Now that Ford has dropped the Crown Victoria, pretty much the last large (six-passenger) sedan you can buy for less than $24k brand new is the Chevy Impala.

As a family cruise-mobile - or if you just want a big car without a big price tag - it's hard to beat.

WHAT IT IS

The Impala is a full-size (up to six passenger) sedan with a base price of $23,900 for the LS. $25,055 will get you into the higher-trim LT version and if you want a bit of sportiness, there's an LTZ version that comes with a bigger V-6 engine, firmer-riding suspension and so on. Its base price is $29,630.

All Impalas are front-wheel-drive.

WHAT'S NEW FOR 2010

The formerly available high-performance SS model (the only Impala that offered a V-8 engine) has been discontinued, leaving the V-6 powered LTZ as the Top Gun in the Impala lineup. Otherwise, the '10 model is pretty much the same as the '09 model.

WHAT'S GOOD

Very affordable price tag, can handle six adults comfortably. Great cross-country highway car. Simple, rugged and will last almost forever with decent care. People will think you're a cop and get out of your way.

WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

Considered a snoozemobile. Loses value rapidly. Not as up-to-date as newer models like the '10 Ford Taurus that offer features like all-wheel-drive and a much higher-end interior layout, etc. No more V-8 SS.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Chevy offers two V-6 engines in the Impala: Standard in the base LS and mid-trim LT is a 3.5 liter V-6 rated at 211 hp. This engine is teamed up with a four-speed automatic.

It is capable of getting the car to 60 mph in about 8.4 seconds.

Compared with other V-6 engines in mid-large cars, the Impala's 3.5 liter V-6 is on the underpowered side (Ford's Taurus comes standard with a 263 hp 3.5 liter V-6; the Toyota Avalon a 268 hp 3.5 liter V-6) and its four-speed automatic is dated technology given typical five and even six-speed automatics that are common in 2010 model mid-sized and large sedans like the Taurus and Avalon.

However, the truth is that functionally speaking this combo works just fine. It may not be the latest thing, or the quickest - but given the huge price gulf between an Impala and cars like the Taurus (which starts at $25,170 and runs to more than $33k) and the Avalon (which starts at $27,945) it has virtues of its own.

The base V-6 also returns good fuel economy: 18 city and 29 highway. For a big car, this is respectable. It's also actually slightly better than you'd get in the more expensive Taurus(18 city, 28 highway) and dead even with the much more expensive Avalon (19 city, 28 highway).

A larger, more powerful 3.9 liter V-6 (230 hp) is available in the Impala, but you have to buy the top-of-the-line LTZ - which has a base price of $29,630. This makes it more expensive than the Taurus or the Avalon, both of which still comes standard with considerably stronger standard engines and still get to 60 more quickly. It's true the LTZ also comes with nicer trim and other equipment that you don't get in the base LS or mid-level LT Impala, but its $29k MSRP erases the huge price advantage the Chevy otherwise has compared with the newer, more up-to-date Taurus and Avalon - making its out-of-date features (such as the four-speed automatic) and power/performance deficit more noticeable and harder to rationalize away.

Mileage with the 3.9 liter engine drops a little, too - to 17 city and 27 highway.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Impala doesn't dazzle you with blistering speed or razor-sharp handling but it will impress you with its basic competence. Some reviewers harp on the 30-50 hp power deficit of the Impala's engine (especially the base 3.5 liter engine) compared with what's currently considered "benchmark" in the segment. While they're right about the Impala being less powerful than the current average, what matters, ultimately, is whether it is powerful enough for everyday driving.

And of course, it is.

Since when did 211 hp become "weak"? Only in comparison with today's arguably overpowered "benchmark" cars. Most of us (certainly people who buy cars like the Impala, anyhow) just want to get safely from "a" to "b." America does not have Autobahns; most people don't drag race. A car with the capability to reach 60 mph in 5 or 6 seconds is definitely a lot of fun, but it's also not the point as far as everyday normal driving is concerned. Sure, you can spend more money to get the extra second or two of quickness - and that's fine, if that's what you want. But if you want a perfectly adequate performer for everyday use - and would rather have several thousand bucks in your pocket than tacked onto your payment - the Impala makes sound sense.

