Once a muscle-car icon and a symbol of U.S. automotive dominance, the Chevrolet Impala has more recently seen its image suffer. Bloated and generic, the critics said. More suited for the rental car fleets that account for most of its sales.
Consumer Reports three years ago panned its sloppy handling and second-rate fit and finish.
So it marked a stunning turnaround Thursday when the Impala secured the influential magazine's top overall rating among sedans -- a distinction held by Japanese and European models for at least two decades. Posting the third-highest score ever, the Impala ranked behind only such distinguished company as the Tesla Model S and BMW 135i.
The critical acclaim is emblematic of a resurgence by U.S. automakers in sales, profits and consumer perceptions of quality and imaginative design. General Motors and Ford Motor each posted second-quarter profits of $1.2 billion this week, numbers not seen since before the Great Recession and GM's bankruptcy and bailout.
Recently redesigned models such as Ford's Fusion sedan and Chrysler's Ram pickup truck are proving a hit with critics and consumers, said Jake Fisher,
director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.
"There are no more excuses," he said. "They can make world-class cars."
Finally, the domestic automakers are focusing on exterior and interior design instead of just hitting sales targets, often with the help of fleet sales, said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst at auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
The improvements are paying off in sales and profits, Gutierrez said. The city of Detroit is in bankruptcy, but the domestic auto industry is booming.
The turnaround has come surprisingly fast. The recession nearly ruined Ford and toppled GM and Chrysler Group into bankruptcy restructurings. Chrysler is expected to report a profitable quarter next week.
Sales are robust. Through the first half of this year, the Detroit automakers have sold 3.6 million vehicles in the U.S., a 10.3% gain from the same period last year. And they have grabbed a full point of market share from the big Asian brands, according to Autodata Corp.
The Big Three are spending some of the new revenue on a hiring binge.
GM has added almost 6,000 U.S. workers in the last six months. Chrysler has added 17,000 U.S. workers since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009. This week, Ford said it will hire about 3,000 salaried workers this year, about 800 more than it had projected in February.
The restructurings at GM and Chrysler, as well as labor agreements that help Ford, are contributing to the industry's success, said John F. Hoffecker, an auto industry consultant with AlixPartners.
"Now they are in a much more level playing field with their global competitors," he said, and that's given the car companies the revenue and breathing room to develop better vehicles.
But domestic automakers still face significant challenges, said Christian Mayes, at auto analyst at financial firm Edward Jones.
"No doubt they are in a better financial position than they were before the downturn," he said, but they need to continue spending heavily on developing new models.
Their Japanese competitors have a financial edge right now because of the slide in the value of the yen, which makes the U.S. sales of those import brands more profitable. They're using that advantage to add features and offer discounts on the cars they sell overseas, a trend that will probably show up on U.S. shores, Mayes said.
Cars such as the Impala could blunt those advantages, analysts said.
The Impala proved a huge hit for Chevrolet after its introduction in 1958. By 1965, the car had shed its garish tail fins and morphed into a sleek, square icon of the muscle-car era. Chevrolet sold 1,068,614 Impalas that year, making it the bestselling car in the U.S. Nearly 1 in 10 cars sold in the U.S. that year were Impalas.
But during the 1970s, the Impala went the way of most American cars as GM got clobbered by rising foreign competition and demands for decreased air emissions and increased fuel economy. The Impala grew smaller, less distinctive and much less powerful. The muscle-car era had passed. Sales dwindled during the latter half of the decade and into the 1980s. The Impala nameplate was retired in 1985. It wouldn't return until the 2000 model year.
By last year, GM was selling 80% of the Impalas it produced to rental car companies and fleet customers. Consumers didn't want them.
Now GM is hoping that the new Impala regains some its former stature.
"The Impala with LTZ trim compares well with the Lexus ES 350," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for automotive consulting firm AutoPacific Inc.
Sullivan said driving the new Impala was one of the biggest surprises he has experienced in years of testing and evaluating new models.
"My expectations were pretty low, but it far exceeded anything I thought GM was capable of doing," he said. "It is probably the best product they make right now."
Consumer Reports panned earlier generations of the car. Its August 2010
review of the car concluded: "The unimpressive Chevrolet Impala is overdue for a
redesign. The short list of good points includes simple radio controls and a large trunk.... Handling is clumsy, and powertrain refinement falls short."
Contrast that to the magazine's latest take: The Impala "rides like a luxury sedan, with a cushy and controlled demeanor, while delivering surprisingly agile handling, capable acceleration, and excellent braking.... When pushed to its handling limits, the Impala proved secure, responsive, balanced, and easy to control."
Consumer Reports said the Impala, which starts at about $27,000, was competitive with much more expensive cars, including the Audi A6, Lexus LS460L, Acura RLX and Jaguar X.
The Impala hasn't generated universal praise, however.
"The Impala was once a stylish marquee name, a glorious tail-finned showpiece of Detroit's golden age," wrote Yahoo (YHOO) Autos critic Neal Pollack in a March review. "Now it's just clumsy, expensive department-store jewelry, dated and stale, desperately out of step with the times."
He called the handling "sluggish, like a wet sponge."
And despite all the praise, the Impala still lacks the one accolade probably the most coveted from Consumer Reports -- a "recommended" rating.
Fisher said the magazine does not yet have enough reliability data to give the Impala its full stamp of approval.