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