For a while there, it looked as if General Motors might bring back the classic big Chevy – the V-8, rear-wheel-drive Impala – as a companion model to the new Pontiac G8. But now the company says that’s not gonna happen, blaming the new 35-mpg CAFE fuel-economy standard, so the Impala is consigned to a life as a front-wheel-drive family sedan – not bad, really, but nothing to get excited about.
The Impala has always been a family car, but there was a time when it could be pretty cool, too. Although the nameplate first appeared on ’58 models, it didn’t really acquire its bad-boy chops until ’61, when the Impala Super Sport (SS) – with V-8 engines including the legendary 409 – helped launch the decade-long muscle car bacchanal. The SS disappeared with the end of the ’60s, and for a long time thereafter, the Impala was merely the less vinyl-roofed and velour-tufted sibling of the Caprice. In 1991, the final version of the Caprice arrived as a bloated, fender-skirted monstrosity on what looked like little caster wheels, and it made Chevrolet aficionados weep (although Motor Trend named the Caprice its Car of the Year). But only three years later, from that unlikeliest of starting points, Chevrolet resurrected the Impala SS. The amazing part was that it actually looked good – the rear wheel wells were opened up; seventeen-inch, five-spoke wheels were fitted; ride height was lowered; trim was blacked out; the running impala badge returned; and the whole car was painted a slenderizing black. Putting some substance behind the style was an LT1 V-8 that kicked out 60 hp more than the base Caprice’s V-8 (260 hp total), the police handling package, de Carbon dampers, and Z-rated tires.
The car’s press introduction was at Road America racetrack with the full lineup of 1994 Chevrolets. More so than the Corvette or the then-new Camaro convertible, the Impala SS was the toughest ride to score at that event. When the Impala SS rolled into pit lane, this neophyte auto writer had to scrap with the likes of scary old tech editor Don Sherman just to get a turn at the wheel.
It was well worth it. The car roared out onto the track, its digital speedometer blinking wildly. The firmer, quicker steering made the black beast surprisingly fun to hustle around on its stiffened chassis, and its grippy rubber helped haul it down with authority. I slid around a lot on the wide-butt leather bucket seats, but the Impala SS was the best time to be had that day in Wisconsin.
Two more exterior color choices, black cherry and a greenish gray, arrived for 1995, while ’96 models dropped the dorky digital gauges and the column shifter in favor of a console-mounted gear lever. 1996 marked the end of the line, as GM killed its full-size, rear-wheel-drive platform and switched its Arlington, Texas, factory to truck production.
The Impala SS was pretty startling for its time, although 260 hp and a 7.1-second 0-to-60-mph time don’t seem so awesome today. Happily, more performance is readily available, as GM’s LT1 V-8 is a very hot-rod-able engine, and the Impala SS has a large and enthusiastic fan base to offer advice on modifications.
With Chevrolet getting back its mojo – witness the current Corvette, the ZR1, and the upcoming Camaro – and a renewed appreciation for American muscle cars in general, the idea of a big, bad, Chevy muscle sedan has more appeal than ever.
What to pay
Asking prices for pristine, low-mileage examples can approach $20,000, but you should be able to find a respectable driver for less than half that.
Four-door, five-passenger sedan.
6303 in ’94, 21,434 in ’95, 41,941 in ’96.
Watch out for
Cars that have been abused by overenthusiastic owners. The digital gauge cluster (’94-’95) and the four-speed automatic can cause problems, but these cars are capable of running well past 100,000 miles.
SPARES & DEALERS
Any Chevrolet dealer
Parts 4 Chevys
New GM Parts
Impala SS Club of America
Impala SS Forum
We like the ’96 for its analog gauges (with tach) and console shifter. In basic black, please.