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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

Muscling In : Chevy Impala SS is a ghost of the 'So Fine' 409 that drove a generation to sing its praises.

January 11, 1994|PAUL DEAN

After a year of public appearances to decide if it should live or molder in limbo, Chevrolet's black and beefy Impala SS is being displayed at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

It is its final coming-out as a concept car.

For interest has been high and 5,000 advance orders are on the books. The Impala SS goes into production in March and should be in showrooms a month later.

So, after 24 years in hibernation, a muscular subseries from the '60s returns to whatever demand exists for pumped up, powerhouse versions of full-size, blancmange American sedans.

The technical foundation in this case is Chevrolet's Caprice Classic, which is rotund, overfed and rides rather like a beach ball with corners.

But by lowering the silhouette a little and adding a frown to its front, by stiffening the suspension and installing a declawed Corvette engine, the Caprice becomes a Generation X Impala SS with much of the thunder and most of the ginger of the Super Sport heritage.

Or have you forgotten the 1963 Impala SS 409 with a big-block V-8 belching 425 horsepower and smoking hopes on a thousand Main streets? Or the last of the breed, the 1969 Impala SS with a 427-cid Mark IV engine, which was honorably dethroned by mid-size muscle and the first of the Camaros?

(Personal aside: In 1965, I traded a burgundy, four-speed, 1963 Impala 409 convertible for $1,300 off the price of a new Alfa-Romeo Spyder. Two decades later, collector Reggie Jackson paid $93,000 for an identical 409. I displayed similar investment foresight with IBM, DeLorean and Lincoln Thrift.)

Although a warmer version at an estimated $23,000 will certainly perk Chevrolet's sluggish full-size sales--Caprice was down to 88,000 cars last year from a 1984 peak of 258,902--the 1994 Impala simply isn't Super Sport tough.

The transmission is a four-speed automatic with a slender, milquetoast shifter on the steering column. Not good for shifting down on twisty bits. Unlike its coupe and convertible ancestors, today's Impala SS comes only as a sedan.

And the engine--although inbred from the Corvette's venerable and ubiquitous 300-horsepower LT1--has been detuned to 260 ponies. That is more power than the competition--in this case, Ford's Crown Victoria and Mercury Marquis--and a little less than a Lincoln Mark VIII.

Jim Perkins, general manager of GM's Chevrolet Division, explains that the Super Sport is not being reissued as a hot rod.

In fact, the initial requests from focus groups and customer surveys were simply for any full-frame, rear-drive sedan with peppier performance, a sportier look and crisper handling. In other words, the kind of vehicle that the sloppy, 170-horsepower Caprice wasn't when redesigned for the 1992 model year.

"Here was the perfect opportunity to bring back the Impala SS name," Perkins says. "We've added the personality of a modern performance vehicle to the power of a great old name . . . and it's remarkable to find a car of this size that performs this well."

Still, Perkins says he doesn't expect to be bowled over by initial Impala sales. Maybe less than 10,000 in 1994. And Ford sells that many Thunderbirds in a month.

*

In one regard, however, the Impala SS is already a crashing success. With the Super Sport package, the parent Caprice loses its Fatty Arbuckle look.

Although side cladding hasn't changed, the car is lower by 1 1/2 inches for a vast improvement in the silhouette. Fatter tires on 17-inch, five-spoke alloys better fill its large wheel wells. Body-colored moldings replace chromium strips--always a highly visible accent--which also aids the visual reduction of a bulging midsection.

The front end is sans brightwork with the Caprice's egg-crate grille now a slim opening divided by a single horizontal bar. Rear-quarter windows have been reshaped by inserts wearing the familiar leaping Impala logo. Chevrolet , the name, does not appear on the car. Just the Impala logo and black-on-black lettering that discreetly, almost invisibly spells out "Impala SS" on the rear quarter fenders.

The effect is very bad but discreet, handsome yet menacing--and for this year of reintroduction, a look available only in Bible black.

Save minimal reconfiguring--a leather-wrapped steering wheel, center console and a line of floor-mounted cup holes and assorted holders that could be plumbed into an interesting waterfall--the interior is pretty much Caprice.

Two air bags are standard. So are anti-lock brakes, air conditioning and tilt steering wheel. But damn our eyes if the curse of a digital speedometer hasn't returned.

Caprice has wood accents. Impala has its interior surfaces finished in satin black. Caprice has routine chairs. Impala has some rather impressive, albeit broad buckets--leather optional--with integral headrests embroidered with the Impala logo. Very stylish.

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