America does many things well. Hamburgers. Freedom. Long-form dramatic television. But one area where we're lagging is in home-built, V8, rear-wheel drive sedans. Thank God for Australia.
(Full Disclosure: Chevrolet wanted me to drive the 2014 SS so badly that they flew me out to Palm Springs, California. It's a place that, as far as I can tell, is a conglomeration of golf courses posing as a town.)
GM has imported cars from Australia before, starting with the Holden Monaro-based Pontiac GTO and then the Pontiac G8. People considered the GTO too conservatively styled and the G8, well, it just came to America at the total wrong time. Because what people want to buy while gas prices are stratospheric and a recession is encouraging companies people off by the barrel full is a V8 performance sedan.
Then Pontiac went away.
Problem is, GM has this agreement where they'll build a certain number of cars for export in Australia. That's where Vauxhall gets their V8 powered sedans from. And to meet that volume, one of them had to come to America. Since Pontiac is gone, and that means their driving excitement and wide track thrills are history as well, the newest Holden Commodore is coming back to America as the Chevrolet SS.
Of course, this will only last until around 2017 at the latest, when GM shutters all of its Australian manufacturing operations.
But it's different than it is in Australia. Our car is better. We get Chevy's LS3 V8, Australia doesn't. Australia's noise limits make their Commodore quiet. Chevy's car sounds like a Spitfire. We only get an auto box, but we get paddle shifters on ours. Australia doesn't.
The SS is a car the enthusiast crowd has been clamoring for. It's also a big bet by Chevrolet that the enthusiast interest will translate into sales. We've been begging for ages, so the SS better be good. And it's not bad. Not bad at all.
The first time the SS showed its face, a lot of people were disappointed. Where are the hood scoops? The fender flares? The general wildness?
I wasn't one that was disappointed. A fast car that attracts a lot of attention is a fast car that gets a lot of tickets. The SS is understated, handsome, and muscular. There's no shouting and no look-at-me bits. It's an old school sleeper muscle car.
I would like to see a little bit more stance and some bigger wheels, maybe grey or bronze in finish. The polished look is just a little too 1994 for me. It's also a little bloated out back, but not so much to give Sir-Mix-A-Lot the fevers. It also comes in five colors, four of which are white, grey, grey, and black. It does come in red, so that's fun. But where's the wild Holden purple? A yellow (even though I hate yellow)? An electric blue?
So, flies under the radar, kind of a big ass, ugly wheels.
When you initially sit in the SS, there is a glaring, terrible problem: The headrest will just force itself into your spine, causing the same discomfort as sitting at the back of a flight on RyanAir. The remedy is not punching the headrest, as I found out, but rather tilting the rake of the seat further back than normal.
Other than that slight annoyance, the interior is business as usual for a $40,000+ sports sedan. There's suede and leather, attractive gauges, and solid touchpoints. It's a nice place to spend a lot of time.
Once you get that seat adjusted.
What did you expect? When a Corvette engine, in this case the LS3, is under the hood, a car becomes rather fast.
The amazing thing about the SS is that you just don't realize how fast you're going. You'll step on it, settle on a speed, piddle along la dah dee dee dah, and then realize you're going a sustained 90 MPH in a 60 zone. Off the line it's quick, but mid-range acceleration is where it really shines.
There's almost no drama getting it up to speed. It hooks up immediately (traction control cuts in early and often) and just rockets through the gears.
I had to jump on the brakes hard a couple times, and found them to be responsive with good feel. The car is kind of heavy, so that makes for a little dive when you get hard on the binders, but it doesn't lose composure.
It's a sport sedan and it doesn't have active dampers. This is a one size fits all suspension, and some might find it a bit too stiff around town. Those people are what we like to call pansies.
On smooth roads, it's sublime, on bumpy roads, it's, well, it's bumpy. What did you expect?
The SS is a car that just wants to go fast. The limits are lower than something like the Corvette, which allows you to understand where the limits are and how it'll react if you exceed them.
It's not like the Vette, where you need to be going about 178 MPH before it lets go and you're flying backwards off a cliff, cursing every life decision you've ever made. Instead, the SS is fun to flog at slower, safer speeds. This is a plus.
What is a minus is the steering, which is rather weak. On center and at low speeds, it's floppy and indirect, like an impotent politician. It gets better at speed, but it still isn't that impressive. That says a lot for the confidence that the chassis provides.
Would I prefer it had a manual trans? Of course. Does the auto with the paddles do a good job? Yes, when you're moving quickly. At slow speeds, the paddles are lazy, slow to shift, and feel a generation behind.
It's because ZF and other manufacturers have now spoiled us with some truly great automatic transmissions that react to your thoughts, not your actions.
So there are no performance traction nannies or what-have-you here. No magnetic ride, no adjustable sport steering, no active exhaust. The conditions of the car are always in what GM engineers felt were the optimal setting.
What it does have is your standard suite of tech plus a few other little goodies, including a heads up display and parking sensors. There's even a parallel parking assist, which I didn't try out (it was a road test, not a park on a city street test), but seems useful for people who failed that part of their driving test at least seven times.
It has a decent stereo, but our SS has a raucous exhaust note. It's actually deceptive, since the sound deadening makes it rather quiet inside. But when you drive behind one, you can't not hear it.
It's like standing behind a Spitfire, and not the one built by Triumph. It's an evocative noise that's still more refined than the Corvette, which is what you'd expect, but it's not meant to be discrete to the people near it.
The SS comes with very few options since it won't be a volume car. That means we're looking at a price of around $46,000 no matter how the SS is equipped. That places it right in line with SRT's similarly equipped and powered Charger and 300.
Eight times out of eight (not sure why I chose eight), I'd take the SS. That's right down to driving habits. The Charger and 300 are more drag machines than full on performance sedans. The SS can actually go around the twisties and be a yobbo drift machine in the right hands.
Will Chevy sell a ton of these? I doubt it. It's a very specific car for a very specific person. It's the Impala for people that believe the Impala should have evolved into a cheetah instead of an elephant.
Engine: 6.2L V8
Power: 415 HP at 5,900 RPM/ 415 LB-FT at 4,600 RPM
Transmission: Six-Speed Automatic
0-60 Time: 5.0 seconds
Top Speed: 160 mph
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,975
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 14 City/21 Highway
MSRP: $43,475* (All cars have a gas guzzler tax, so pricing is really closer to $46,000 for every single SS)