1994 Impala SS
In the late 1980s, incoming Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins looked at the new, fourth-generation Caprice and thought, “How could anyone have approved this for production?” And he wasn’t alone: when the 1991 model was released, its bulbous exterior, land-yacht size, and plodding 170-horse V-8 led to an apt nickname: Orca. The rear-drive Caprice—like its sales—was slow, ugly, and generally disappointing.
Perkins knew someone had to un-beach this whale, and in 1991 he reached out to Jon Moss. Moss, an ex-street racer and Chevy engineer, was a member of Don Runkle’s famed Special Vehicles group. Jon had created many of the forced-induction concepts for Chevy’s famed “toybox,” and he was tasked with creating a high-performance Impala SS concept vehicle from the hapless Caprice body in time for the 1992 SEMA show.
Moss immediately tore into a Caprice, and after a lightning-quick build, the concept was delivered to SEMA.
The Impala SS concept wore deep black paint, and was devoid of any chrome. A blacked-out grille complemented a trunk lid spoiler, and new-design Impala logos adorned the exterior. It sat two inches lower than a Caprice, and 17-inch alloy wheels wearing huge Goodyears filled up the wheel wells. A big-inch V-8 provided power, with its fumes exiting through a dual exhaust system.
The Impala SS concept was a striking departure from the run-of-the-mill B-body: it was the powerful, downright mean-looking performance sedan the Caprice wanted to be. The SEMA crowd loved it, and GM garnered so much positive attention from the public and its Chevy dealers over the next year, that it put the Impala SS into production.
The 1994 Impala SS stayed true to the concept’s monochromatic exterior, and it would only be available in black. The aggressive grille, rear spoiler, quarter window treatment, radiused wheel openings, and new emblems carried over to production as well.
At its heart was the powerful, Corvette-derived LT1. This version was all iron, and while it was retuned to produce less noise, it was also tuned to enhance low-rpm grunt. The B-body LT1 made 260 horses at 5000 rpm, as opposed to the Vette’s 300. But a whopping 330 lb-ft of torque was available at 2400 rpm—only 10 shy of the sports car’s rating, and at a lower rpm. The 4L60E four-speed auto’s 3.05 first gear blasted the big Impy off the line, and a .69 overdrive—matched with the 3.08 posi rear—kept the revs low on the highway.
The SS’s short long arm front/four link rear suspension was based on the Police Package Caprice’s, and then enhanced with tuned front and rear stabilizer bars and de Carbon monotube shocks. Combined with a quick-ratio power steering unit, 12-inch vented disc brakes with ABS, 17x8.5-inch five-spokes, and 255/50ZR17 tires, the Impala SS showed nimble, confident handling and stopping that very much belied its 4,200 pounds and live axle.
Early test drivers were astounded by its performance. The SS stopped from 70-0 in 179 feet, recorded lateral gs over .85, and did well in tight corners and through lane-change maneuvers. And while its 15.0-second quarter-mile times at around 92 mph wouldn’t set the world on fire, it was respectable for this smog-lite behemoth. Plus, it was a better overall performer than Ford’s Taurus SHO, a nice feather in GM’s cap.
But performance aside, cruising is where the big SS really excelled. Its wheelbase was long, at 115.9 inches, and the SS simply sailed over rough roads and potholes. The five fully formed humans that it was transporting enjoyed a smooth ride and great visibility. A few gripes could be heard: the door-mounted side mirrors looked like last-minute add-ons, and though the rear end looked better, it was still biiiiggg. Inside, the lack of a console shifter and tachometer was a big turnoff to hot rodders, and the instrument panel looked a bit spartan. Also, the leather chairs lacked bolstering for those high lateral gs, and weren’t the most comfortable buckets.
But for the big and tall crowd—or anyone who’d begrudgingly considered the Caprice—the SS was a $21,920 godsend. The first-year allotment of 6,303 cars was quickly snapped up. Production grew to 20,000-plus in 1995, as the Black paint was joined by Dark Cherry Metallic and Dark Green Grey Metallic options, and sleeker, redesigned side mirrors bowed. And it all came together in 1996 for the SS’s swan song. The final-year SS got a floor-mounted shifter, an electric tach, and for better or worse, OBD-II. The same three exterior colors were available, and buyers snapped up over 33,000 Impala SSs.
During and after its three-year run, the Impala SS proved many points to a complacent GM. It proved that sharp-looking concepts can reignite Americans’ imaginations. That clean, powerful engines like the LT1 can make high performance and clean air regulations coexist. And that if you make it beautiful, fast, and competent, you’ll sell a ton of them. Thankfully for us, GM listened.