The Chevrolet SS is the kind of car you buy with someone else’s money. Everyone praises its driving demeanor, and rightly so. A leather-lunged V8, optional six-speed manual transmission and a road-spanking fetish make the SS a throwback to a time and place that never actually existed: A Detroit neighborhood where sedans actually handled. Today, the SS is a sledgehammer in a world where sedans have all the driving personality of a Waterpik.
But c’mon, Chevy: $48,570? For a sedan that might personify the inevitable decline of the Boomer demographic? The SS looks like a suburban dad who tries to spice things up with a leather jacket from Wilson’s and Viagra in the zippered pocket. The result is stiff and painful.
Imported from Australia, seemingly from the cultural epoch of Crocodile Dundee, the SS is a reworked VF Commodore sedan from GM’s V8-loving Holden subsidiary. If the Aughts-Malibu styling wasn’t a giveaway, the Internet will affirm the SS’s lame-duck waddle: GM is discontinuing Holden’s Australian production next year, a company that got its start in saddlery in the 1850’s and has been building cars since the 1930s. So the SS is already flogging a dead horse—albeit 415 of them—with production ending in 2017.
Consider the SS a souvenir of that demise, a successor to the Aussie-built G8 GXP that provided Pontiac a rare climax -- just before la petit mort of GM axing that 84-year-old brand in 2009. (One key difference is that the Pontiac G8 was handsome).
The SS might make its best case as a stealth sedan, the undercover agent that blows past unsuspecting BMWs. But it’s not stealthy enough, with wads of piano-black plastic, tacky chrome and a ridiculously jacked-up rear. Rappers may love their Chevys, but a doggy-style Impala is another story. The screaming “Red Hot” paint on my SS was all wrong for this car: Passersby were forced to notice the Chevy’s approach but quickly averted their eyes, as they would for a man with a bad toupee.
The cabin tries gamely to tart things up. But the effect is like a SEMA car by way of Pep Boys, in a 60-minute customizing contest: “Staple guns ready? Aaaand GO!” A gummy velour-like substance adheres to the dashboard, with red stitching winding its perfunctory way around seats. But you’re still chin-deep in budget plastic and mystery rubber, from the subsistence farm that used to supply GM before it got its interior act together. Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system is a functional bright spot, despite its oddly banked, ATM-style controls. But as with the insipid exterior, the cabin suggests a special hell with Dave Matthews on perpetual loop, or Rascal Flatts for the SS’s southern-leaning listeners.
Or, you could just listen to the 6.2-liter V8, its pushrods working their little hearts out on the way to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds. The LS3 V8 once powered the Corvette and Camaro, and it’s a loudmouthed, oiled-up wrestler that can back up every boast. Basically, you’re crazy if you buy this car without the Tremec manual shifter, whose firm-but-fluid action lifts the SS’s performance to another league. That’s despite the obnoxious “skip shift” feature, which denies a gear change from first to second gear under light throttle to save fuel. But that’s OK: My week in New York and environs was one stoplight launch after another, ensuring that skip-shift couldn’t play its cock-blocking game. That manual, a no-cost option, also brings a shorter 3.70:1 rear axle ratio, versus the 3.27:1 of the paddle-shifted automatic trans, for even quicker bursts when green says "go".
Most remarkably, in the vein of the latest Camaro and Mustang, the SS is as much Euro sport sedan as traditional muscle car. (Yes, I know pony cars have two doors). The ride is fairly firm, even in the softest of the Magnetic Ride Control’s three settings. But the SS thundered through New York’s horse country with a rare combination of grunt and grace. Its steering, despite some excess of boost, telegraphed precisely when the SS was running out of grip – which wasn’t often, considering its robust .97 g’s of roadholding. With stability control sidelined, tail-wagging antics are one touch of the pedal away. But the Chevy’s poised chassis actually rewards a steady hand, and feet. Brembo brakes keep the SS from running out of room. And the V8 torque is old-school and unstoppable, a powder keg that will never run dry, at least until regulators say "nyet" to thirsty V8s. As is, the SS is dinged for a $1,000 guzzler tax.
For all that, I can’t imagine choosing the SS over anything in its price range and wheelhouse. If handling is all you care about, sure, the SS will scribe circles around any Dodge Charger or Challenger, including the Hellcats. But you can have the big-block Hemi, 485-hp Challenger Scat Pack for just under $40,000, or the performance-armored SRT 392 for $47,390. Mopar’s muscle cars make me grin even when they’re standing still, just like they did when I was an impressionable teen. The Mustang GT, a great drive and guaranteed crowd-pleaser, is roughly $42,000 smartly equipped. Even Chevy can out-do the Chevy and still supply an SS badge. For less money, the new Camaro SS beats its four-door counterpart in every way, save for its tight back seat and constricted sightlines: Better looks, even sharper handling, a sophisticated Cadillac platform, a newer 455-hp Corvette-based V8, superior cabin design.
Call me shallow, but I expect more style – hell, some style – in a $48,000 Chevrolet. The SS reminded me of a friend, a former bandmate from Detroit. I called something "ugly," but my friend corrected me with wisdom I’ll never forget: “No, Lawrence,” he said. “It’s not ugly. It’s homely. And homely is worse.”
2016 Chevrolet SS
PRICE (base/as tested): $47,570/$48,570
POWERTRAIN: 6.2-liter eight-cylinder engine, 415 hp, 415 lb-ft torque; six-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel drive
MPG: 14 city/22 highway