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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.

Snapshot

NITS: Antilock brakes are optional. This important, relatively inexpensive safety feature should be standard on any mid-level family car.

G-FORCES: The 211-horsepower V-6 is a great standard engine, with plenty of power for most situations. People who want more can upgrade to a 242-horsepower V-6, while muscle-car enthusiasts who buy the SS model will get a 303-horsepower V-8. The Impala comes with a four-speed automatic transmission that's not as sophisticated as as the five-speeds on competitors like the Accord and Camry, meaning the engine performance isn't quite as smooth. But it's not noticeably harsh. Cornering is as good as on most other front-drive sedans of this size.

GIZMOLOGY: One characteristic I appreciated: Controls like the trunk release, the power outlets, and the trip computer buttons are sensibly laid out, within easy reach-not always the case. Radio and climate systems are clearly designed and easy to use. One oddity: The front cupholders are concealed beneath the standard bench seat, and part of the seat needs to be flipped over to get to them.

KID MARKS: Space is good--especially in the trunk--and the doors are small and manageable. Two drawbacks: There are no rear cupholders on lower trim lines, nor does the back seat fold down, helpful for carrying long cargo along with a kid or two.

HOT or NOT: Not particularly, but well groomed.

ENVIROMENT: The EPA ranks the Impala above average for greenhouse gas emissions but hasn't yet rated it for pollution. Details are at www.fueleconomy.gov.

PAIN AT THE PUMP: The government's mileage ratings range from 19 mpg/city to 31/mpg highway, very good for a V-6. The entry-level Impala LS ranked 203 out of 477 on U.S.News's exclusive Muscle Per Gallon index. The upgraded Impala LT ranked 178.

CRASH COURSE: Earns 10 stars out of 10 on the government's frontal crash test, and 9 out of 10 on the side-impact test. Rollover resistance rating is 4 stars out of 5. Side-curtain airbags are standard; antilock brakes and traction control are optional. Stability control is not available. More info: www.nhtsa.gov

PRICE POINTS: Base prices range from $21,990 to $27,790. Price as tested: $21,930. (All prices include delivery fees.)

MORE INFO:www.chevrolet.com