Home » How The First Front-Wheel-Drive Chevy Impala Nailed The Tricky Reboot: GM Hit Or Miss

How The First Front-Wheel-Drive Chevy Impala Nailed The Tricky Reboot: GM Hit Or Miss

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While the Japanese bubble bursting marked the end of an era for certain genres of performance car, more regular cars throughout the world continued to aim towards continuous improvement well after the party of the early ’90s was brought to a close. Amenities and refinement were boosted, powertrain choices saw improvement, and even some old model names were brought back from the dead. Case in point: In 1999 for the 2000 model year, Chevrolet announced that its new front-wheel-drive family sedan wouldn’t be called Lumina, it would be called Impala.

It was a bold move, partly because the second-generation Lumina was an entirely forgettable machine, one of the most blob-shaped, mediocre machines ever to roll out of Oshawa, Canada. It was a family sedan you only bought if you hadn’t driven any other midsize sedan, so improvement over that model wouldn’t be particularly hard.

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On the flipside, 2000 was just four model years after the final year for the awesome B-body Impala SS, essentially a factory hot rod LT1-powered Caprice that felt like the last gasp of American muscle outside of the pony cars. Chevrolet needed this reboot to not fall flat and did its best to stack the deck. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we take a look back at GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning approach of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck to determine what actually had some adhering properties.

A Restrained Face

Chevrolet Impala 2000 1600 04

Reviving such a storied nameplate is a tricky act, especially since some immediate visual familial link usually needs to be established. While retro styling was big in this era, GM didn’t smear it on with a trowel, instead just hinting at it with a handful of cues. A set of round taillights vaguely reminiscent of early ’60s models, an emblem on each pillar, an optional set of wheels visually similar to those on the 1994-1996 Impala SS, and that’s about it. They were just enough to contrast largely European-influenced styling cues, resulting in a thoroughly modern sedan for the period that looks just conservative enough to still be handsome.

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Chevrolet Impala 2000 1600 0e

Likewise, the interior styling falls into the conservative yet handsome category, with a firmly horizontal dashboard that’s aged far better than some of the curvy dashboards competitors offered in Y2K. Of course, this layout was also a pragmatic necessity because the Impala was available with a bench front seat, another element that drew from the past. The bottom line? The first front-wheel-drive Impala zigged when others zagged. As automakers like Ford and Dodge got swoopy, Chevrolet stayed the course, easing buyers into its reborn Impala. It learned its lesson from the old second-generation Lumina, and the result was a car with decent visual appeal.

Robust Underneath

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Of course, conservative looks were only part of the equation. While the standard 180-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 was an upgrade in output over the Lumina’s base 3.1-liter V6, the expanded availability of the 200-horsepower 3.8-liter pushrod V6 made it easier to get the engine you really wanted. Buick’s one-gallon motor was famed for its durability and reliability, a big-cube six-cylinder workhorse that would stay running long after the car around it had fallen to pieces. Paired with a perfectly mediocre 4T65-E four-speed automatic transmission, the end result was a powertrain setup more robust than those in most V6 automatic Hondas of the period. Good job, GM.

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However, a stout optional powertrain isn’t the only interesting thing under the skin of the eighth-generation Impala. The dash support was made of magnesium to save weight and boost rigidity, the engine cradle was made of aluminum, four-wheel disc brakes became standard, side impact airbags joined the menu, and a strut tower brace was a cheap and sensible way of stiffening up an old platform. The result was heralded as a cromulent family sedan for the new millennium, with a distinct feeling of sturdiness. As Motor Trend put it:

From a confident door slam to its competent handling on winding mountain roads, the weighty Impala feels quite solid compared with its domestic peers. Acceleration and braking are both strong, and the LS-grade suspension remains comfortably compliant. True to form, the Impala’s optional 3800 V-6 is smooth and torquey.

In short, the reborn front-wheel-drive Impala seemed to be everything sedan buyers were looking for, and GM’s uncharacteristic attention to detail meant that these well-built cars went on to be reasonably hot commodities as they aged thanks to their durability.

Getting Spicy

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Of course, GM used to routinely turn up the wick on regular products, and for 2004, Chevrolet launched a trim it should’ve offered from the start — the Impala SS. Featuring the supercharged 3.8-liter V6 and beefed-up 4T65-E HD transmission previously seen in the Pontiac Grand Prix GTP and Buick Regal GS, among others, the Impala SS pumped out 240 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque, valiant numbers for the day that could completely incinerate a single front tire, as Road & Track found out.

Don’t be shy. bury the gas pedal of the new Impala SS, and its Roots-supercharged 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 will pin you against the seat like, well…remember the time you made fun of that bouncer’s earring outside the Viper Room? We’re talking torque here, 280 lb.-ft. of it delivered at 3600 rpm, and 240 bhp at 5200 rpm, enough to send at least one front tire into a smoking frenzy when the traction control is shut off.

