BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN: MUSCLING IN; CHEVY IMPALA SS IS A GHOST OF THE 'SO FINE' 409 THAT DROVE A GENERATION TO SING ITS PRAISES By PAUL DEAN (Los Angeles Times 1/7/94)




   After a year of public appearances to decide if it should live

or molder in limbo, Chevrolet's black and beefy Impala SS is

being displayed at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.



   It is its final coming-out as a concept car.



   For interest has been high and 5,000 advance orders are on the

books. The Impala SS goes into production in March and should be

in showrooms a month later. 



   So, after 24 years in hibernation, a muscular subseries from

the '60s returns to whatever demand exists for pumped up,

powerhouse versions of full-size, blancmange American sedans.



   The technical foundation in this case is Chevrolet's Caprice

Classic, which is rotund, overfed and rides rather like a beach

ball with corners.



   But by lowering the silhouette a little and adding a frown to

its front, by stiffening the suspension and installing a declawed

Corvette engine, the Caprice becomes a Generation X Impala SS

with much of the thunder and most of the ginger of the Super

Sport heritage.



   Or have you forgotten the 1963 Impala SS 409 with a big-block

V-8 belching 425 horsepower and smoking hopes on a thousand Main

streets? Or the last of the breed, the 1969 Impala SS with a

427-cid Mark IV engine, which was honorably dethroned by mid-size

muscle and the first of the Camaros?



   (Personal aside: In 1965, I traded a burgundy, four-speed,

1963 Impala 409 convertible for $1,300 off the price of a new

Alfa-Romeo Spyder. Two decades later, collector Reggie Jackson

paid $93,000 for an identical 409. I displayed similar investment

foresight with IBM, DeLorean and Lincoln Thrift.)



   Although a warmer version at an estimated $23,000 will

certainly perk Chevrolet's sluggish full-size sales -- Caprice

was down to 88,000 cars last year from a 1984 peak of 258,902 --

the 1994 Impala simply isn't Super Sport tough.



   The transmission is a four-speed automatic with a slender,

milquetoast shifter on the steering column. Not good for shifting

down on twisty bits. Unlike its coupe and convertible ancestors,

today's Impala SS comes only as a sedan.



   And the engine -- although inbred from the Corvette's

venerable and ubiquitous 300-horsepower LT1 -- has been detuned

to 260 ponies. That is more power than the competition -- in this

case, Ford's Crown Victoria and Mercury Marquis -- and a little

less than a Lincoln Mark VIII.



   Jim Perkins, general manager of GM's Chevrolet Division,

explains that the Super Sport is not being reissued as a hot rod.



   In fact, the initial requests from focus groups and customer

surveys were simply for any full-frame, rear-drive sedan with

peppier performance, a sportier look and crisper handling. In

other words, the kind of vehicle that the sloppy, 170-horsepower

Caprice wasn't when redesigned for the 1992 model year.



   "Here was the perfect opportunity to bring back the Impala SS

name," Perkins says. "We've added the personality of a modern

performance vehicle to the power of a great old name . . . and

it's remarkable to find a car of this size that performs this

well."



   Still, Perkins says he doesn't expect to be bowled over by

initial Impala sales. Maybe less than 10,000 in 1994. And Ford

sells that many Thunderbirds in a month.



   In one regard, however, the Impala SS is already a crashing

success. With the Super Sport package, the parent Caprice loses

its Fatty Arbuckle look.



   Although side cladding hasn't changed, the car is lower by 1

1/2 inches for a vast improvement in the silhouette. Fatter tires

on 17-inch, five-spoke alloys better fill its large wheel wells.

Body-colored moldings replace chromium strips -- always a highly

visible accent -- which also aids the visual reduction of a

bulging midsection.



   The front end is sans bright work with the Caprice's egg-crate

grille now a slim opening divided by a single horizontal bar.

Rear-quarter windows have been reshaped by inserts wearing the

familiar leaping Impala logo. Chevrolet, the name, does not

appear on the car. Just the Impala logo and black-on-black

lettering that discreetly, almost invisibly spells out "Impala

SS" on the rear quarter fenders.



   The effect is very bad but discreet, handsome yet menacing --

and for this year of reintroduction, a look available only in

Bible black.



   Save minimal reconfiguring -- a leather-wrapped steering

wheel, center console and a line of floor-mounted cup holes and

assorted holders that could be plumbed into an interesting

waterfall -- the interior is pretty much Caprice.



   Two air bags are standard. So are anti-lock brakes, air

conditioning and tilt steering wheel. But damn our eyes if the

curse of a digital speedometer hasn't returned.



   Caprice has wood accents. Impala has its interior surfaces

finished in satin black. Caprice has routine chairs. Impala has

some rather impressive, albeit broad buckets -- leather optional

-- with integral headrests embroidered with the Impala logo. Very

stylish.



   But the side mirrors are a disaster. They are surprisingly

small and allow little more than peep-show information: A hint of

what might be without revealing everything, a fender bender

waiting to happen.



   The Impala's handling is superior fringing on excellent and

well up to newer, higher levels of, say, Cadillac's Seville STS

and Chrysler's LHS. Wallow and float are there, but just a hint.

This is, after all, a 4,200-pound car and there's little to

completely dampen that much metal in motion.



   Power steering is well-balanced, consistent, informative and

easy to hold on a line at middling to interesting speeds.



   The LT1 engine, of course, is a firecracker, which explains

why GM seems ready to install it in everything except the Geo

Metro. (Now there's an idea.)



   With a whoosh and a snore from that cast-iron, friendly old

V-8, it prances from rest to 60 m.p.h. in a smidge over seven

seconds. There's power galore in mid-range acceleration and once

unleashed, it allows that delightful mischief of punching around

and ahead of fast-lane laggards and unsignaling wanderers who

would cause us hurt and irritation.



   General Manager Perkins promises dressier Impalas in 1995 with

dark green, burgundy and white added to the basic black. There

will also be a floor-mounted shifter.



   But, so far, no word of a manual transmission and a great,

chrome, crook-neck Hurst shifter with a fat aluminum knob and a

two-finger toggle for finding reverse.



   Nor any real chance of re-creating those hot nights on North

Central slicing Phoenix, when some kid in a '49 Mercury pulled

away from Jordan's Hacienda, slid his sneer down the side of my

Impala SS and begged to lose his innocence.



   Not unless Reggie Jackson lets me borrow his 409.



1994 Chevrolet Impala SS



   Price:



    -- Estimated base, $23,000. (Includes driver- and

passenger-side air bags,air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and

automatic transmission.)



   Engine:



    -- Cast-iron LT1 V-8 developing 260 horsepower.



   Type:



    -- Full-size five-passenger sports sedan.



   Performance:



    -- 0-60 mph, as tested, 7.5 seconds.



    -- Top speed, estimated, 145 mph.



    -- Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 17 and 25 mpg.



   Curb Weight:



    -- 4,218 pounds.



   The Good:



    -- Return of a hairy heritage with Corvette



    -- Firmer ride without compromising comfort.



    -- Air bags and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.



    -- Lower, trimmer silhouette.



   The Bad:



    -- Peephole rear-view mirrors.



    -- Still too much Caprice, not enough old-line Super Sport.



   The Ugly:



    -- Skinny steering column shifter.



Chevrolet Impala SS -- Interest is so high, there are already

more than 5,000 advance orders on the books. ; Impala's buckets

are impressive, if a bit broad. Below, fat tires ride on 17-inch,

five-spoke alloys.  VINCE COMPAGNONE / Los Angeles Times