NASHVILLE – Production of the '06 Impala, Chevrolet's hottest-selling car, is nearing the 60-unit-per-hour target at General Motors Corp.'s Oshawa, Ont., Canada, No.1 plant, says David Whitaker, vehicle line executive-midsize cars.

Some 1.25 million Impalas have been sold since the current-generation car's introduction in 1999 as an '00 model, says Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper.

'06 Impala

More than 290,000 Impalas were sold in 2004, but Peper forecasts this year's total will be in the 250,000-unit range because of the transition to the new model.

He predicts Impala sales will climb back to nearly 290,000 units next year.

“We'd like to break 300,000, but it depends on market conditions,” he says.

The new Impala will be available in six trim levels. Prices for the base LS will start at $21,990, says Mark A. Clawson, marketing manager Impala/Monte Carlo. He forecasts the LS will capture 10% of sales.

There are three LT models. The LT 1 will account for 35% of Impala sales; the LT 2 should hit about 20% of the mix and the LT 3 account for 15%, Clawson says. The LTZ will grab 10% of sales.

A top-of-the-line Impala SS will account for the remainder of sales and could reach as high as 15% of the mix, Clawson predicts.

He expects total average transaction prices to be in the $24,000 range. SS purchases will average about $27,000, and a fully loaded SS can cost up to $31,415, he says.

Nominally, the Impala is a 5-passenger car, but Clawson forecasts 10% of customers will choose the no-cost optional front bench seat (not available in the SS) to give the car seating for six.

Clawson says Impala buyers tend to be very traditional, “so we're going to use a traditional advertising approach.”

GM's Northeast and North Central regions have been strongholds for Impala sales.

“We're going to do better in areas where we have done well before,” he says. But he says that Chevrolet is determined to improve sales in the so-called “Smile” states that line the two coasts and the Sun Belt.

Chevrolet engineers set out to improve power and performance in the '06 Impala, which features an all-new 3.5L V-6 with variable valve timing as standard on LS and LT models. It generates 211 hp, 31 hp more than the '05 model.

Despite the power upgrade, the car is second in fuel economy to the Malibu Maxx in the Environmental Protection Agency's midsize car segment at 21/31 mpg (11.2-7.6 L/100 km) city/highway. The new engine is E85 ready.

An all-new 3.9L V-6 is standard on the LTZ and optional on LT models. It generates 242 hp and 242 lb.-ft. (328 Nm) of torque delivering 19/27 mpg (12.4-8.7 L/100 km).

There's also an all-new small-block 5.3L V-8 that's standard on the SS, marking the return of the small block to the SS after a 10-year absence.

Ron Dershem, assistant vehicle chief engineer, says this SS is the fastest Impala ever built.

“We're sure this car will go 140 mph (225 km/h),” he says.

The V-8 cranks out 303 hp and gives the Impala 5.7 second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) performance. The engine boasts Displacement on Demand and makes the Impala only the second sedan in GM's lineup (the Pontiac Grand Prix is the other) to offer the fuel-efficiency feature.

Clawson expects to sell a richer mix of cars during the introductory year.

“We're building approximately 30% SS models, 30% cars with the 3.9L engine and 30% with the 3.5L engine,” he says.

The Impala has been in production since June 15.

So far, dealer orders have outstripped supply from the still ramping up plant in Oshawa.

“We have tested full line speed for only four hours so far,” Whitaker says. “But we know we can do it now.”

Whitaker says initial plans are to build 60 units per hour on three shifts five days per week.

“We have flexibility if demand calls for it to build more,” he says. “But the last thing we want to do is build more than we can sell.”

In addition to the Impala, the plant produces the Monte Carlo, which doesn't switch over to '06 model production until this fall.

The plant typically builds four or five Impalas to every Monte Carlo.

“It can go as high as six to one,” Whitaker says. “In the beginning of '06 Impala production we'll be at the upper end.”

He says assembly time for the '06 model has been reduced, but how much build time will be saved won't be clear until full production speed is reached.

The Impala historically has been a profitable car, Whitaker says.

“We're hopeful of remaining a good contributor to GM revenues,” he says.

The Impala shares some parts with the Buick Lacrosse, including the floor pan, rear compartment pan, structural rockers and some other underbody components. But the greenhouse and door structures are unique, as well as all the exterior sheet metal.

Whitaker notes that the overall package is improved. Even the base model looks like an up-level car, he says.

“We didn't want it to look like a base model,” he says. “If someone is on a tight budget, they don't have to give up esthetics.”