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

burgundy.



    "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

for granted.



    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

Caprice.)



    Impala SS Technical Features



    Engine: Sequential-port, fuel-injected, 5.7-liter,

260-horsepower V-8



    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