Your choice of black; Chevrolet Impala SS;
Evaluation by Phil Patton (Esquire 9/94)
THEY LURK BY THE ON-RAMPS, the skyscrapers of Houston
gleaming in the distance: the big Chevrolet Caprices of the
Harris County Sheriff's Office. The reflected gas flares from oil
wells dance on their hoods, and across the shimmering pavement
drift sulfurous fumes from the plants down by the bayou.
"When you're working radar and it's 120 degrees," says Harris
County sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen, "you appreciate the Caprice.
Sure, we took a lot of jokes about the Shamu and so forth, but
it's a great law-enforcement car. We don't lose a lot of chases."
Sixty percent of police and highway-patrol cars sold each
year are Caprices.Now you can get your own--or one as close to it
as is legal. In 1958, Chevrolet dropped the police-package V-8
engine into a Bel Air and renamed it the Impala. Now it has put
the police drivetrain into the new Impala SS, based on that ol'
Shamu, and added the 260-horsepower LT.sub.1 V-8 engine out of
the Corvette. Chevrolet will build six thousand this year, all of
them black. Coming soon are such daring hues as gray-green and
"It's the ultimate full-size muscle car," brags Chevrolet
manager Jim Perkins, born in Waco and an old friend of the
sheriff's. "It's a street missile for discriminating tastes." But
for Perkins and his company, beleaguered in recent years, it's
also something else: a redemption of the much-maligned Caprice.
Sheriff Klevenhagen's deputies run what he calls simply the
Shamu some eleven million miles a year through the county, from
Seabrook to Sugar Land, Hockley to Humble. His deputies, he
admits, are eager young men. "We buy front ends by the
truckload," he says.
The sheriff's territory is a good place to test the new
Impala. On the freeway, you recognize it for the Real American
Car it is, a rear-wheel-drive, long-distance cruiser, but with
agility instead of the old-fashioned wallow. The Corvette engine
will get you to sixty in just over seven seconds but proves more
useful for ramping onto the 610 Loop. The big V-8 runs through
GM's four-speed automatic and keeps on tap the surge of power to
poke and punch through near-rush-hour traffic, when Houstonians
drive elbows-out. You can spot a hole and shoot for it, like
Kenny Anderson driving to the hoop.
At least as impressive is that stomping on the brake will
smoothly pull this forty-two-hundred-pound car down from sixty to
a stop in 120 feet, a shorter distance than a BMW 740iL. You
appreciate this when the silver-coiffured lady in the saddle-tan
DeVille takes a notion to park in the left lane on her way home
to River Oaks.
Get out of town and the Impala SS enjoys playing Chutes and
Ladders down the new overpass south of town, an impressive
gypsum-white construct of concrete ribbon and cylinder. Along the
strips composing the environs of greater Alvin, Texas, you come
to appreciate the tuned stabilizer bars and de Carbon shocks--a
Eurosport amenity, sixty-nine dollars each at cost-conscious
GM--and the quick-ratio power steering, handy for sudden U-turns
necessitated by a perp's evasive maneuvers or in case you spot El
Burrito Grande across the median.
There are some compromises: Chevrolet doesn't offer a manual,
and the shifter is a stubby stick behind the wheel, straight off
the conventional Caprice, as is the digital display. Chevy's
literature boasts of "an interior enthusiasts will appreciate,"
which is like saying "cuisine the hungry will appreciate." But we
do appreciate the silhouetted Impala logo on the seats.
The Impala is the keystone of Chevrolet's comeback. Drained
of capital for years by such GM enterprises as Saturn, Chevrolet
languished. It was the family car of the 1950s and 1960s, when
driving a Malibu or Bel Air was as much a part of the American
dream as living in Malibu or Bel Air. By the 1980s, GM took it
The Caprice was the low point. Bloated-looking and
old-fashioned, it seemed to symbolize the problems of Chevrolet
and General Motors in general. It was a car with rear-wheel drive
and body-on-frame construction when most modern cars were
front-wheel drive and unibody. Suggesting not only Sea World's
lovable killer whale but an amusement-park bumper car, it even
seemed misnamed: Was ever free fancy so foot-bound as in this
car, with its rear-wheel skirts and bumpers like a tugboat's? The
Caprice suggested a 1940s idea of a future car, a vehicle out of
Dick Tracy. (The villain played by Al Pacino is named Big Boy
Impala SS Technical Features
Engine: Sequential-port, fuel-injected, 5.7-liter,
Transmission: Four-speed electronic automatic
Acceleration: 0 to 60 in 7.1 seconds
Top speed: 145-plus mph
Fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 25 highway
Other features: Four-wheel, ABS disc brakes; quick-ratio
power steering;dual air bags; theft-deterrent system
Base price: $ 22,495