BEHIND THE WHEEL/Chevrolet Impala SS; Heavy Metal Act Gets an Encore With a 60's Hit By MARSHALL SCHUON (N.T. Times 7/3/94)




   "IT'S a funny thing," a colleague once said to me in Detroit.

"You want to talk cars, you go to the Ford guys. They like cars.

But if you want to buy a car, you go to G.M. The company is huge

and gray and all that, but those guys turn out some really neat

stuff."



   True, even if it is a bit unfair to Ford and the rest, which

have had their moments. 



    But consider this: the 1959 Cadillac, immense and drenched in

chrome, with torpedo taillights and giant fins, was Detroit's

most outrageous foray into conspicuous consumption. G.M., right?



   Then there is the Corvette, a pure-zoom sledgehammer of a

sports car that has been in steady production for 41 years and is

as good as anything in the world. G.M., of course.



   And G.M. has come up with such pleasant oddities as Pontiac's

innovative plastic-body Fiero and Chevrolet's rear-engine Corvair

-- which was terrific and could have become even better if G.M.

had continued to develop it instead of caving in to attacks on

the car by Ralph Nader.



   All the same, none of these products were what one would

expect from a corporation of bean counters and committees,

committees, committees.



   My friend was right. And that's why we shouldn't be surprised

at the likes of the latest anomaly, the 1994 Chevrolet Impala SS.

The Impala is, of course, a Caprice in drag, and it moves away

from a stoplight faster than anything else its size. We'll get to

that.



   First, consider the basic Caprice, a full-size four-door sedan

that is America's favorite taxi.



   I first drove the Caprice in its cab-stand mode three years

ago. That test car was New York City's first '91 yellow Caprice,

with a light on its roof and a meter on the dashboard. If I'd

taken money out of one pocket and put it into the other, it would

have cost me $45.10 to get from Manhattan to my home on Long

Island.



   Such a fare might, in fact, have been justified, because the

standard Caprice has a 5-liter V8 engine and it weighs 4,000

pounds, so the fuel economy is not quite a match for the small

stuff from Honda and Toyota and Saturn. But that hasn't mattered

to a certain segment of the population, even though Caprice sales

have disappointed G.M.



   In mufti, painted a more sensible color and wearing

whitewalls, the Caprice has a base price of $19,570, and it sells

90,000 copies a year to taxi and government fleets and people

like me who love old-fashioned iron.



   The car is big. It has room in front, room in back. An

automatic transmission makes it civil in town, but its true worth

is out on the highway, and it glides effortlessly over America's

concrete.



   Now, though, General Motors has dressed its whale in muscles,

creating the first Impala SS -- for Super Sport -- since 1969.

The car elicited raves when it was introduced as a concept

vehicle at the 1993 New York Auto Show, and this year's

production model drew 9,000 orders. About 3,000 of those went

unfilled because of a lack of production capacity. Next year,

though, G.M. plans to make 15,000 Impalas.



   It might have been even more attractive if G.M. had offered it

as a two-door hardtop, and Chevrolet Engineering did produce two

such cars at an early introduction, but they were simply toys for

the designers. So what we have -- and what you can buy for

$22,495 -- is a black (only black) version of the

Caprice-as-muscle-car.



   Instead of the standard Caprice's 170-horsepower engine, the

Impala SS carries a 5.7-liter Corvette engine that produces 260

horsepower. The juice goes to the road through an electronically

controlled four-speed automatic, and four-wheel anti-lock disk

brakes are standard.



   The low hood rises on dual gas struts, and the engine sits way

back from the nose, mounted fore to aft and driving the rear

wheels, as with other Caprices. When you're feeling mellow the

engine drives the car with quiet aplomb. The Impala is basically

docile, smooth and slick. But when you stamp on the accelerator,

the SS becomes its namesake.



   As might be expected, the car is f-a-a-s-t, and the engine

screams. Zero-to-60 acceleration takes only 7 seconds, and the

top speed is 158 miles an hour. On the road, the Impala handles

well, behaving unlike most of its large domestic brethren. It is

comfortable and has European manners, which is to say there is no

wallow.



   Standing still, you are struck by its sleek and swoopy body,

with bumpers that sweep into the profile and aggressive molded

wheels with wide openings that reveal the huge disk brakes.

Modern as the body is, though, it harks to the past by sitting on

an old-fashioned frame, unlike most of today's cars, whose

unit-construction dispenses with a separate chassis.





   A Chevy bow-tie emblem graces the mesh grille, and an Impala

SS logo stretches for two feet along the rear fenders, just ahead

of the wraparound taillights. Outrageous as the label is, it is

subtle, too, because it is black and blends into the body. Chrome

Impala emblems also dress up the rear-window pillars and the

trunk, which has a small spoiler on its trailing edge.



   Under the lid, the felt-wrapped spare -- smaller than the

Impala's fat tires but still full size -- takes up a lot of

space. The liftover for luggage is also fairly high, and the

taillights intrude into the trunk, meaning there is less space

there than might be expected.



   Inside the car, though, there is room aplenty. The upholstery

is done in gray leather, nicely finished and very comfortable.

The driver's view is no different from that in other Caprices,

with a soft plastic dash, dual air bags and the usual four-spoke

steering wheel, the entire hub of which serves as a horn.



   Like many G.M. cars, the Impala has a remote release button in

the glove box that opens the luggage compartment. Unlike earlier

cars, though, the button works with the ignition off, which makes

it useful when you pocket the key and then remember that you

needed something in the trunk.



   Other remote buttons reside in the key fob, allowing you to

open the trunk or lock or unlock the doors from afar. That

feature is particularly useful when you want to get inside

quickly and safely on a dark night in the city.



   Power equipment is standard, and it includes things like an

electrochromatic rear-view mirror to deal with those insensitive

sons who barrel up from behind with high beams ablaze. The

mirror, which automatically dims that glare, incorporates dual

reading lights, and there are other nice touches as well, such as

twin cup holders in the console that divides the front bucket

seats and offers storage under a padded armrest.



   All in all, I have to say it: I know that giant cars with huge

V8's are not sensible or politically correct, but I love the

Impala SS. And, yes, those corporate committees at G.M. have

pleased me once again.



INSIDE TRACK: You might wish it were the classic '57 Bel Air

convertible. It's not, but the born-again Impala SS is a

latter-day muscle car worthy of the name.



The Impala emblem, out of retirement.