Squaring Off 

By Marc K. Stengel

Two contenders, opposing points of view. Only one gets the nod. Let’s settle it with a debate. On one side, we have a popular favorite, all decked out in new, trendy duds. A bit unexciting sometimes, but technically proficient. Plus, it has a proven track record.

The opponent is less well-known but arguably more appealing to well-heeled tastes. Looks are unremarkable, yet a certain cockiness lurks below the surface. The career record is a bit checkered, however, and leadership ability at the national level is untested.

So what’ll it be for your all-American, run-of-the-mill family of five? Will you vote for Chevrolet’s Malibu LS sedan or for Nissan’s Maxima SE, whose specially prepped 20th-anniversary edition arrives just in time for the 2001 debating season?

The platforms

Talk about populist: Chevy’s Impala is one of the best-recognized U.S. automobile brands of all time. Sure, times have changed since General Motors temporarily retired the name in ’86. But last year, Impala returned freshly reenergized to give a new twist to an old theme. It’s the family car for the 21st century, smaller than before but still available with optional six-passenger seating.

Its 3.8-liter pushrod V6 makes even more—and more efficient—power than the V8 in its ’70s and ’80s predecessors. In other words, there’s 200 horsepower with a 20 mile-per-gallon rating in the city, 30 mpg on the highway. Unheard of even 15 years ago for a sedan in the mid-$20,000 range are four-wheel anti-lock disk brakes and four-wheel independent strut suspension. Special interests in the enthusiast community still decry the choice of front-wheel-drive, but there’s no denying that Impala’s new wardrobe of crisply creased sheet metal and aerodynamic details incorporates a healthy dose of Alpha Male styling.

For its part, Nissan is determined to attract a more discriminating clientele for its five-passenger Maxima, despite the company’s well-known recent spate of corporate setbacks. Compared to Impala, Maxima boasts a bit more refined, international sporting pedigree with its acclaimed, twin-cam 3.0-liter V6. For 2001, the 20th-anniversary edition bumps out 227 horsepower—5 more horses than the basic Maxima, almost 14 percent more than the upscale Impala LS. The Nissan wears ABS disk brakes at all four corners too; but instead of Macpherson struts all ’round, Maxima’s suspension consists of sport-tuned struts up front and a proprietary multi-link beam axle in the rear. For all its genuine sport-touring pretensions, Maxima’s front-drive layout is a concession to mass taste, but it also helps keep costs down and fuel efficiency up to 22 mpg/city, 27/hwy. For the enthusiast niche, however, there’s a slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission available; drilled metal accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals in the 20th-anniversary package add a defiant racerboy touch.

Fiscal issues

Chevy takes a grassroots approach with its Impala, one that contrasts vividly with Maxima’s targeted appeal to more worldly driving enthusiasts. It is quite impressive, in fact, just how much standard content the five-seater Impala LS offers for its $23,225 base price. For 2001, there are power windows, remote keyless entry, dual-zone HVAC, a six-way power driver’s seat, and automatic tire-inflation monitors. A side-impact airbag is provided for the driver only. Leather seating trim costs $625, heated front seats cost $425, and a CD stereo adds $223; steering wheel audio controls with an electronic information center add $396 more, bringing the as-tested total to an impressively affordable $25,494. Particularly noteworthy for 2001 is the inclusion of OnStar telematics as standard equipment in the Impala LS. A year’s free subscription to OnStar provides one-touch telephone access to the growing list of safety, navigation, concierge, and Internet services that GM can legitimately claim to have invented all by itself.

Maxima features almost the same standard equipment list, right down to the built-in Homelink remote garage-door opener system. There’s no OnStar, of course, but it’s the special anniversary-package options that define this Maxima SE’s more exclusive, upscale personality. There’s the one-touch sunroof, for example, and the viscous, limited slip differential that only real sporty types will exploit and appreciate. An optional 200-watt Bose sound system with CD and cassette costs $899, and an option package that includes side airbags for both front occupants adds $539 more. As tested, this special-edition Maxima totals $29,107. Less fully equipped Maximas are available at lower prices, but they still cost somewhat more than comparably equipped Impalas.

Character

For all its racy design cues and even its trunk-mounted rear winglet, the Impala LS is no gazelle. In traffic and on a cruise, its V6 is very robust and responsive; it’s actually the most sophisticated yet understated feature of the entire package. In spite of the Impala’s impressive array of standard equipment, the interior is uninspiring, verging on banal. And the sporting quotient as reflected by Impala’s handling characteristics on twisty back roads is defiantly underwhelming by design. It appears to be Impala’s express philosophy that sportiness while driving the family or commuting is neither desirable nor, perhaps, responsible.

Even with its nondescript, almost anonymous looks, Maxima’s design mission is all about “empowering” the driver. A shorter wheelbase and lower center of gravity give the car’s handling an inspiriting zip; the interior feels like a working cockpit; the twin-cam V6 revs high and fast; and the five-speed manual gives an enthusiast driver full discretion over acceleration and engine braking. There’s still room for five adults to ride in comfort in a Maxima. But whereas the Impala’s self-consciously sporty looks only suggest riding in style, the Maxima’s combination of powertrain and suspension makes possible a real measure of control over this car’s style of driving. The contrast between candidates could hardly be more clear: One promises affordable competence without frills, the other touts freedom of action at a price.

For all its racy design cues and even its trunk-mounted rear winglet, the Impala LS is no gazelle. In traffic and on a cruise, its V6 is very robust and responsive; it’s actually the most sophisticated yet understated feature of the entire package. In spite of the Impala’s impressive array of standard equipment, the interior is uninspiring, verging on banal. And the sporting quotient as reflected by Impala’s handling characteristics on twisty back roads is defiantly underwhelming by design. It appears to be Impala’s express philosophy that sportiness while driving the family or commuting is neither desirable nor, perhaps, responsible.

Even with its nondescript, almost anonymous looks, Maxima’s design mission is all about “empowering” the driver. A shorter wheelbase and lower center of gravity give the car’s handling an inspiriting zip; the interior feels like a working cockpit; the twin-cam V6 revs high and fast; and the five-speed manual gives an enthusiast driver full discretion over acceleration and engine braking. There’s still room for five adults to ride in comfort in a Maxima. But whereas the Impala’s self-consciously sporty looks only suggest riding in style, the Maxima’s combination of powertrain and suspension makes possible a real measure of control over this car’s style of driving. The contrast between candidates could hardly be more clear: One promises affordable competence without frills, the other touts freedom of action at a price.

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