Impala SS a Chevy with a big, bad attitude There are only 500 1994 copies of this two-ton 'Corvette sedan' BY JIM KENZIE (Toronto Star 7/23/94)




    Call me crazy, but I always thought there was a good-looking

car lurking under the bulk of the current Chevrolet Caprice.



   No, really. I saw an early design sketch in which the car had

a bit of that chopped-and-channelled 1950 Mercury look to it.



   But the accounting nerds forced Chevy to use a carry-over

chassis, whose wheelbase was too short and track too narrow to

support the new style. Yet another example of small changes

destroying the integrity of a design.  



   In the fall of 1992, a special Caprice fetched up at a U.S.

dealer show. Huge wheels and tires and lowered suspension - by

2.5 cm - helped fill the fenders and compensate for the

too-narrow track.



   The rear roof pillar had a BMW-style kick-back trim panel on

it, and a subtle spoiler was glued to the trunk lid. The grille

and all trim were body-color, and that color was black.



   All show and no go? Ah, no! A Corvette engine nestled under

the hood.



   The car looked so mean it easily deserved the honored Impala

SS logos (also body-color) that graced its flanks, which recall a

hot-looking and hot-performing big Chevy of the early 1960s (see

Bill Vance's "Reflections" elsewhere in Wheels). That car was

named Super Sport, which became a dragstrip leader.



   General Motors was so impressed with this one-off show car

that it did a similar internal program that wowed the Detroit

auto show in January, 1993. For 1994, it has reached production

status.



   Only 6,000 cars will be built this year, with some 500 coming

to Canada. You can have one in any color you like, as long as

it's black. White and red will be added in 1995.



   Up close, the body additions have a distinct after-market

flavor; not surprising, given that that's where they originated.

In the classic "across the street, under a street lamp, on a

rainy night" scenario, it looks terrific.



   Never mind that the rear wheels aren't concentric within the

wheel wells; there's more space behind the tire than in front of

it, as if the rears were catching up with the fronts.



   With a limited-edition car, Chevy didn't have big dollars to

play with inside, so most of the interior is the same as the

normal Caprice. There's the same tacky-looking dash, with digital

speedometer and 60-degree sweep orange-needled dials for fuel,

temperature, battery voltage and oil pressure.



   A column shifter in a sporty car? Why not? You stick the

four-speed automatic in "D" in the morning, and leave it there

until you get home. It also frees up space for a full-length

centre console, replete with cup holders and cubby bins. GM's

corporate bin steering column stalk handles wipers, turn signals,

high beam and cruise.



   The centre stack features rotary knobs for heater, ventilation

and air conditioning. The typical GM-Delco radio has nice big

knobs for volume and tuning. My test car had a single CD player

but no cassette, and I've given away all my CDs.



   The rear seat is cavernous. The trunk is not as useful as the

car's size would indicate because the spare tire is plunked smack

in the middle of it and the liftover is high.



   Chevy did change the interior in the easy places, with a

specific leather upholstery, adorned with SS badges. (This, soon

after the 50th anniversary of D-Day? I'm not sure . . .)



   The individual seats are too wide to be considered buckets

unless you're talking the bucket on a John Deere back-hoe. I

don't much like leather in a car, although these weren't too

terribly slippery. Still, there isn't much lateral support: you

have to brace your left foot against the carpet and jam your

shoulders into the seat back. Not much lower back support either.

   Despite a million-way power adjustment for the driver's seat

and a tilt steering wheel, shorter drivers may still have trouble

getting comfy, since once the leg room is set, the wheel is too

close to the seat.



   Like a lot of GM cars, the side-view mirrors are way too

small. The Queen Mary could hide in the blind spot even if you

have adjusted the mirrors properly. (If you don't know how to do

this, send me a stamped self-addressed envelope.)



   The front door opens barely 45 degrees. I can imagine a burly

cop in a PO-lice Caprice flinging it open to grab a perpetrator

(or a double-double), having the door bounce off the stop and

slug him back into the car.



   No car bearing the Impala SS nameplate could hold its head up

if it couldn't move. There's no multi-carb'ed 409 in here, just a

Corvette-derived 5.7 litre fuel-injected V-8, which is also an

option on lesser Caprices.



   It has good urge at low and medium revs, but runs out of poop

at, well, I don't know how many revs because there's no tach. I

remember more top end in the Corvette, probably because of the

better breathing, which gives 300 horses in that car, versus 260

in this one.



   Extra cooling - in the rad, for the engine oil and

transmission fluid - helps ensure reliability.



   Despite 330 pound-feet of torque, the Impala SS can't spin its

wheels on dry pavement because the tires are SO-O-O-O BIG and

grippy. They're BFGoodrich Comp T/A ZR4's, size 255/50 ZR17,

rated for mud and snow (I think that's their way of saying

"all-season"). The Z-rating means these are serious skins. They

generate considerable road noise, but it's not objectionable, and

it's a small price to pay for the grip.



   With a hand-held stopwatch, a straight mash-the-gas launch (no

line-locked brakes; no shift lever slamming) gave me a 0-to-100

km/h time of 7.85 seconds. Not a stunning number - there was a

bit of a delay in the 1-2 upshift - but impressive enough for a

very big sedan (an estimated 1925 kg; almost two tonnes).



   In normal driving the transmission shifts a bit more harshly

than this box usually does, but I uncovered no evidence of a

different electronic shift program for the SS.



   The chassis borrows all the Good Stuff from the parts bin: a

heavy-duty (i.e., PO-lice special) frame, four-wheel disc brakes

with anti-lock, "ride-and-handling" suspension, alloy wheels and

a limited-slip differential.



   Given all this, the handling prowess isn't surprising. There's

a bit of body roll - even a few degrees results in substantial

amplitude in a car this wide - but nothing serious. It remains

impressively level under hard braking.



   The steering is entirely devoid of feel, but if you're good at

video games you can hustle this car remarkably quickly down a

twisty road - as long as it's a W-I-D-E twisty road.



   I must concede that a lack of expectations may be helping my

view here. But on the Road America race track at Elkhart Lake,

Wis., last summer, all us journos had a wickedly good time in

this thing.



   If the handling was no surprise, the ride was a shock, because

it's vastly better than I thought it would be. I'm not sure every

Caprice driver would like it, since it is stiffer than the base

model. But I can't see many people complaining about anything but

really sharply broken pavement.



   On highways and high-speed bumps it's vastly better than the

soft base system because it doesn't collapse at the slightest

hint of upset. No freeway float either.



   The Impala SS is a treat, the ultimate Q-ship, a big, fat car

that can truly motor. It attracts lots of attention, it runs

strong and looks good, yet you could easily convince your mother

it's a practical family sedan.



   Unless you let her drive it.



   Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the auto maker.

GRAPHIC: 2 photos: (General Motors of Canada, Richard Spiegleman

for The Star): MOOD MOVER: Subtle styling enhancements and black

garb give the Caprice-based Impala SS (above) a powerful pavement

presence. The evocative name harks back to Chevrolet's legendary

SS street rocket of the '60s (left). Equipped with the

earth-shaking 409 cubic inch V-8, this muscle machine was

immortalized by the Beach Boys ("She's real fine, my 409") as

Bill Vance relates inside.