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
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 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
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
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.