May 22, 2014 at 3:41 pm

2014 Chevy Impala an ugly duckling no more

Perennial plain Jane morphs into buff beauty, upstaging rival sedans

Remember when the most memorable thing about a Chevy Impala was its elegant logo of a leaping impala? It was like Shrek modeling a Rolex watch. Or a frog wearing a bejeweled crown.

Well, the frog has been kissed by a princess.

Improbably, Chevy has transformed the perennial bane of the rental car lot into a handsome prince. At last, the Impala deserves the logo that has always graced its skin. The result is a big, graceful sedan that deserves to headline the Chevy brand.

ďCorvette and Impala clearly embody what we want to be,Ē Chevyís global marketing guru Tim Mahoney said when describing the brandís touchstones of design and performance technology. Get out the smelling salts. Did he just mention Corvette and Impala in the same breath? Get used to it. Impala is that good.

While GM recall woes are a reminder of The Generalís haphazard past, Chevyís cornucopia of 2014 product show the promise of its future. If the elegant Cadillac CTS (The Detroit News 2013 Vehicle of the Year) and the cute Chevy Spark are proof that GM can compete at the high and low ends of the market, then the Impala is evidence that the company is serious about its flabby middle.

Impala is the answer to the long-asked question: Why canít Chevy translate the sex appeal of its smoldering Corvette and Camaro sports cars to its sedans?

The big sedanís head-turning grille and surly rear shoulders are unmistakable echoes of the Camaro. Impala designers gave it the pony carís simple, elegant grille line ó while smartly resisting the deep-set cowl that gives the Camaro a touch of menace. Add LED lights along the front lip and the visage commands immediate respect in your rear view mirror.

The attention to detail continues along the big animalís flanks with aerodynamic touches that reduce the carís drag coefficient to a slippery .29. Where the Impalaís sweeping greenhouse and strong shoulders taper into a square back, small winglets sprout from the corner taillights to separate laminar flow, making for less rear turbulence. Better for sprinting across the Serengeti.

Where the old Impala was ignore-me vanilla, the 2014 is lick-me double chocolate fudge swirl. This sudden obsession with style may seem out of place in a large midsize sedan market traditionally catering to stodgy seniors. But this ainít your grandfatherís midsize sedan market.

The 30-40 grand neighborhood has become an open grassland of eager predators from all-wheel drive Fusions, to loaded Chrysler 200s to base Audi A2s. If the traditional herd of large sedans donít evolve, theyíll be eaten. Impala was not the first to adapt to this new ecosystem, but itís at the front of the pack. It joins the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and Ford Taurus SHO in bringing swagger to the segment. They make a stark contrast to the modestly competent Toyota Avalon-Hyundai Azera-Kia Cadenza.

Itís nice to see boldness rewarded.

The Impala has done a complete flip-flop in market appeal. Where 78 percent of its sales used to go to rental fleets, now 70 percent of its sales are retail customers. Consumer Reports gave Impala its highest rating ó 95 ó of all sedans. Indeed, it placed third among all vehicles behind the luxurious Tesla Model S (99 score) and BMW 1-series coupe (97). Thatís heady company.

ďNo other domestic car has topped the sedans ratings since we began tracking scores in that fashion over 20 years ago,Ē reports the consumer group. The same outfit judged the outgoing Impala as ďa woefully uncompetitive and outdated model that was to be avoided even as a free upgrade at the rental-car company.Ē

What a difference a year makes.

The extreme makeover continues under the skin where the Impalaís haunches sit on GMís front-wheel drive Epsilon chassis architecture featuring improved shock and suspension tuning. The result is a nimble, 3,800-pound athlete that turns into corners without panic and withstands g-loads without keeling over like a yacht in a windstorm. The looks and handling add class to what big sedans do best: Size and power.

The Impala packs 105 cubic feet of room, including best-in-class front legroom and a trunk that could hide Godzilla. The base Impala comes with an adequate 4-banger, but the 3.6-liter, direct injection V6 is the engine of choice for hauling this sleek beast. And, despite its girth, the V6-powered chariot returns a competitive 23 mpg fuel economy.

Big shoulders. Best-in-class-horsepower. Fast-back. If all that sounds like an advertisement for male testosterone, youíre right. Sales skew 65-35 male. I stuck a couple petite gal pals in the Impala and they instantly commented on its size and daunting rear blind spots. That roomy fast back architecture may look good on the outside, but from the driverís seat itís a narrow-windowed turret.

Thatís where Chevyís portfolio gets interesting, because right across the showroom is an Impala on stilts. The Traverse SUV shares the Impalaís handsome front fascia while affording smaller drivers a more commanding view of the surrounding landscape. The Traverseís higher, 47 percent female demographic nicely complements the Impala. Want rear-wheel drive power? The big Chevy SS offers Impala-like room and a 6.2-liter Corvette engine. Want better fuel economy? Let me show you the Chevy Malibu.

Itís an impressive toy cabinet ó though, ahem, the SS and Malibu could benefit from the Impala/Traverseís design cues.

The Impalaís interior is as plush as it is roomy with a stitched dash, aluminum accents and wood inlays surrounding Chevyís competent MyLink infotainment system. Pay 35 grand and you get leather seats (no, not Impala hide). As on the exterior, the Impala team has thrown out the old rent-a-bucket template with a new standard of detail. Press the center console, and it opens to reveal a secret space for storing valuables. The automatic gearshift operates like butter, and Impala brings crash imminent braking to the segment. This nifty, radar-controlled safety technology ó usually found on pricier vehicles ó will hit the binders to avoid a crash if driverís reflexes are too slow.

How confident is Chevy about the Impala? They gave the NASCAR badge to the sporty SS. Let Fusion and Camry pretend to be 200 mph sports sedans on the steep bankings of Daytona. The Impala is so secure in its new skin, it figures its buyers will find it anyway.

Heck, theyíll be demanding it at the Hertz counter.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2014 Chevrolet Impala / Chevrolet