1996 CHEVROLET IMPALA SS by Richard Truett (The Orlando Sentinel, 8/29/96)




   It's a bit sad and somewhat ironic that General Motors is

ending production of its rear-wheel-drive cars when it can't

build enough Impalas to satisfy strong demand.



   GM has scheduled the last Impala SS to be built in December.



   A combination of factors led to the demise of the Chevrolet

Caprice, Cadillac Fleetwood and Buick Roadmaster, the cars from

which this incarnation of the Impala was spawned.



   The disastrous 1991 redesign of GM's big cars and slumping

demand for full-size cars set in motion the chain of events that

ultimately brought down these full-size sedans.



   The '91 Caprice, with its mismatched front and rear wheel

wells, skinny tires and bulbous rear end, was so ugly that it

became the butt of jokes. It turned heads for all the wrong

reasons. The Buick and Cadillac weren't much better looking.

Dumpy looks and a soft market spelled trouble, and sales sank

like the Titanic.



   Then an interesting thing happened: In 1993 Chevy designers

took another look at the Caprice. The rear wheel wells were

opened up so that they matched the front. The rear wheels were

pushed out a few inches. That, along with a few other changes,

suddenly made the Caprice look respectable.



   Then in 1994 the Impala SS came along, and suddenly men in

their late 40s and early 50s were beating down Chevy's doors to

buy the mean-looking black sedan.



   The Impala SS had - still has - a modified Corvette engine,

police car suspension system and several cosmetic improvements

over the Caprice. Chevy's big car was turning heads for all the

right reasons.



   Chevy will build about 20,000 1996 Impalas, and even though

demand continues to increase, the decision to phase out all large

GM cars has been made and won't be reversed.



   It comes down to dollars and, some believe, not a lot of

sense. GM can make more money selling Tahoe and Yukon

sport-utility vehicles than it can selling Impalas. So the

factory space occupied by the Impala and the other big GM cars is

going to be used to increase production of GM's hot-selling

sport-utilities.



   If you want an Impala, you better start getting very chummy

with your local Chevy dealer. Most dealers know exactly how many

Impalas they'll get between now and December. If you don't put

down a deposit, you're not likely to get one.



   No Chevy sedan in the last 20 years - and maybe none since the

legendary 1955-57 models - has struck such a chord with Chevy

lovers. Despite its limited three-year run, the Impala SS already

is well on its way to becoming a classic.



   Performance, handling



   The Impala SS comes with a 260-horsepower, 5.7-liter LT1 V-8

and a four-speed automatic transmission. It's a beefy setup that

yields quick acceleration from a stop and plenty of power for

quick bursts of speed in the 40 mph-to-60 mph range.



   Despite its performance-oriented nature, the Impala SS is

smooth and quiet. Think of it as a civilized, mature hot rod that

doesn't need to make a lot of noise to impress.



   The automatic transmission shifts gears crisply, exactly the

feel you want in a muscle car.



   One reason the Impala has been so popular is that Chevy

enthusiasts know how easy and inexpensive it is to increase the

horsepower. A few simple modifications, such as a

high-performance computer chip and a free-flowing exhaust system,

move horsepower into the 300 range.



   Those with an extra grand in their wallets and a thirst for

serious speed can easily squeeze 400 horsepower out of the

350-cubic-inch V-8. Indeed, a cottage industry supporting the

Impala has sprung up, and all sorts of aftermarket modifications

are available.



   I logged 347 miles on our black test car. In the city, driving

with a heavy foot, the 4,036 pound Impala delivered 18 miles per

gallon. On the highway, that figure increased to 25 mpg.



   The Impala is outfitted with a host of high-performance

suspension hardware. It has large front and rear stabilizer bars,

which limit body lean in turns; strong, four-wheel anti-lock disc

brakes; special shocks; and fat, high-speed-rated 17-inch tires.



   If you drive quickly into a turn, you'll sense the body lean

slightly. But as you reach the apex of the curve, the suspension

tightens and the car breezes through easily.



   On roughly paved roads the Impala provides a very quiet ride.

The car's 2-ton weight enables it to ride flat over most bumps.

You don't feel much of the turbulence from the steering wheel.



   The power rack-and-pinion steering, specially calibrated for

the Impala SS, is light and quick. The 39-foot turning radius is

good for a full-size car.



   All in all, the Impala SS is fun to drive.



   Fit and finish



   The 1996 models probably will be the most sought-after

Impalas. That's because this year Chevy installed a nice-looking

analog instrument cluster that includes a tachometer and a

floor-mounted shifter that is housed in an attractive console.



   Previous Impalas had the same analog/electronic instrument

panel as the standard Chevy Caprice and a column-mounted shifter

- not very sporty.



   There are some things about the Impala that make it seem a

little dated. For instance, the dashboard is so large you could

land a Cessna on it. And the chrome-plated switches on the door

panels haven't evolved much from the 1960s.



   But these things are of little consequence to the people who

love to drive the Impala SS.



   Our test car's gray leather seats were semi-firm and

comfortable. The lower cushions seemed exceptionally wide, as if

they were designed for large posteriors. The back seat had acres

of room and there was plenty of space in the trunk.



   The Impala SS comes loaded with things such as power windows

and mirrors, cruise control, remote-controlled power door locks,

air conditioning and a powerful AM/FM/CD radio.



   In light of what you could get for $26,000 in an import, the

Impala SS must be considered nothing less than a steal. In fact,

this car has no direct competition, foreign or domestic.



   Chevy plans to offer high-performance versions of the

front-wheel-drive Lumina mid-size sedan, but it is doubtful that

a V-6-powered Lumina could find the same kind of devoted

following as the rear-wheel drive Impala SS.



   The car may be going out of production at the end of the year,

but it won't be going out of the hearts and garages of Chevy

enthusiasts any time soon.



The bottom line

Base price: $24,905

Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection

Price as tested: $26,192

EPA rating: 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway

Incentives: None

Truett's tip: The final edition of the Impala SS will heighten

this big Chevy's ascension to classic status. The '96 model got

all the improvements enthusiasts wanted.

SPECIFICATIONS

LENGTH Overall 214.1

FRONT COMPARTMENT Head room 39.2 Leg room 42.2

REAR COMPARTMENT

Head room 37.9

Leg room 39.5

WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile no-deductible bumper-to-bumper;

six-year, 100,000-mile rust protection; 24-hour roadside

assistance.

MECHANICAL

Drivetrain layout: Front-mounted engine and transmission,

rear-wheel drive.

Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel disc with anti-lock system.

Engine: 260-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.