By Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Impala has been tapped by Consumer Reports as the top sedan in the United States, seizing a spot dominated by Japanese and European models for more than two decades.
The influential consumer magazine said the redesigned 2014 Impala was not only the top large sedan, with a score of 95 of a possible 100 points, but also among the top-rated vehicles it has tested. Only Tesla's Model S hatchback (99 points) and BMW's 135i coupe (97) scored higher.
The ranking by Consumer Reports is the latest symbol of GM's effort to improve consumers' perception of its brands. The Impala historically was better known for its image as king of the rental cars.
"It just shows that GM is back and they're making really desirable vehicles," Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, said in a telephone interview. "What's really amazing about it is the vehicle in one year went from one of the worst vehicles in its category to the best."
The 2013 Impala scored 63 points in Consumer Reports testing.
Fisher said the new Impala's performance is part of a renaissance by U.S. automakers that includes such redesigned vehicles as the Chrysler 300 sedan, Ford Escape SUV and Fusion sedan, and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.
The Impala's recognition follows GM's performance last month in a widely followed J.D. Power and Associates study. In that firm's initial quality survey, the Detroit automaker had eight cars and trucks named best in their segment in the U.S. auto market and its mainstream Chevy brand jumped 10 spots to No. 5 among 33 brands.
The high rankings for its vehicles is welcome news for a company trying to put its 2009 bankruptcy and $49.5 billion U.S. taxpayer-funded bailout behind it.
Impala used to get 70 percent of its sales from fleet customers, like car rental companies, and 30 percent from consumers, but GM officials want to flip that ratio. The car competes with the Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon.
Consumer Reports has been testing and reviewing cars for more than 75 years, but started giving them numerical scores and compiling ratings charts in only 1992. In that time, the top-scoring sedan spot has been held 12 times by Japanese models and nine times by European ones.
Overall, Consumer Reports said it found the 2014 Impala competitive with cars that cost $20,000 more, including the Audi A6, Lexus LS460L, Acura RLX and Jaguar XF. Fisher said many high-end cars suffer from over-complexity, while the new Impala has many nice features but remains easy to use.
The magazine praised the new Impala for its luxurious feel; spacious and high-quality interior; easy-to-use and intuitive controls; and strong handling and braking. It said the car's 22 miles per gallon fuel efficiency as rated by the magazine was competitive but not best in class.
However, since it is so new, there is no reliability data for the Impala and Consumer Reports did not add the large sedan to its "recommended" list. To achieve that, a vehicle must perform well in the magazine's testing, have average or better reliability and perform well in government and industry crash tests.
In other testing, Consumer Reports said the redesigned, seven-passenger version of the Hyundai Santa Fe now ranks as the top mid-sized SUV ahead of the Toyota Highlander. The magazine also tested the 2014 Kia Forte compact car, saying it was vastly improved from the previous model and slightly better than the Hyundai Elantra on which it is based.
Complete results for the Impala and other vehicles recently tested appear on www.ConsumerReports.org and in the September issue of the magazine.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Dan Grebler)