At a recent design panel discussion featuring emerging American designers, an audience member asked the question ‘What is American design?’ The panelists responded noting design had a short history in the US compared to Europe. They also agreed that there was a certain ‘make do with what you find’ approach to American design resulting in a more pure and honest result. Evidence of this can be traced from Shaker furniture through to the work from Charles and Ray Eames. The discussion got me thinking further about American design heritage as a few days prior, Chevy invited PSFK to test drive their new 2014 Impala, a car that established itself as an American auto design icon of the 1960′s.
The day began with a walk around by Impala Designer Steve McCabe. Before we got started, I asked McCabe what was the inspiration for the tenth-generation Impala (you read that right, ten complete redesigns). He recalled that Ed Welburn, GM’s head of design had a fondness for the 1965 Impala and one occupied the design studio on occasion. When the 2014 Impala was first shown at the 2012 New York Auto Show, two original ’65 Impalas shared the stage. We first looked at the side profile and McCabe pointed out the two major character elements, the body side lines and the shape of the side windows. Two or three sculptural lines are part of the Impala styling DNA McCabe said and you can see a similar horizontal line transitioning into an arch above the rear wheel on the ’65. The arch in a way represents the last styling vestiges of the tail fin era, which Impala’s of the 50′s bore.
The 2014 Impala is a four-door sedan, bearing two more doors than the ’65. McCabe noted that the the shape of the side windows was stretched horizontally to create a long day light opening or DLO. You can see the ’65 features a raked rear window giving it a sleeker shape.
Once we moved to the front of the car, the tone of McCabe’s conversation changed. He pointed out the dynamically shaped LED running lights in the lower fascia. He also started to talk about design decisions made resulting from time spent in the wind tunnel, a place the ’65 model likely didn’t visit for long. On V6 models for instance, there are flaps in the grille that close and open to streamline air movement around the front end. While the trademark centerline crease is a direct descendant from the ’65 model, the new front end is smoothed out to manage airflow far more efficiently.
More tweaks to airflow management happen in the rear. McCabe recounted a late night session in the wind tunnel with an engineer when they were looking to reduce the drag numbers. Some small edged surfaces (see the photo below) were added to the tail lights to get air to ‘break’ better off the side of the car and keep it from swirling back behind the Impala. This allows the car to cut through the air more efficiently and most importantly save gas. And that is what I found from my conversation with McCabe to be the underlying goal with the Impala. It needed to be more efficient and hopefully lure buyers looking at SUV’s or Crossovers that typically get worse gas milage.
Honestly, the 2014 Impala looks good in person. The design team clearly exerted a lot of effort to create a contemporary looking car. But there is also a problem. On one hand you have a car aspiring to recapture a feeling from the 60′s and on the other design needs like aero efficiency, safety advancements, and technology. It is a car with a split personality.
Jon Hahn, GM Marketing Manager rode along with me during the drive. I think he assumed I would have a long list of technical and product specific questions. Instead I asked him if he felt like Chevy was obsessed with the 1960′s. On the one end you have the Impala, Camaro and new Stingray Corvette which all draw inspiration from models of that decade. And then there is the other side, the Volt, Spark and Sonic which have short histories and no nostalgia attached. Hahn seemed caught off guard by the question and basically said it was an interesting observation. The point really in asking was to get a reaction to generation-specific references within Chevy’s product line and whether the heritage angle is becoming less and less relevant to buyers born since the 1960′s. To many younger buyers, the Impala is likely associated with being the default rental car. In fact the Impala sales are 2/3 fleet and 1/3 consumer, Chevy is hoping to flip that equation but does going back to the 1960′s help?
On the highways surrounding New York City and the twisty roads along the Hudson Valley, the 2014 Impala does offer a comfortable ride. It isn’t quick but features like the same steering system used in the Camaro gives the car a responsive feel. On a long road trip, it wouldn’t be bad and not terribly expensive to fuel up. The interior is kitted out with a touch screen that doubles as a lock box. And a wide range of vehicle telemetry can be accessed and displayed on the dash including fuel efficiency and real time tire pressures. The tech stuff is cool but feels really complicated and missing an elegant simplicity that the Impala character seems to want to be about.
There’s something about the idea of the Impala that seems more modern than the car has realized. The animal is lean, elegant, agile and able to generate a lot of power from an efficiently shaped body. There’s all manner of design and technology methods that could translate those traits in to a compelling vehicle that is light, efficient and simple. It may be that this is the bottom of the well for 60′s nostalgia revival and the 11th generation Impala could be something completely unique.