Same with the car's handling. Competitors may post better numbers on the skidpad and could out-corner it on a road course. But does any of that matter as far as making the trip from your house to the supermarket and back?

What I think matters more is the Impala's Barcalounger ride quality. It is noticeably softer than the "sport" pretending models it competes with and thus really nice to be in on long highway trips with the cruise control set at 65 or so.

This whole "sportiness" thing has gone too far, in my opinion. I like sporty cars. Don't mistake me. But not all cars need to be sporty, do they? It used to be that if you wanted a car built for high-speed cornering and aggressive driving, you bought a car designed for that kind of duty. Now virtually all cars - whether they be two doors or four doors or wagons or even SUVs - try desperately to be sporty, too. And the result is a harsher ride, a sore back - and usually a higher sticker price, too.

If I were to drive from coast to coast and had my choice of a "sporty" sedan or the Impala, I'd snap up the keys to the Impala.

STYLING & UTILITY

The Impala isn't ugly or weird looking - just a little bland. However, you can make it more interesting by ordering a color other than white or navy blue. This will also help you look less like an unmarked cop.

I like the simple, immediately comprehensible controls - even if some of the material used for the dash/doro panels and console are a bit cheap looking. Again, so what? Everything works perfectly well and the car is a pleasant driver that's much cheaper than anything else comparable.

It's also more spacious in several key respects.

For example, Impala offers more front seat head room (39.4 inches) than either the Taurus (39 inches) or the Avalon (38.9 inches), more front seat legroom (42.3 inches compared with 41.3 inches for the Avalon and 41.9 inches for the Taurus) and six-passenger capacity vs. just five for the Taurus and Avalon - neither of which offer a front-row bench seat.

The Ford does have a slightly larger trunk (20.1 cubic feet vs. 19 cubic feet for the Chevy) and the Avalon's rear seat legroom (40.9 inches) is the best in this class (and about three inches more than the Impala's) but overall, if size matters, the Impala wins.

One weakness is pulling ability. The front-wheel-drive layout is inherently lighter-duty than the old school rear-wheel-drive layout of models like the discontinued Ford Crown Victoria - and this results in a less than impressive maximum trailer rating of just 1,000 pounds.

But the front-wheel-drive Avalon and front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive Taurus are no better on this score, with the same 1,000-lb. max trailer rating.

QUALITY & SAFETY

The Impala's chief negative as far as quality goes is not that it's a bad car, or a poorly built car, but that it's considered a dated and nothing-special car. This kills its resale value and causes it to depreciate faster and more rapidly than competitors like the Taurus and Avalon - which being "newer" tend to hold their value better. But this is (again) compensated for to a great extent by the Chevy's much lower sticker price (LTZ versions excepted) and also by the fact that it is known to be a very durable and solid car. The fact that it is a popular choice with police departments and taxi companies all over the country should tell you something about that.

If you're looking for a ten or twelve-year car that will run reliably for 150,000 or more miles given regular maintenance and decent tretament, the Impala is a very good bet.

On safety, the Impala also brings a strong hand to the table by dint of of its sheer size. Even without ABS, traction/stability control and front seat side-impact air bags (all standard) it would be inherently more crashworthy than a smaller car with all that stuff.

Add all that stuff to the Impala and it's even safer.

Another thing: GM's OnStar system comes standard in all versions of the Impala. It will summon EMS in the event you wreck and direct them to your location, even if you are unconscious. Sensors in the car detect the impact, while a transponder in the car sends the signal (via satellite) to the GM OnStar Center - which calls the cops and ambulance.

Some (me included) don't like the big brother-ish idea of having a transponder in the vehicle that makes it possible to track its location wherever it goes - but my guess is most people shopping for a big family-type car will like it and be pleased that OnStar is included at no extra charge.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There are certainly "better" cars on the market - if better means newer designs with more power and the latest features and equipment, etc.
But "better" that way also means you pay a lot more - often for power, features and equipment you may not especially want or need.

For a solid value, don't overlook the Impala.