2014 Chevrolet SS
"Australian For Bowtie"
As the year of 1972 was drawing to a close, my father had finally saved up enough money to buy himself his first new car, and his heart was set on a Chevrolet Chevelle SS. And no wonder – the midsize Chevy Super Sport had earned a reputation for performance with rugged good looks to match. Its twin stripes and domed hood hid a 402-cubic-inch V8 engine (though Chevy still called it a 396, owing to that mill's muscle car heritage), and, though down on power from the horsepower heyday of 1970, it sent tons of American grunt to the rear wheels in the very best tire-melting fashion.
Then 1973 rolled around, and General Motors completely remade its midsize offerings, eschewing the chiseled good looks of past models for what many, including my father, thought was a bloated, squared-off design that didn't look very muscular. Good old Dad did the right thing – he bought a '73 Firebird, and thus became a Pontiac man for life. And that's how my family grew up with a long slew of Pontiac machinery that included a Grand Prix or three, several Trans Am models and a barn full of GTO convertibles in various states of repair and disrepair.
While the Pontiac nameplate has since ascended to the great automotive graveyard in the sky, there's a direct link between the old Chevelle of yesteryear through the last Pontiac GTO and its spiritual successor, the G8, and the brand-spankin'-new 2014 Chevy SS that is today's subject du jour. And, somewhat surprisingly, that link has long since left the United States, diverting its way through Australia instead. Allow us to explain.
Under its skin, the 2014 Chevy SS is a Holden Commodore. Although this means that the vast majority of development work on this seemingly most American of performance sedans was actually done by the Aussies, it also means that the SS rides and handles rather well. This comes as little surprise, considering that this isn't the first time GM has released a Holden on the States, and each time the result has been an excellent vehicle to drive. First was the 2004 Pontiac GTO, a vehicle that was appreciated by enthusiasts but mostly unloved in the marketplace due to its tepid styling and questionable link to the iconic model with which it shared its name. Next was the 2008 Pontiac G8. It, too, was somewhat dourly styled, and although it was received with a more fervent welcome than the reborn GTO, the baby that was the G8 sedan was thrown out with Pontiac's excitement-tinged bathwater when the brand was killed off in 2010.
Third time the charm, then? GM certainly hopes so, as this new SS sedan from Chevrolet is the latest model to be designed and built in Australia and shipped to the United States as a performance sedan. And the more things change, the more they stay the same – it could certainly be argued that the SS lacks visual excitement. I happen to like its understated design, but I also liked the somewhat slow-selling G8.
Up front, the SS carries a familial front fascia that would look equally at home on the Cruze or Malibu as it does here, and that's not exactly a ringing endorsement for a car called Super Sport. In profile, the SS again carries a basic shape that says 'family car' more than it says sport sedan. There's a vent in the front fender and a mild ground effects package that spices things up a bit, and the sheet metal is pulled nicely taut around the wide, 19-inch wheels. At the rear, the story remains the same, with simple but attractive lines. Dual exhaust tips and a petite spoiler are the only concessions to extroverts who'd like everyone else to know how fast their car is, but by the time they see those bits at the rear, they'll already have been passed.
This brings up a positive aspect of the SS: since it looks mostly nondescript, few others on the road will be expecting the 415-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 engine underhood. Unless, of course, you use its 415 pound-feet of torque to roast the rear tires at every stoplight, which is an extremely easy task in the SS.
Put the power to the ground properly and the SS will scoot from 0-60 in about five seconds, says the folks from Chevy, and it's easy to believe them. Hold your foot to the floor for about 13 seconds and you'll see a quarter mile pass right on by. Those are excellent performance figures, and they are within spitting distance of the high-four-second 0-60 time of the Dodge Charger SRT8 (and its sibling, the Chrysler 300 SRT8). Acceleration, though, is only part of the car's performance envelope.
