More than six decades after the first Chevrolet Impala rolled off the assembly line, the last of the big sedans will be built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant today.
The full-size four-door, along with other models like the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, have had to be cleared out as the factory will soon go through a massive retooling effort to convert it for production of future battery-electric vehicles like the planned GMC Hummer pickup.
But there were other factors in play when parent General Motors announced the end of the run for the Impala and an assortment of other passenger vehicles in November 2018 – part of a broader plan to close a group of U.S. plants to address excess capacity. One only has to look at the sales charts to understand. Where sedan once ruled the roads, 52% of the new vehicles sold in the U.S. last year were SUVs and CUVs, with pickups and vans bringing the light truck segment, overall, up to around 70 percent.
Chevy has also killed off the smaller Cruze sedan and the Buick LaCrosse, and other models, such as the Cadillac CT6, could follow.
It isn’t alone, however. Ford Motor Co. revealed in 2018 it would phase out nearly all U.S. passenger cars, including the Fiesta, Focus and Fusion, leaving only the ever-popular Mustang coupe. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles dropped such models as the Chrysler 200, with only a handful of niche models left, such as the Dodge Challenger and Charger muscle cars. Fast-falling sales of the big Chrysler 300 raise questions about its fate, as well.
In its heyday, however, few nameplates could rival the Impala in terms of America’s love affair with the automobile. Since the first of the sedans came out in 1958, nearly 17 million were sold in the U.S. and other global markets. At peak, in 1965, annual sales topped 1 million, making the Chevy Impala one of the best-selling vehicles in U.S. history during a single year.
It also lays claim to being one of the longest-lived nameplates, heading off for retirement at 62 – though there were a handful of gaps in its run back in the 1980s and 1990s. Impala was pulled
off the market following the twin oil shocks of the ‘70s as motorists raced to replace their large, gas-guzzling Detroit machines with more fuel-efficient alternatives – many of them from Japan. GM frantically responded with downsized products such as the front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Citation and Cavalier models.
From 1985, the Impala nameplate was put on a nine-year hiatus, returning in 1994 as a special performance version of the bowtie brand’s boat-like Caprice line, dubbed the Impala SS, and kitted out with a 5.7-liter small-block V-8 making 260 horsepower, a significant figure for that era.
In 1996, the badge was again pulled from production, not to return until the turn of the millennium. The 2000 Impala was smaller and targeted a bit more mainstream buyer, its base model relying on a 3.4-liter V-6.
But Chevy’s hopes really rose in 2014, when it launched the 10th-generation Impala using a new platform and giving it a much more modern and elegant look with plenty of luxury-oriented details and features inside. The new model saw its share of the full-size sedan immediately jump from a meager 6.9% in 2013 to 14.7% a year later.
Unfortunately for Chevy, Impala would soon begin losing that momentum as the switch from passenger cars to light trucks began to accelerate. By November 2018, the nameplate was added to the list of products GM said it would scrap while also closing three assembly plants and two parts plants. Eventually, the automaker decided to retain the Detroit-Hamtramck factory but convert it for electric vehicle production.
The full-size segment has seen an exodus of offerings, Ford pulling its own Taurus model, for example, though Toyota is betting it can do just fine retaining its Avalon offering, picking up a larger share of a smaller pie.
The SUV surge has taken a toll across the industry and led to the demise of some other long-lived nameplates, including the Volkswagen Beetle which ended its own run late last year after an on-and-off production history dating back to the opening days of World War II.
Unlike fatally flawed nameplates like Citation and Cavalier – or Pontiac’s Aztek – Impala still has mostly positive imagery for those that still know the name. And so, as Chevy has shown in the past, it yet may be too earlier to write the final epitaph for Impala, however. The automaker has brought it back twice before and some industry-watchers speculate it could find a place in the line-up yet again, much as is happening with Hummer, the new electric pickup the GMC brand will launch in 2021.