Risky Bet on New Chevy Impala

from the Wall Street Journal

In its heyday, the Chevrolet Impala inspired a song by the Beach Boys and held a starring roll in the gritty, 1970s detective show “Baretta.” But in recent years, the big sedan has become almost forgettable, drawing mostly rental-car company and government agency buyers.

Now General Motors Co. is betting it can make the 54-year-old Impala a head-turner again, all part of a broader plan to reinvigorate its offerings with 13 redesigned cars and trucks next year and regain the favor of American car shoppers.

The 2014 Impala, which hits showrooms in April, would be the first remake of the car in seven years, mixes technology—such as an eight-inch movable infotainment screen and lane-departure control—with a fashion knack that includes colored stitching on seats and chrome lettering.

Dealers and reviewers say reconnecting the faded nameplate with consumers won’t be easy. The Impala makeover comes much later than other aging models from the era of land cruisers that have already undergone overhauls—such as the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, and GM’s own Buick LaCrosse.

“The redesign looks better than the old model,” says auto-information website Edmunds.com reviewer Dan Frio. “Is it good enough to compete against the Taurus and Chrysler 300? I don’t know.”

Leo Bunnin, owner of Bunnin Chevrolet in Culver City, Calif., sells less than 100 Impalas a year. But he says, the brand has staying power and the redesign could work. “The Impala name was a magnet and I think it could be again.”

GM needs some hits in its bread-and butter Chevy brand, which accounts for about 75% of its vehicle sales in the U.S. Years ago, GM could credibly tout Chevrolet as American as baseball and apple pie. But a string of poor quality cars and its government-backed bankruptcy have left GM with a tarnished image, and it is paying a price. Through the end of the third-quarter, GM’s market share stood at 17.6%, compared with 19.7% in the same period of 2011.

Next year, GM will redesign and upgrade 13 Chevrolet vehicles, including big sellers such as the Silverado pickup truck, its iconic Corvette sports car and the Suburban and Tahoe sport-utility vehicles.

The Impala likely faces the toughest battle. First introduced in 1958, the Impala name grew to encompass a series of different cars. In the ’60s one featured a big block engine that inspired the Beach Boys’ song “409.” In the ’70s, actor Robert Blake drove a rusted 1966 Chevy Impala in “Beretta.”

Today’s lumbering sedan offers few modern features to tempt car-buyers. In a cost-saving move a few years ago, GM stopped equipping the car with the chrome, leaping antelope that had symbolized the Impala for decades.