Sure, it didn’t have the X-factor nor the rear-wheel-drive platform of the ’90s Impala SS, but it was quick enough, reliable enough, and a fitting halo to this family sedan range. Plus, it’s always fun to see a pragmatic vehicle with a boost gauge. Something for the kids in the rear seat to keep an eye on as you rush them to soccer practice.

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Do You Really Want To Live Forever?

Chevrolet Impala 2000 1600 0c

So, it’s time we called it — was the reborn front-wheel-drive Impala a hit or a miss? If you guessed it’s a hit, congratulations. Yes, this is one of the rare times where the stars aligned for General Motors on a mainstream product. From safe styling that wasn’t a complete snoozefest, to seriously strong available powertrains, a comfy ride, decent seats, solid practicality, and reasonable build quality, the reborn front-wheel-drive Impala was just the thing Chevrolet needed after the jellybean second-generation Lumina.

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Plus, these are still somewhat desired cars today. As a result of the aforementioned underpinnings, the eighth-generation Impala was a hard car to kill. So long as they haven’t fallen victim to terminal rot or collision, these cars are still perfectly content carrying out everyday duties nearly 25 years on from launch. They might not be the most exciting things on four wheels, but few GM passenger cars of the time were this fit for purpose.

(Photo credits: Chevrolet)

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AceRimmer
AceRimmer
19 days ago

I can hear that interior creaking…

James Colangelo
James Colangelo
23 days ago

Is this an April Fools joke in June? This car is hideous garbage in literally every single way possible, save the 3800 engine which is probably the greatest engine ever made by any company (fight me).

This car, at the time, was laughable in terms of styling and build quality. Absolutely none left on the roads now and for good reason. If I do see one, it’s rusted quarters and 4 different wheels / tires tell me that this wasn’t a car to keep or enjoy. It wasn’t even a good fleet/rental car.

I feel like I need to take a shower after reading this.

Industrial_design_guy
Industrial_design_guy
23 days ago

Yeah, I really hated this car. My dream was still to become a car designer at this point, so this really wasn’t a very appealing model in a sea of awful GM products. I thoroughly prefer the previous gen rear wheel platform.

LOGGATO
LOGGATO
23 days ago

When these first came out I hated them. Lots of lazy GM styling with no real inspiration. Strangely though, as they grow old, they are starting to become rather handsome as new cars become wild and dramatic.

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
23 days ago

I’m weird about this Impala too: the first 3d modeling project I completed was a low poly version of the 2001 Impala 9C1 in NYPD paint and lights, because I was so mad the all the cop cars looked like shit in my game, so I made my own.

I strangely miss this dumb shitbox.

Last edited 23 days ago by MY LEG!
Elhigh
Elhigh
23 days ago

The Impala proves that GM knows its baby boomer market very well.

Jeffrey Johnson
Jeffrey Johnson
23 days ago

Bought one in 2000 and loved it. Fit my needs, drove all over the east coast for ten years, 120K. Traded for a 2011 version. (My family had GM blood).

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
23 days ago

GM made some good cars, and specifically by “Dad” standards. By that, I mean no effing around with image and emotion. You need something that is “fit for purpose”. You need a car that works, that is solid, that is safe, reliable, and comfortable. Even better if its not too ugly. They were fit for purpose.

I suppose the problem is that no one ever wrote a song about a car that was “fit for purpose”. Maybe in country music, but then it’s more about making a virtue of necessity…

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
23 days ago

2007. I was working in the US, and for the first month my hire car was a Hyundai Sonata V6. It was just a car, albeit with much more engine than you were likely to get hiring a car in the UK. It was fine.

I got a call from the rental place saying I’d had the car too long and they had to replace it, so I drive to Detroit to swap cars. I was stood in the office and the guy shuffles some paperwork and says “your new car is going to be a Chevy Impala”.

Now I’m British, I know very little about the weird niche of American cars, so to me there were only images in my head of a 60’s Impala, and I was so excited.

Then I saw it.

Then I got in to it.

Then I drove it.

I was very, very disappointed. So much worse than the Hyundai, and in every way. There is a lot of snobbery about car interiors, but the Impala finally made me understand how bad they could be. The column shift lever was about as rigid as a McDonald’s straw, but somehow felt cheaper.

I was still disappointed with it after a month, and so glad to get rid of it. It’s replacement was a Rav 4, a type of vehicle I hate, but at least it wasn’t an Impala.

