When Chevrolet launched the Caprice, comedians had a field day

with the whale quips. And while the Impala SS has been the butt

of far fewer jokes, one thing hasn't changed. If the Caprice is a

metaphorical whale, then so is the Impala SS. It's just that the

Caprice is more like a Beluga. The Impala SS is a killer Orca.

   The Impala SS is also on the endangered species list, soon to

be extinct.  GM will halt production of its full-sized,

rear-drive sedans after the '96 model year. This is a shame,

because except for some shortcomings, the Impala SS is unique.

Faster than a 4200-pound sedan has a right to be, it commands

attention for its sheer bulk, sinister monochrome paint scheme

and huge spoke alloy wheels. In a phrase, the Impala SS is the

traditional American sedan with a '90s muscle-car edge. 

   That edge is most obvious in the LT1 V8, and in the wellspring

of torque it delivers. There's so much that, if a driver tries to

hold the Impala with the brake while jamming the gas, the rear

tires spin and the back end creeps sideways. Overzealous pilots

can ruin acceleration times by overpowering the rear tires. Nor

is it possible to improve times by shifting the automatic

transmission manually, because the Impala SS has no tach. Left to

its own devices, the four-speed automatic shifts smoothly, and at

full-throttle, takes the SS well past 60 mph before shifting into

third. From a stop, 60 comes in 7.5 seconds.

   That may not be supercar quick, but it's quicker than a lot of

so-called luxury performance sedans. The SS reaches 60 mph and

finishes the quarter mile a half-second quicker than the Lexus LS

400, and a tenth quicker than the Infiniti Q45. It is dead even

with the M-B S500, and right there along with the Jag XJR tested

for ''SummerFile.''

   Through the slalom, the Impala SS behaves like a Caprice

Classic with stickier tires and less body roll (surprise!). The

big problem is an ungainly rear end. The harder the car is

pushed, the more the tail wants to come around. Still, there's

plenty of warning about what the Impala is about to do, and the

best approach is to not force it. At 39.9 mph through our

seven-turn run, the SS is dead even with the S500 and a bit

faster than Toyota Camry LE or the typical minivan.

   On the road, the tires, firmer springs and de Carbon sport

shocks make the Impala more responsive than both Caprice and

other full-size GM sedans. The downside is a more jarring ride,

but enthusiast drivers will find the Impala's improved reflexes

worth the trade-off. The brakes, too, are better than we've

encountered in GM's other big, rear-drive cars.

   The Impala provides all the leg and hip room its exterior

dimensions would suggest. Though the front seats aren't big on

side support, they're very comfortable even for the widest

backsides. One of the biggest gripes involves the finish. The

leather upholstery is decent, but some of the trim pieces are

plain cheap. The grain and colors of the plastic don't match


   Then there's the tach, or lack thereof. The typical Caprice

buyer might not notice, but any car with a pretense to

performance needs a tachometer.

   That missing tach, and the Impala's interior finish, may be

something less than what consumers expect in a $24,000 car. Yet

in other ways, the Impala SS is a whole lot of car for the money.

A powerful V8, room inside and the towing capability make a good

buy. The SS is also a good concept, and reasonably well executed.

   GM has a way of working the little things out with time. But

it's also been known to pull the plug on some good cars just as

they're getting on track, and so it is with the Impala SS.