Sure, it's hard to beat the Intrepid for sheer size and value. But not everyone wants to drive a boat, even one that turns on a dime. The Chevrolet Impala, which is in the same price range, offers an alternative. It has a pleasant appearance, with original treatment of the new "retro" style round headlights and taillights. The standard 3.4 liter engine is similar to the Dodge 2.7, while the optional 3.8 (standard on the LS model) is like the Dodge 3.2 with more torque. Both these engines have been around the block a few times.
Fuel economy ranged from around 22 mpg, around town and with heavy acceleration, to 32 mpg, on the highway at exactly the speed limit. Expect about 26 mpg overall, not bad for its class; you'll get better-than-average mileage if you drive relatively gently.
Acceleration is thrilling and responsive. The intake and exhaust were tuned for a throaty hi-po sound, and the transmission downshifts with alacrity - better, indeed, than any other automatic transmission we have tested. It also shifts very smoothly under ordinary acceleration, even though it takes standard fluid. The transmission, as much as the engine, makes the car lots of fun to drive on the freeway. Passing is easier than with most other cars, where there is often a discernible pause before downshifts. In brief, we love a transmission that jerks our head when needed, and feels invisible the rest of the time. Of course, the engine helps, too.
Handling was less impressive, especially compared with the Intrepid, and torque steer was evident. To be fair, few will test the limits of the Impala's handling, and it felt nimble and responsive. Braking was also quite good,
The Impala had many clever features. For example, at night (and only at night), the headlights and reverse lights activate for a few minutes after unlocking or locking the doors with the remote. This helps you to find the sidewalk or your garage door. All accessories stay activate after you take out the key, so you can still raise the windows and listen to the radio - until you open the door, and then the power is cut. Sensible but convenient.
We also liked the retro-but-sensible, dashboard-mounted ignition switch. The radio was anything but retro, with a load of gadgets from speed-sensitive volume to the ability to search for particular types of stations (since few stations support the system, though, it's not very useful now). Radio controls are also on the steering wheel, so it's easier to change stations or the volume without moving your hands.
The instruments were illuminated at night, so it was easy to find the right button. However, the GM philosophy of overloading stalks was in full force. The sole stalk contains the windshield wipe/wash controls, cruise control switch, and directionals. Though cruise control buttons are on the steering wheel, the on/off switch is on the stalk, and there is no temporary cancel-speed button. Breaking with GM tradition, you can actually use the hazard flashers even when your foot is on the brake.
Dual-zone ventilation controls are unusual in this price class, and easy to use. Even under high fan settings, there was little vent noise - unlike most Chrysler products.
The trip computer required very firm button-pushes, and sometimes it was hard to reset. The automatic-dimming rear view mirror did not seem to dim when reflecting the setting sun, and did not dim enough on the road. A manual mirror would be advisable.
The convenient storage compartments include a very large cubby in the console which can be used to store a full size box of tissues if needed. The cup holders are convenient places to toss coins until you have a chance to place them in the built-in (but removable!) coin holder. The trip computer included a garage door opener.
Visibility was good, and we felt that the rear spoiler actually improved matters by blocking some other cars' bright headlights. It did not interfere with parking.
The ride was nice on smooth roads, a little harsh (for its class) on hard concrete or rough surfaces. Those who prefer a firm feel will likely find it to be smooth enough. You should be the judge.
The Impala is remarkably quiet inside, with very little wind or road noise. It also feels very solid.
The interior was moderately sized, competitive for its class but considerably smaller than the Intrepid/Concorde. The trunk was large, and both rear seats could be independently folded down for longer objects. Entry into the rear was fairly easy.
We recently tested a Nissan Altima, with the five-speed manual, and must say we found there to be no contest. Both were in the same price range, but the Impala LS simply blew away the Altima and its companion, the Infiniti G20, unless you really, really care about handling. We would also opt for the Impala over most SUVs.
Overall, the Impala is quite competitive in its price range. We really enjoyed it, and hope Chrysler has driven one too...
The Dodge Intrepid is larger than the Impala, has a slightly smoother ride, and has somewhat better handling. However, we found that the Impala LS gets better gas mileage, feels smaller and more nimble, and is more exciting to drive, because of the transmission's quick kick-downs and the engine's sound tuning.
In addition, the Impala has a number of gee-whiz features which make life a little easier - things like keeping the power windows on until the door is opened, so that you can raise the windows without putting the key back in - or the ability to change the door locking feature yourself.
We advise all Intrepid buyers to test drive the Impala - and vice versa.
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