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Chevrolet Impala a top seller but commands little fanfare

By Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press –

The Chevrolet Impala full-size sedan is an odd combination: a best-selling car nobody seems to love or even think about much.

Chevy hopes to change that with an all-new 2014 model that debuts at the New York auto show next month.

“When people see the new Impala, it’ll be the exclamation point to the renaissance of Chevrolet. It’ll really get people’s attention,” said Russ Clark, Chevy marketing director.

The competition is the Ford Taurus, Hyundai Azera, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Avalon.

“There’s no dominant player, and not a lot to get excited about. This is a segment where style is important,” he said. “The new model is a chance to reestablish the Impala as a vehicle people buy for style.”

Despite about 16 million sold since the first Impala debuted as a 1958 model, despite being General Motors’ third best-selling car in the United States last year, the Impala gets no respect. It outsold entire brands in 2011 — Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln, Mini, Mitsubishi and Volvo, among others — but is widely dismissed as an outdated car that’s OK for fleets that want a big interior and low price, but has little to attract buyers who care about style and technology.

Chevrolet aims to make the 2014 Impala a showpiece, a car that demands attention. The company promises to deliver style, value, fuel economy, comfort and handling, Clark says.

GM only provided me an industry teaser photo for this column. It goes into production later this year at General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, which also builds the Chevrolet Malibu and Volt.

“They need to use this car to get people who don’t think about Chevrolet to consider the brand,” said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

Full-size family sedans like the Impala once dominated the American market, and the Impala was top dog. Chevrolet sold a record 889,000 Impalas in 1964, not counting station wagons.

“It was the consummate middle-class, top-of-the-line family sedan,” said Joe Phillippi, principal of AutoTrends Consulting, Andover, N.J. “The current car is profitable and has a very strong following among commercial fleets. It’s always been a favorite with road warriors – salespeople and folks who spend a lot of time behind the wheel for work. I expect the new car to have terrific fuel economy. That’ll be an important selling pitch for a full-size sedan.”

With 171,434 sales in 2011, the Impala was a fraction of its historical numbers, but it still outsold the Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima and Hyundai Azera put together.

The 2014 must be immediately recognizable as bigger than the Chevy Malibu midsize sedan, Hall said. Otherwise, Chevrolet will have a hard time getting new customers’ attention.

“I hope they pushed the envelope with the design,” Phillippi said. “The Malibu is a terrific car, but conservative. They need to wrinkle the sheet metal a little, give the new car some compound curves.

“They need to reestablish the Impala as a desirable family vehicle,” he said.

Clark expects the 2014 Impala to attract more individual customers, who account for about a quarter of the current car’s sales. Sales to daily rental companies will decline, but not vanish. Chevrolet will continue to reach out to commercial fleets.

“There’s upside to Impala’s retail sales,” Clark said. “There are customers who are waiting for something new in this segment.”

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