2006 Chevrolet Impala
This is one of the best rental cars I've ever driven. No, I didn't borrow it from Hertz; I drove the test model GM offered. But when I climbed in and saw that old-fashioned bench seat in the front, with room for three people pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, and caressed that unabashedly artificial polyester upholstery, and gripped the stalk-mounted transmission lever, I was transported to the rental counter at some nondescript airport, late on a rainy night, eager to climb into any old car and close the door and finally be free of lines and luggage.
Those evocations of mediocrity are a shame, because the Impala is one of the most pleasant surprises from Chevrolet in years (not counting, of course, the Corvette). The base model, which I drove, starts at about $22,000 and is very complete for an entry-level sedan. In addition to basics like a CD player, A/C, and power everything, there are niceties like overhead map and reading lights, vanity mirrors, automatic headlamps, and programmable lighting settings. Interior space is comparable to that in a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord or Nissan Altima, and trunk space is larger. Another big plus: Side-curtain airbags are standard. The Impala is impressive not just for all the stuff packed into it, however, but also for a thorough job of execution that left me feeling surrounded by competence. The dashboard controls are solid, and the materials feel pleasant and substantial. The interior is handsome without lame attempts at flashiness. There is no superfluous junk to contend with.
The Impala is confident on the road, too. Unlike most other mid size sedans, which start out with a four-cylinder engine, the Impala comes standard with a 211-horsepower V-6 that's strong and quiet--not quite as refined as the best in the class, but enough to get the job done with no complaints. What really got my attention is the Impala's handling. In stark contrast to the loose, boaty feel of some Americans sedans, including modern ones like the Buick Lucerne, the Impala's steering is taut and responsive. Without too much exertion, you feel like you're actually turning the tires, not just pushing an electronic steering button. That provides a road feel that Chevy seems to have forgotten about for a while and now has gladly rediscovered. On the pavement, and in the cabin, the Impala stacks up pretty squarely against the Camry and Accord and other dominant sedans. Plus that lovely bench in the front lets it seat six, instead of a measly five! Now there's a selling point.