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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.
The current Caprice design goes back to 1991, when the car had its first major overhaul since 1976. Its new aero shape drew a fair amount of criticism at the time, particularly the bulbous rear-end with its half-skirted wheel wells. Chevy has since improved the look with various detail changes, including open wheel wells in the rear fenders. And the Impala SS represents the latest improvement, with its contemporary monochrome exterior that offers an alternative to the traditional Caprice Classic.
We have to say we prefer the looks of the Impala SS.
We also like what goes with it. The basic Caprice Classic is propelled by a 200-hp 4.3-liter V8, but the Impala SS has a version of the Corvette 5.7-liter V8, good for 260 hp and prodigious torque: 330 lb.-ft.
Like horsepower, torque ratings reflect an engine's ability to do work. Unlike horsepower, torque peaks in the lower rpm ranges, and it's what you want when you're moving away from a stop sign or pulling a heavy load.
With the standard 4.3-liter V8, the basic Caprice provides adequate acceleration. With its 5.7-liter V8, the Impala SS hauls.
The Caprice/Impala SS is one of the biggest passenger cars sold in America. And with body-on-frame construction - distinct from the more common one-piece unibody approach - it's also heavy.
However, the Impala's monochrome exterior disguises its dimensions, giving it a surprisingly lean and hungry look. The handsome 17-in. alloy wheels help in this regard, too, filling the wheel wells better than the standard 15-in. Caprice wheels.
The other hardware that makes the Impala SS so much fun to drive is all in the suspension: special high-performance shock absorbers, a rear anti-roll bar, a slightly quicker steering ratio, heavy-duty springs, huge anti-lock (ABS) disc brakes on all four wheels and a limited-slip rear axle for better traction.
Aside from standard leather upholstery, the interiors of the Impala SS and the base Caprice Classic are essentially the same. The Impala's front bucket seats are a little sportier than the Caprice's split bench, with modest thigh and torso bolsters, but it's hard to go along with Chevy's "deeply countoured" description. The seats offer decent comfort, and there's a lot of room in which to move around. Roominess, of course, is one of the virtues of the Caprice Classic and Impala SS. There's ample space for five full-size adults to travel in comfort without territorial disputes. The standard Caprice provides the option of 3-across front seating, but the transmission tunnel intrudes on the center position.
The trunk is also big, but its space is compromised by the full-size spare, which protrudes from the middle of the floor.
The Caprice/Impala SS dashboard makes a clean sweep across the car. It doesn't quite have the one-piece look of a Honda Accord, but it's better than some. And, like most new automobiles, it has dual airbags.
Consistent with current Chevy design trends, the climate controls are wonderfully simple, with three well-marked rotary knobs mounted high in the center of the dash. Good marks, also, for the audio controls that feature oversize push buttons and a twist knob for volume control. Our only complaint here is that the increments on the volume control are tiny.
Instruments are grouped in a small cluster that appears to be pinched-in considering all the space the designers had to work with. There are a couple of gauges you don't ordinarily see in today's cars - oil pressure and a voltmeter - but there's no tachometer and the speedometer is digital.
This may be OK with standard-Caprice buyers, but it's out of step with the sporty character of the Impala SS. We think an analog display, including a tachometer, would be much more appropriate.
Safety features include standard ABS on all models - which can't be said for the Ford Crown Victoria - and side-impact protection that meets 1997 federal standards.
Going the extra $3000 or so for the Impala SS adds power mirrors, a premium AM/FM/ cassette sound system, reading lamps and a 6-way power adjustable driver's seat, as well as leather and the performance hardware.
Our test car also included a CD player and a preferred equipment package with goodies such as heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, rear-window defogger, and GM's Twilite Sentinel, which automatically illuminates the headlights at dusk.
For the money - less than $25,000 - you get a truly impressive collection of luxury features.
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.
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