A ghost is haunting Woodward Avenue late on a Saturday night, disturbing the silence that stretches all the way from downtown Detroit through the economic wasteland near Hamtramck to the slumbering suburbs above 8 Mile. Few cars are on the road. A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution heading northwest around Pontiac is clearly just going home, and yet its driver can't resist the challenge when an unfamiliar-looking large sedan rolls up next to him in a low gear. He takes off hard at the next stoplight and probably thinks he's escaped when it comes up behind him, roaring and pulling hard past his front fender at 80 mph. This happens three or four times until he finally lowers his window, astonished, and asks, "What is that thing?" It's the 2014 Chevrolet SS -- a big, rear-wheel-drive Chevrolet sedan with a 415-hp V-8. It's a ghost.
In its heyday, the V-8 Chevy dominated straight, wide boulevards like these. Chevrolet introduced the small-block V-8 for 1955 and immediately stuffed it into its bread-and-butter full-size cars. The cherry red Bel Air that Mike Helfrich drove to our photo shoot in Detroit's Eastern Market would have cost about $2000 when new, roughly $17,500 in today's money. No wonder Chevy sold some 740,000 V-8-powered vehicles that first year. It's worth noting that the 265-cubic-inch engine put out only 162 to 180 hp, just as it's worth remembering that radial tires, airbags, and stability control are nice things to have. But that's beside the point. In 1955, a Chevrolet was one of the most powerful and stylish cars on the market, and almost anyone could afford one.
Not everyone will be able to afford a 2014 Chevrolet SS. Chevrolet is importing it from Australia, where a strong currency and high labor costs drive up the price. Unlike the Pontiac G8, the SS's direct predecessor, the Chevy will not offer a base V-6. The only specification is roughly equivalent to a loaded G8 GXP. The spacious, well-equipped interior will seat five real people, and the 16.4-cubic-foot trunk will happily swallow enough luggage for a long road trip. Of course, the key measure here is horsepower per dollar. The 6.2-liter LS3 V-8, virtually the same engine the G8 GXP used, connects to the rear wheels via a 3.27:1 axle. Chevy says the big sedan will hit 60 mph in five seconds. At any speed, it has that eager, straining-at-the-leash feel unique to cars with a powerful normally aspirated engine. The price for such preparedness is putrid fuel economy -- 14 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. However, what you get is a $45,000 Chevy sedan that'll go toe-to-toe with a $65,000 BMW 550i or, for that matter, with a two-door sports car like the Camaro SS.
Chevrolet drivers could go toe-to-toe with just about anything in the early 1960s. By then, the Corvette (nearly canceled in '55) was coming into its own as a world-class sports car. And yet it still seemed natural and proper that the baddest Chevrolet be based on the one that most people bought. And so, for an extra $376.65 -- a hefty chunk of change back then -- an Impala Super Sport buyer could opt for the 409-hp, 409-cubic-inch big-block V-8 that was winning on NASCAR ovals and NHRA drag strips. Today, John Schraufnagel's 1962 Impala SS, suffering from a failing starter, rode to Detroit on a trailer. The 409 coughs to life as it pulls into position for photos, settling into a rat-a-tat race idle that translates to, "I wasn't built to sit for photos."
But it does look good in them. The design has the understated elegance of the early Bill Mitchell era. Like the '55, it seems to tell the world that a Chevrolet owner deserves the best. The new SS, in contrast, makes do with a pastiche of five-year-old design clichés -- bubbly headlamps, fender gills, and a pinched Bangle butt. That said, people seem to like it. Helfrich, the owner of the '55, finds it "aggressive," calling out the nineteen-inch wheels and the piano-black-accented front fascia. A butcher at the end of a night shift walks over for a closer look and gives us his number in case we ever want a ride in his Pontiac GTO Judge.
The 409 was the apogee of full-size Chevrolet muscle. The performance war of the 1960s soon shifted toward smaller vehicles like the Chevelle and the Camaro. The fuel-economy wars of the 1970s and '80s only hastened the downsizing trend. By the 1990s, Chevrolet and car buyers had mostly moved on from large, body-on-frame sedans, let alone high-performance variants. And yet, old ideas are tough to kill. A revived Impala SS debuted as a concept at the 1992 Detroit auto show and drew such a reception that General Motors decided to build it. Essentially a police-package Caprice with a slightly lowered suspension, the 1994–96 Impala SS sold reasonably well -- more than 40,000 in the final year, including the 5900-mile example owned since new by Ford (yes, Ford) employee Jim Ledingham. But by then GM, like the rest of the American auto industry, had gotten into the crack cocaine that was the SUV craze. It canned the big Chevy, along with its Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac relatives, to free up production capacity.
