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Story and Photos by Grant Yoxon
The SS is back. It’s big, it’s black and it has a 240 horsepower supercharged V6 engine.
Already I can hear the derogatory snickers from the cynical among us. Four doors, front-wheel drive, V6? How can such a car measure up to the legend of the 60’s full-size, two-door, rear-wheel drive, big-block-powered Impalas that the SS is commonly associated with?
Before we write off the 2004 Chevrolet Impala SS as just another example of opportunistic marketing, we need to dispense with a bit of mythology. The SS option, first introduced in the Impala mid-way through 1961 could be ordered on any Impala – two-doors, four-doors, wagon or convertible – powered by either the 348 cubic inch V8 or the 360 horsepower 409. And in 1962, the SS option – a trim package – could be ordered with any engine in the Impala line-up, including the 235 cu. in., 135 hp inline six, although it was only available with coupes and convertibles.
The only year the SS emblem on an Impala had any real performance exclusivity was 1969. That year the package was restricted to the 390 horsepower or 425 horsepower 427 cubic inch big block. Unfortunately, Chevy only sold 2,455 SS Impalas in 1969 (out of 777,000 Impalas produced) and the SS Impala disappeared at the end of the model year.
It would be another 25 years before an SS Impala would again raise the pulse of Chevy enthusiasts with the Caprice-based Impala SS built from 1994 to ’96. Although rear-wheel drive, this SS had four doors and its 5.7-litre LT1 V8 produced 260 horsepower, significantly less than the 300 hp Corvette LT1 from which it was derived.
So, is this latest resurrection of the SS Impala just marketing? Absolutely. But then it always was. Better that we judge the 2004 Impala SS on its own merits.
Today, six-cylinder powered, front-wheel drive sport sedans are common. Honda, Acura, Toyota, Nissan, Chrysler, Mazda, Volvo, Volkswagen, as well as Pontiac and Buick have competing FWD sport sedans. While most of the competitors are mid-size sedans, the Impala is at the large end of the spectrum – only the Chrysler 300M is bigger. In base configuration, the Impala comes with a front bench seat and will seat six adults – very comfortably. Trunk space is generous with 526.7 litres (18.6 cubic feet) of luggage space. It is no wonder these cars are a favourite with police departments and taxi drivers.
The SS is the fully loaded version of the Impala, so forget about a bench seat. Six way powered and heated leather trimmed bucket seats – and they’re big buckets seats – are standard, for both driver and passenger. The SS gets a special interior treatment with graphite trim and “Impala SS” stitched into the doors and floor mats. The cream-coloured interior of our test car contrasted nicely with the Impala’s deep and beautiful black exterior paint. Medium gray interior trim is also available. The Impala is built in Oshawa, Ontario and credit goes to this Canadian plant for an excellent interior and paint finish.
Most everything you’d expect in an upscale, near-luxury sedan is here – power doors and locks, dual-zone manual air conditioning, remote keyless entry and six-speaker AM/FM/CD player. My test car was equipped with the optional $1,425 preferred equipment group that adds driver information centre, electrochromic rear view mirror, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and On-Star communications system.
Surprisingly, one must order this package to get heated outside mirrors – hard to believe these aren’t standard in Canada. On the other hand, a power sunroof – something I can do without – is an optional extra our car didn’t have.
The driver information centre includes trip computer, outside temperature, compass, garage door opener and content theft deterrent system. Oil life and tire pressure monitors are standard equipment on all Impala models.
With its thick seat cushions and roomy interior, the Impala SS is a comfortable car to drive. The SS receives some suspension enhancement to improve handling, but the firmer shock and spring set-up doesn’t degrade ride comfort.
For a large car, the SS handles extremely well. There is some noticeable body roll, but only at cornering velocities where lesser vehicles might lose adhesion. The Impala’s W-rated P235/55R17 all-season performance Goodyear Eagle AS-R tires work well with this car.
Braking – 4-wheel discs all around with traction control – are excellent, pulling the 1,636 kg (3,606 lbs) Impala to a stop quickly and efficiently.
My only complaint – the rear view mirror, a bulky item that hangs too low and tends to obscure vision to the right.
From outside, the 17-inch diamond cut aluminum alloy wheels, stainless steel dual exhaust tips and barely noticeable Impala SS badging on the doors are the only way to differentiate an SS from an LS equipped with optional sport package. Both receive lower front facia extensions, fog lights and Corvette-inspired rear tail lights.
The only other real differentiator is under the hood. Whereas the LS is powered by a 200 horsepower 3.8-litre naturally aspirated V6, the SS receives the supercharged 3.8-litre, which produces 240 horsepower at 5,200 r.p.m. and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 r.p.m.
Despite its age and anachronistic overhead valve configuration, the supercharged 3.8 is a surprisingly smooth and quiet engine. GM has had plenty of time to work out the bugs in this engine, as it has been used in a variety of Buicks and Pontiacs since 1992.
On the highway at 100 kilometres per hour, it is barely ticking over at less than 2000 r.p.m. and will willingly hurtle you along a freeway at much higher speeds without any apparent effort. And nothing will clear a fast lane quicker than a fast-approaching black Impala.
But the choice is yours. The Impala SS has a well-modulated throttle and a smooth-shifting, well-matched four-speed automatic transmission. It is a comfortable cruiser and relaxed daily driver, but put your foot firmly on the gas pedal and the SS comes alive with a wonderful exhaust note and strong, unrelenting acceleration.
As a sport sedan, the Impala SS is not as nimble (and probably not as quick) as some of the smaller V6 powered sport sedans, but it is a good choice if a big car is needed and budgets are limited. There are few competitors of this size and power priced under $40,000.
Worth mentioning, of course, is the new 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, with a starting price ($34,475) lower than the SS ($36,265) and a 3.8-litre supercharged V6 that produces 20 more horsepower. The Pontiac also has optionally available an automatic transmission with manual shift feature, something the SS does not. When the mid-nineties SS Impala disappeared along with the Caprice, GM’s large car performance crown shifted to Pontiac and the GTP. Looks like it continues to reside there.
Still, the Impala SS is back (along with a supercharged SS version of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo). It may not live up to the standards set by other GM divisions – let alone the mythology that surrounds the emblem – but like its SS forebears, it’s big, quick and comfortable.
Technical Data: 2004 Chevrolet Impala SS
|Options||$1,425 (Preferred Equipment Group)|
|Price as tested||$38,790|
|Type||Full size, four door, five passenger sport sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.8 litre supercharged V6, OHV|
|Horsepower||240 at 5,200 rpm|
|Torque||280 lb-ft at 3,600 rpm|
|Wheels & tires||17-inch aluminum alloy, P235/55R17 W-rated|
|Curb weight||1636 kg (3606 lbs.)|
|Wheelbase||2807 mm (110.5 in.)|
|Length||5080 mm (200 in.)|
|Width||1854 mm (73 in.)|
|Height||1456 mm (57.3 in.)|
|Trunk space||527 litres (18.6 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel||Premium 92 octane required|
|Fuel consumption||City 13.5 L/100 km (21 mpg)|
|Highway 8.2 L/100 km (34 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 years/60,000 km|