The last time Chevrolet sold a proper rear-wheel drive sports sedan was the Impala SS, 17 years ago. But back in February, Mark Reuss, head of General Motors North America, unveiled a new Chevy sports sedan – one with rear-wheel drive, sensible rear seating and a 6.2-liter Corvette V-8 that boasts 415 hp and sprints to 60 mph in less than five seconds.
We were intrigued. And now we’ve driven it. Can the 2014 Chevrolet SS silence the skeptics and compete with Europe?
Fashioned from a Holden Commodore sold by General Motors’ Australian division, the SS received mixed grades upon its reveal – many lamenting about the car’s muted design, while others bewailed the lack of a manual transmission.
I’ll admit, I fell into both groups: I wanted more muscle – more distinction from the Impala. And I wanted the manual transmission from the Corvette – at least as an option – to prove its seriousness in attracting real gearheads while differentiating itself from much of its European competition. I was concerned the SS was a bold plan to reinvigorate a brand that had gone through a tough few years, and when it came to execution, the folks at Chevy had lost their bottle. They didn’t commit.
Talking of commitment: It’s the first time I’ve been to Palm Springs, Calif., and I’m certain of one thing – it’s the world’s largest golf course. But more than its love for chino shorts and visors over sagging bronze skin, it's home to stunning mountainous roads – winding like spaghetti drizzled over a burnt rock face, with sheer drops, boulders, followed by even bigger boulders. The tarmac is smooth. The bends are fast, sometimes blind, and always exhilarating. As a driver, committing to the corner is imperative.
So there I was, pushing the SS on these very roads in an effort to discover whether Chevy had committed to the car like I had.
The V-8 shielded under the skin is the Corvette’s LS3. With 415 lb.-ft. of torque to match its power output, it bursts off the line forcefully, pulling hard while remaining calm. With horsepower figures sometimes bordering on silly, I’m starting to believe that a low 400 hp complements today’s roads perfectly. It’s fast, but not crazy fast. It’s usable power.
The noise from the SS booms like the Haka from a New Zealand rugby match. Its deep bellow resonates, crackling on the overrun – and unlike rugby, it’s unequivocally American. The sound deadening within the car limits the brutish note a tad, but when I heard a fellow journalist rip his SS from a stoplight while I had my window down, I realized quite how ferocious this car is. It’s deafening.
And it handles well, too. It’s a car you can’t help but drive fast, like when you drive a Fiat 500 Abarth. It eggs you on, daring you to try harder. As I said, it forces you to commit. But when you do, it rewards you. Its grip level is staggering, helped by a low-center of gravity due to an aluminum hood and rear deck lid, shaving 30 percent of weight when compared to traditional steel panels. All-in, the SS weighs 3,975 lbs., which isn’t half bad for a four-door sedan. The ride is also good, flowing nicely on rougher streets while staying planted in the fast turns; Chevy uses a rubber isolated suspension frame to manage vibrations and jolts.
Brakes? The two-piece Brembo rotors offer excellent pedal feel and strong bite without being overly grabby. The P245/40ZR19 front and P275/35ZR19 rear tires help stick the machine to the ground like driving in wet cement. The interior is loaded with features, too, like an infotainment center, heads-up display and plenty of rear legroom. Its suede surfaces and lack of plastics feel more expensive than a Chevy should.
And yet for $45,000, with only two options (a sunroof for $900 and a spare tire for $500), you’re getting a competitive ride that undercuts the likes of a similarly powered BMW 550i. It also handily outpaces its American competitors, the bland Ford Taurus SHO and angry but less capable Chrysler 300 SRT8 and Dodge Charger.
So where do we sign, right?
Well, there are a few problems: The six-speed automatic gearbox is sluggish to respond – an issue GM faces throughout its models, including the new Corvette. However, despite the delay between clicking the paddle and the gear physically changing, the actual shift is reasonably quick, although nowhere near as crisp as BMW’s dual-clutch transmission.
The headrest on the front seat, too, pushes your head forward like Quasimodo, with no way to angle it back. The backrest is also tough and rigid, like a slab of slate.
But my biggest gripe is the SS’s variable-assisted electric power steering. It’s almost entirely dead for the first 45-degrees, lightening the load for better maneuverability. This is fine when maneuvering in a parking lot, but when hustling through a canyon road with a 1,000 ft. drop off the side, it needs more connectivity. As you increase the lock, the steering weight gets better, but it never delivers the feel you desire.
You do get used to it, however. And it becomes less of an issue, but when you jump straight from an SS into, say, a Corvette convertible —as I did in Palm Springs — you really notice the difference, and a Corvette still lacks the steering feel of a sports car like Porsche or Jaguar.
But these negatives don’t change the fact that Chevy has created a brilliant rear-wheel drive sports sedan: One that’s fun, fast, sounds like a maniacal pirate playing sea shanties with a cannon, and despite its sensationless steering, careens through bends as good as any competitor on the market, German or not. And the more time I spent with the car, the more I enjoyed its subtle muscular looks.
As a first foray back into a market it hasn't been in for 17 years, Chevy has ticked almost every box. With a tweak to its gearbox and a total rework of the steering, we might be looking at a gem – one that proves, along with GM’s Cadillac CTS and ATS, that American sports sedans should not be discounted as they once were.
One thing’s for sure: I left Palm Springs knowing for certain that Chevy did indeed commit to the SS. And that Florida isn’t the only place catering to grizzled golfers.