American sport sedans: mirror-image muscle; Chevrolet Impala SS vs. Ford Taurus SHO vs. Pontiac Bonneville SE Supercharged; Road Test Evaluation by Daniel Charles Ross (Motor Trend 5/95)

    In the '90s, sedans with rock-and-roll in their fuel lines

have been resurrected as full-on factory offerings - and we've

'gathered the three hottest versions for a thorough test. Chevy's

Impala SS is a persuasive subset of the Caprice line, with

rear-drive, a full frame, and a big-cube American V-8. Pontiac is

the purveyor of the higher-tech Bonneville SE, which is

front-drive, optionally supercharged, and has enough back-litred

instruments to make an aircraft pilot feel cozy. The front-drive

Taurus SHO is a perennial favorite of the hot-sedan set and comes

with a high-tech Yamaha-built DOHC V-6 and optional four speed

auto-shifter. Although the EPA classifies the SHO as a midsize

car and the SS and SE as large cars, all are similarly priced and

offer comparable performance.

    All three cars follow weighty performance legends that they

must live up to.For the Impala SS, it's the cars for which it was

named, cars like the '67 version that packed a massive 427

cubic-inch big-block V-8 and churned out as much as 435

horsepower. The Pontiac reflects a heritage that includes the '65

Catalina 2+2, which used a Tri-Power carburetion setup atop its

421 cube powerplant, and massive aluminum drum brakes with

eight-lug hubs. Meanwhile, the Taurus counts the amazing '65

Galaxie in its family tree - a car that used its 427 cubic inches

to terrorized dragstrips and to carry Fred Lorenzen to victory in

that year's Daytona 500.

    During the 80's, Detroit plastered nearly car with a "Euro"

this or a"Touring" that. But now the Motor City had managed to

pull off a really neat . It's combined the sophistication those

tape-and stripe shops jobs only pretended to represent, with real

muscle reminiscent of the great v-8s.

    The Impala SS nameplate (which debuted in '61) has the

longest history of the trio and may be the most recognizable.

Parked next to its competition, the Chevy is certainly the

biggest of the three. The Impala offers the longest the

wheelbase, the widest track, the fattest tires, the greatest

overall length, more ground clearance, extended cargo capacity,

the most interior room, the biggest engine, the most horsepower -

the list goes on and on with one exception on the

mine-is-bigger-than-yours roster: It boasts the lowest base price

and the lowest as-tested price. And despite being the heaviest

car in this mix by about 345 pounds, it shows its tail-lights at

the dragstrip, clocking the fastest 0.60-mph and quarter-mile

times of the group.

    Created for the Corvette and cloned for police service, the

LT1 engine powering the civilian Impala SS owes no apologies to

anyone. The 5.7-liter OHV V-8 with sophisticated multiport

electronic fuel injection contributes classic big-displacement

horsepower of 260 at 5000 rpm. With a torque figure of 330

pound-feet at 3200 rpm, the Impala generates the most pleasing

twist of the three by far. Such prodigious output translates into

spine-compressing launches, rapid acceleration (0-60 in 7.0

seconds), and an overall feeling or road-going authority.

    If your tastes (or memories) run to smoky burnouts, the

Impala SS is your obliging steed - in dry weather. The car isn't

available with traction control of any kind other than by lifting

your right foot, so icy roads definitely are not its element,

though Chevy has included its new Bosch ABS V anti-lock brakes as

standard equipment. The SS has firm-feel power rack-and-pinion

steering, but its on-center presence is vague and needs minding.

This is complicated by those huge 255/5OZR17 BFGoodrich Comp T/A

meats in the fender wells, which dart after every nick arid

nibble in the road surface. Ride quality, however, is first-rate,

especially with the Impala's considerably firmer suspension

tuning. Handling is musclecar-direct but sometimes tail-happy in

lift-throttle comers (weight distribution front/rear is 78/22).

Twelve-inch disc brakes haul the 4000-plus-pound impala to a stop

from 60 mph in an impressive 115 feet, and in 36 feet from 30

mph. it recorded 0.82 g on the skidpad and 62.5 mph while

slinking its way through our 600-foot slalom. It feels huge at

speed, but holds the tarmac with sports-car tact.

    Inside the large interior, most basketball players would

probably find a comfortable position while traveling, whether in

the wide front buckets or on the three-place rear bench. Dual

airbags are standard, and there's ample headroom front and rear,

but the Impala's front seats are a click too soft and well below

any acceptable threshold of lateral support required for sporty


    The Taurus SHO is a fundamentally good car that rightfully

deserves attention from car enthusiasts. It was introduced as

America's BMW and quickly became one of the industry raves. But

while smaller and not as well equipped as the Bonneville SE, it's

nearly as expensive. Also, the SHO is neither as high-performance

as the Impala SS nor as high-tech as the Bonnie SE. Ford failed

to empower the SHO with a distinctive style to differentiate it

from its ordinary Taurus sibling. Even the next-generation '96

1/2 SHO piece (see our First Look in this issue) doesn't bench

race any faster than the current model and will look little

different from the regular-issue '96 Taurus.

