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Although America still has a taste for big cars, its appetite for one particular kind has been somewhat curbed over the years.
The Chevrolet Caprice is the kind of car in which we once went to see the USA. The USA, though, has obviously changed. Big, heavy and thirsty, the traditional full-size sedans have largely given way to smaller, lighter front-drive cars. Nevertheless, they're still around, having managed to persist through two gas crises and tightening fuel-economy standards.
There are some very good reasons for this. Cars like the Caprice are spacious, comfortable and as smooth as a milkshake. The sheer mass lends a sense of security, and body-on-frame construction enhances the likelihood that you'll walk away from a crash unharmed.
The usual criticism of the big rear-drive survivors is that they're out of step with contemporary standards - pillowy ride quality, sluggish handling and vague steering. And to some extent, these criticisms are valid.
But they don't apply to the version of Caprice we tested: the Impala SS. Developed from the Caprice police-car package, the Impala SS is powerful and agile without sacrificing the smooth comfort that distinguishes this breed.
Beyond what they add to driving pleasure, responsive handling and good brakes are key elements of active safety. The Impala SS has both. We were thoroughly impressed with the way this big car could hunker down and track through twisty back roads, and we found its braking performance to be world class. We were even more impressed by the way the big V8 could muscle all this mass down the road. That's another safety plus - right-now power to cut down on two-lane passing time, or whisk you away from impending disaster.
We expected excess fuel thirst to accompany the performance, and here we were pleasantly surprised. In a week of travels with the Impala SS, we averaged more than 22 mpg.
With its stiffer suspension, the Impala SS's ride quality isn't as cushy as the standard Caprice. But it's far from harsh, and we think the Impala SS's handling is more desirable.
Although they're members of the same family, the Impala SS and Caprice Classic are like two different cars. With its soft suspension, the Caprice feels like a leftover from another era, while the Impala's behavior is as sophisticated as - yes - a BMW. The Caprice is a pleasant old-fashioned cruiser. The Impala SS is a modern sports sedan.
Sure, $24,540 is a pretty stiff price tag. However, it's competitive versus other big cars of comparable performance with comparable equipment - the supercharged Bonneville SSE, for example, or Buick Park Avenue Ultra.
And it's an out-and-out bargain versus competing big-ticket imports.
The Impala SS brings the American full-size sedan concept up to date. And if this concept continues to be viable, cars like this will be necessary to keep it alive.