Industrial_design_guy
Industrial_design_guy
23 days ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

This is how I felt about most American cars growing up in Canada. My parents had an old VW van when I was young. Then my mother got her license and we test drove a bunch of used American cars. I had never seen such poorly designed and built interiors. And the way they drove was honestly a bit shocking to the then 12 year old me.

Peter Thompson
Peter Thompson
24 days ago

the SS was apparently about as quick as the ’90s LT1 SS, due to the lighter weight.

Raptor
Raptor
24 days ago

I have a fond memory of watching a blue Impala of this generation burn to the ground in my neighbor’s driveway. It spontaneously caught on fire while parked. I remember the firefighters using an axe to try and open the hood before one of them had the bright idea to open the car door and pop the hood.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
24 days ago

I think I’m always on here calling the GMs a hit. I never warmed to the styling of these but everything you said about it’s build was apt. The 2nd generation Lumina, on the other hand, was one of those cars I just couldn’t ever imagine anyone actually buying. Like if you needed a car, and had the choice in our free market to literally buy any other car, why would you have bought that?

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
23 days ago
Reply to  Ariel E Jones

For 2 teenage drivers to share. My dad bought one for my sister and I and it was perfect for new drivers. Big and safe for the era, reliable, but not anything fancy that encouraged dumb teen antics

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
24 days ago

If they have survived rot 3.8 cars on the, what was this w-body?, still make great dirt cheap A-B transport.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
24 days ago

When these dropped, both my local county sheriff and the city police ditched their Crown Vics for these. They made a big deal about it on the local news, and instantly these became uncool for private citizens in the area. I’m not sure I saw a single non-police one until they dropped the SS model. I’m not sure I can go completely along with the premise of this article, but I will admit this generation of Impala could have been worse. Then again, its platform mates were (generally) better.

CTSVmkeLS6
CTSVmkeLS6
24 days ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

Jason Bourne 2 movie… I think it was that one. Anyway, he pedaled a NYPD Impala like a boss taking hits and bumps like a boss. Obviously real life but GM FWD all owe a tip of the hat to the X-body quintet that they learned from and made mediocre greatness for two decades with.
W bodies are also good FWD demolition derby cars

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
23 days ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

“…these became uncool for private citizens…”

Similar to what happened to Honda Element. Honda was targeting the younger demographic who are outdoor and sport enthusiasts. Inexplicably, more and more senior citizens bought Element due to its “quirky” styling, hoping to recapture their “youthfulness” again, and high roof along with larger doors for ease of ingress and egress. When the younger people saw them and made the connection that Element wasn’t cool to drive anymore.

James Carson
James Carson
24 days ago

Had a used 98 Olds Intrigue i bought as a commuter in 04. Fine car never a problem until the rust took it. Handled well decent brakes, was comfortable, got decent mileage and mist imooortantly, I fit. Put a 140K km on it before i got rid of it in 11.

Christopher Warren
Christopher Warren
24 days ago

When it came out, I just thought they’d significantly cribbed the front grill styling from then current Nissan sedans.
Then there is the taillight design, two 60’s themed oval lamps per side, (the design itself was pretty good), means Bel Air!, Bel Air!, Bel Air!!!!.
Yes, I realize I was probably just 1 per 100,000 who saw the design with the Impala name and thought it was wrong ????.
I feel it was a missed chance for Chevrolet to bring back the Bel Air nameplate and save the Impala’s name for the supercharged SS model, giving them an excuse to come up with a 60’s triple oval themed design to set it apart from the Bel Air.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
24 days ago

Miss. Despite the great drive train, I always hated the headlight and tail light design on these. The lumina was better looking.

I drive a boring SUV
I drive a boring SUV
24 days ago

Right. English is not my first language, so I might be missing something here, so let me just check . The car this article is talking about – “European-influenced styling cues”, “conservative enough to still be handsome”, “a firmly horizontal dashboard that’s aged far better than some of the curvy dashboards competitors offered in Y2K” – is the one in the pictures?

Elhigh
Elhigh
23 days ago

That’s the one they’re talking about. Inaccurately, but yes.

Bomber
Bomber
24 days ago

When this came out I almost bought one. Instead I got it’s sibling, a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GT. Easily one of the best cars I’ve owned as far as reliability. I put 90k miles on it in a bit shy of 4 years and only changed the oil and put a set of brake pads on it. Driving every day from Ames to Des Moines Iowa in comfort. Every day. Man I don’t miss that

WR250R
WR250R
24 days ago

Amazing how many of these I still see on the road. And I’m in Wisconsin where salt normally puts a timer on longevity

Last edited 24 days ago by WR250R
Angry Bob
Angry Bob
24 days ago

Downside is everyone will slow down when they see you in their rearview mirror.

Jim Zavist
Jim Zavist
24 days ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

The same thing applies to the current Ford Explorer and the recently departed Dodge Charger.

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