the Impala was going to be high because I had made this trip many times in Audi all-wheel drive station wagons and most recently in an all-wheel Lexus RX300, all well made, nicely furnished, superbly handling and hugely grippy vehicles that nothing except deep snow have slowed over the years.
My Enterprise rental was a silver middle-of-the-line, front wheel-drive Impala with a 3.5-liter V6 under the hood and a mere 2,500 miles on the odometer. In fairness, now matter how improved a $26,000 Detroit sedan flagship might be, it would have a tough time stacking up against Audi and Lexus models costing $15,000 more. But then the Lexus is closing in on 300,000 miles and remains imperturbable, the Audis had anywhere from 150,000 to 275,000 miles and were equally unphased by their age, while the Impala is brand, spanking new.
In any event, how did the Impala compare to those German and Japanese imports, as well as the abominable Chevy sedans that I had rented in the early 2000s when GM first began flirting with bankruptcy?
Here's my breakdown:
STYLING: What constitutes an attractive car is in the eye of the beholder. I found the Impala not unattractive and a big improvement over the Angry Kitchen Appliance look, as one former GM executive termed the company's hideous offerings a few years back. The styling was not plain vanilla, but neither was it distinctive.
BUILD QUALITY: A vast improvement from previous GM offerings. The Impala had a good paint job, was well put together and did not have the squeaks and rattles that I had encountered in previous GM rentals. But the doors closed with a clank and not the thud that the Audis and Lexus doors have, and there was an outrageous amount of road noise that was deafening with the driver's side window cracked.
INTERIOR: Comfortable front seats with somewhat narrow wells, decent rear seats and head room, ample storage space and a decent sound system. Dashboard controls were easy to figure out and use, but the cupholders -- yes, those all-important cupholders -- were too far back, requiring a two- or three-step maneuver to extract a cup of takeout coffee. The trunk was so spacious that it practically swallowed up my mountain bike, which I pedaled back from the Enterprise agency after dropping off the car.
ENGINE: Silky smooth shifts with plenty of torque and acceleration and none of the thrashing characteristics of older V6 models. I did not attempt to calculate a 0-to-60 time, but I am sure that it is more than adequate.
FUEL ECONOMY: GM claims that an Impala with a 3.5 liter V6 delivers 29 miles to the gallon in highway driving, to which I say "bullspit." Enterprise handed over the keys to my Impala with the gas gauge on Really Empty. I filled the 17.5 gallon tank with 87 octane Sunoco for a bit more than $40, but had to purchase another $25 worth to make it home. Dropping $65 for Regular gas for a 340-mile trip is less than economical.
HANDLING: This is where the Impala came off the rails, and badly so. It flounced and bounced on straightaways, wallowed on turns, and threatened to over steer on sharp turns. This required that I keep two hands on the wheel when not trying to drink coffee.
My conclusion is that the Impala performed well overall and in most respects was a vast improvement over its counterparts of six, eight and 10 years ago.
GM has indeed come far, but not far enough. It is hard to imagine owners of comparably sized and priced imports such as the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Corolla embracing the Impala, and GM will have to do better still if it hopes to maintain its feeble market share, let alone re-emerge as a leading automaker.