    The '95 SHO automatic is powered by a 3.2-liter DOHC 24-valve

Yamaha V-6,offering a cast-iron block topped with cast-aluminum

cylinder heads and an impressive "nest o' snakes" cast-aluminum

intake manifold. Only SHOs equipped with a four-speed automatic

transaxle receive this engine with its extra 0.2-liter

displacement. It supplies the same 220 horsepower as the

stick-shift SHO, but at 6000 rpm versus 6200. its torque is 215

pound-feet at 4800 rpm, or 5 pound-feet less at the same rev

limit. In any street-driven operation, the SHOmatic is an

auditory treat indistinguishable from the manual transaxle car

except that it changes gears without your assistance. The music

emanating from this quick-revving powerplant must be heard to be

appreciated. Even nominally nonenthusiast passengers aboard for

full-throttle runs exclaim, "Oooh! I like that!" Around town, the

automatic's top gear can be electronically disengaged to preserve

a slightly higher cruising rpm and faster kick-down

characteristics. Unfortunately, sound doesn't equal fury: The SHO

took 7.7 seconds to hit 60 mph, but in the quarter-mile event it

was only a tick behind the SE by docking 15.8 seconds at 87.9

mph. The Ford had the longest braking of our trio, stopping in

137 feet from 60 mph, though its curb weight is the lowest. It

came to rest in 36 feet from 30 mph, however - same as the as the

much heavier Impala SS. Its 62.8-mph slalom performance was in

the same narrow zone as the others, but could manage orgy 0.79g

skidpad circuits on 215/6OZR16 Goodyear Eagle GT+4 rubber.

    A sport sedan must show some individuality to account for its

claim to the title. The SHO interior provides only token symbols

by way of power adjustable thigh and upper-body bolsters that

offer ferocious suppose when in full-grip bill-collector mode.

Neither these bolsters nor the inflatable lumbar supports hold an

air charge for long, however, requiring regular infusions of

additional pressure. The ergonomics are muddled, too. The radio

is manipulated more often than the climate control, yet its stuck

in the dark bottom of the center dash and graced with teensy

buttons. Even the stop-gap supplemental radio controls high on

the dash are hidden behind the thick steering wheel, requiring a

head-toss for adequate viewing.

    The Pontiac Bonneville SE qualifies as the most modem of

these three sedans.It posts an appealing aerodynamic shape,

promotes performance with an optional high-output supercharged

3.8-liter V-6, and offers well-bolstered chairs, great outward

visibility, positive control response, and a spacecraft-grade

interior with a host of red-lit instruments.

    Pontiac strived to make its '95 Bonnei a precision driving

tool, and succeeded almost completely. Our SE test car included

ft L97 3800 Series II OHV V-6 with supercharging, a

driver-selectable shift program for a four-speed electronically

controlled automatic transaxle, signature floor mats, a special

instrument cluster with boost gauge, and 225/60HR16 Goodyear

Eagle RS-A rubber. The 1SB option package is recommended for its

value: For $ 1440, ft adds remote keyless entry, a head-up

display of speed, an electrochromic rear-view mirror, automatic

air conditioning, an eight-speaker sound system, an advanced

anti-theft system (PASS-Key II, with a coded resistor in the

ignition key, is already standard), and traction control.

    The SE has a compact but powerful engine, with a cast-iron

block and cylinder heads, and sequential pod fuel injection. The

V-6 is a quick-revving powerplant that aims 225 horsepower at the

road through the front wheels. At 275 pound/feet, torque output

is as strong as many V-8s. The driver can program the four-speed

automatic transmission to shift on Performance or Normal

schedules. For another $ 380, the computer command ride option

allows you to preselect suspension firmness between Performance

and Tour.

    Surprisingly, the SE has a lower tolerance for full-tilt

handling chores than the Impala. The Bonneville is a little

Clumsier with less linearity. Additional structural rigidity

would lend a more solid feeling. Throw the car into a transition

too quickly, and the back end tends to step out a bit, putting

the driver on the defensive. On the straightaway, it has enough

power to stay nose-to-nose with the LT1-powered Impala right up

to 90 mph. Though 345 pounds lighter on its feet than the Impala

SS, the Bonneville braked from 60 mph in a comparatively

leisurely 134 feet, and it needed 39 feet to stop from 30.

Although saddled with less aggressive rubber, the front-driver

demonstrated the same skidpad grip as the Chevy (0.82 g), and at

62.8 mph, was just an eye-blink faster through the slalom cones.

    The act of choosing a winner among this tho doesn't hinge

solely on performance data - each car embodies a decidedly

unique, excitingly delicious personality. The Impala SS has

character from the bottom of its 17-inch tires to the top of its

monochromatic body. Combine that with the lowest price and

quickest performance of our trio, and the result is a victory for

Chevrolet. The Bonneville is probably the right choice if you

value sophistication over bravado, and fuel economy over

tire-melting torque. And though the current Taurus SHO matches

the Bonnie on the sophistication scale, fans of the car may be

better off waiting for the '96 1/2 iteration to arrive with its

promise of V-8 power, roomier interior; improved structure, and

superior handling.

    Any of these cars is more than a match for the American

performance sedan of yesteryear - they're faster, better

handling, and more efficient. In the future, they'll be the

standard against which American muscle sedans should be judged.