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
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
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
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
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
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
-- Estimated base, $23,000. (Includes driver- and
passenger-side air bags,air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and
-- Cast-iron LT1 V-8 developing 260 horsepower.
-- Full-size five-passenger sports sedan.
-- 0-60 mph, as tested, 7.5 seconds.
-- Top speed, estimated, 145 mph.
-- Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 17 and 25 mpg.
-- 4,218 pounds.
-- Return of a hairy heritage with Corvette
-- Firmer ride without compromising comfort.
-- Air bags and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.
-- Lower, trimmer silhouette.
-- Peephole rear-view mirrors.
-- Still too much Caprice, not enough old-line Super Sport.
-- 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