As the SS's nearest contemporary in this group, the '90s Impala provides clear evidence of how far the company has advanced. The Impala rides on a frame dating back to 1977 and sends 260 hp through a live rear axle. "Nothing rides like a body-on-frame car," Ledingham asserts. The SS uses the latest version of the Zeta rear-wheel-drive unibody platform -- the Holden Commodore on which it's based underwent a significant refresh for 2013 -- and wears an aluminum hood and trunk lid. Beyond the leap forward in hardware, the 2014 Chevrolet SS benefits from the wholesale improvements in GM products over the last decade -- everything from the interior materials to the weighting of the electric power steering speak to a certain level of competence and know-how. The Impala handled well for a big car. The SS handles well, period -- tons of grip, surprising balance, excellent body control. It actually feels nimbler and easier to place in a corner than the smaller Camaro (the fact that it has real windows helps). Still, the '96 Impala was one of the best GM cars of a depressing era -- and is fast becoming a modern classic -- because it stayed true to Chevrolet's core ideals.
The decades blur as the four cars start up for a short cruise through downtown Detroit. The owners, who hadn't previously known each other but all insure their vehicles through Hagerty, bond over their shared automotive culture. Cars they owned. Cars they always wanted. A long, straight highway entrance ramp in metro Detroit that once served as an illicit drag strip. All express interest in the 2014 Chevrolet SS, although Schraufnagel worries that its fuel economy won't suffice for a daily driver. The rumbling exhaust notes play off each other, and, for a moment, it's easy to imagine how shiny new American cars once burbled up and down Detroit's wide boulevards on clear autumn evenings such as this. Of course, that was a long time ago. Shortly after dinner, the 409 goes back on the trailer (hauled by a late-model Silverado), and the rest of the cars disappear back toward the suburbs.
Don't be deluded into viewing the SS as any kind of return to the golden days. Chevrolet doesn't plan to import more than 4000 of them annually from Australia. For 2013, the SS became Chevy's NASCAR model. Officially, Chevrolet hasn't decided what will follow. "Stay tuned," says Dave Leone, GM's executive chief engineer for global product platforms. Unofficially, it's hard to imagine this car becoming any more of a commercial success than the last two Holden-sourced imports, the Pontiac GTO and G8. To sell more, GM would have to consider relocating production to North America. It would also have to improve fuel economy -- think cylinder deactivation and a transmission with more than six speeds -- so as not to adversely impact the company's CAFE standing. Those things cost money that Chevy would probably rather use to, say, improve its all-important compact and mid-size cars. We get all that. And yet the 2014 Chevrolet SS still haunts us as a reminder of a time when Chevry built powerful, charismatic sedans for the masses.
1955 Chevrolet Bel Air two-door sedan
Engine: 4.3L (265 cu in) OHV V-8, 162-180 hp, 257-260 lb-ft (gross)
Transmissions: 2-speed automatic, 3-speed manual
Original price: $1987
Value today: $15,000-$30,000
1955 Bel Air production: 770,955
1962 Chevrolet Impala SS 409
Engine: 6.7L (409 cu in) OHV V-8, 380-409 hp, 420 lb-ft (gross)
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Original price: $3153
Value today: $40,000-$75,000
1962 Chevy 409 production: 15,019
1996 Chevrolet Impala SS
Engine: 5.7L (350 cu in) OHV V-8, 260 hp, 330 lb-ft (net)
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Original price: $24,405
Value today: $8000-$15,000
1996 Impala SS production: 41,941
2014 Chevrolet SS
|Engine:||16-valve OHV V-8|
|Displacement:||6.2 liters (376 cu in)|
|Power:||415 hp @ 5900 rpm|
|Torque:||415 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm|
|Front Suspension:||Strut-type, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension:||Multilink, coil springs|
|Brakes F/R:||Vented discs/discs|
|Tires:||Bridgestone Potenza REO50A|
|Tire Sizes F, R:||245/40R-19 98Y, 275/35R-19 96Y|
|L x W x H:||195.5 x 74.7 x 57.9 in|
|Cargo Capacity:||16.4 cu ft|
|EPA Mileage:||14/21 mpg|
|0-60 MPH:||5.0 seconds|
|Top Speed:||161 mph|