General Motors and its Holden division have done an excellent job tuning the Chevy SS. The electric power steering is nicely weighted and knows that straight ahead sits, well, straight ahead – meaning it's not afflicted with the maladies commonly attributed to electric power steering setups. The next time we hang with the Holdenites, the first round of Foster's is on us.
Ride and handling is another area where the SS excels. Grip from the 245/40ZR19 front and 275/35ZR19 rear Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires is plentiful, and its ability to stick in a corner doesn't result in a harsh ride. Instead, the SS is firm, comfortable and never floaty on the road, and I never hit any bumps large enough to upset its chassis. The actual oily bits aren't terribly high-tech – MacPherson strut front and multi-link independent rear – but they are very well engineered.
The most notable nit to pick with the driving experience is the SS's six-speed automatic transmission. Not only is GM's unit a few gears short of most of its competitors, the Hyrda-Matic 6L80 can sometimes be a bit slow to shift, either when left in Drive or when using the TAPShift paddles. In order to make the gearbox shift up at the perfect time ahead of redline, the driver needs to pull the paddle, which is cast from an unfortunately flimsy plastic, a split-second earlier than expected, else the LS3 V8 (borrowed from the C6 Corvette) will bounce off its hard rev limiter a bit past its 6,000-rpm redline. This behavior is especially noticeable because the engine loves to rev with a quickness foretold by its 415-horse peak that isn't attained until a lofty 5,900 rpm.
The transmission's lack of ratios is reflected in its lackluster fuel economy figures of 14 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. The more powerful SRT8 models from Chrysler manage 14/23, though they require premium gas, while the Hyundai Genesis R-Spec Sedan earns ratings of 16/25 while putting out 429 horsepower and 376 lb-ft, in part because of its eight-speed auto.
Standard braking hardware consists of vented, 14-inch (355-mm) two-piece rotors and four-piston calipers from Brembo up front and 12.7-inch solid rotors at the rear, and they perform admirably bringing the 3,975-pound sedan down from speed. Initial bite is good, and, while I didn't do any driving on a track, I never experienced anything resembling fade on the road.
There isn't much brand-new technology in the SS, although it does represent Chevy's first use of Automatic Parking Assist. This system is capable of parking the vehicle without much intervention from the driver. Using ultrasonic sensors, it can perform its duties moving either forward or in reverse, and it can parallel park. As we'd expect, the SS comes standard with electronic braking assist, forward collision alert, lane-departure warning, blind zone alert, rear cross-traffic alert, a rearview camera and OnStar. That fully stocked suite of safety tech joins Chevrolet's latest MyLink infotainment system on an eight-inch screen, covering navigation, phone pairing, music apps and more.
With butt firmly planted in seat, the interior of the SS is a nice place to spend some time. Seats are comfortable, if a little short on lateral bolstering, and all the gauges are right in front where the driver would expect. There aren't any funky sight lines, and, unlike the Camaro with which the SS shares its Zeta platform, you can actually see out of this performance sedan in all directions. The dash is covered in leather and suede (or at least convincing facsimiles of the real thing) and feels of quality. The same can be said of the center stack, though some may find its two-tone metal finish a bit too blingy.
The SS outdoes all comers in its class is spaciousness. The EPA considers the SS, 300 SRT8 and Genesis R-Spec as large cars, but the Chevy's interior volume of 112 cubic feet and 16.4 cubic-foot trunk lead the 300 (105 cu-ft, 16-cu-ft) and Genesis (109 cu-ft, 16 cu-ft). Numbers only tell part of the story, though. The SS boasts an airy cockpit that's lacking in the SRT8 sedans, and is seemingly tailor-made for fullsize American frames. There's plenty of room for four adults, and a third in the back seat can tolerate more than just brief trips so long as they aren't in the 90th percentile.
Speaking of competitors, it's telling that Chevy lists the BMW 5 Series as a key combatant. It may not be fair to compare a six-cylinder sedan from an upscale German brand with a bread-and-butter machine from Chevrolet, and I doubt many potential buyers will be cross shopping them, but since Chevy threw the dart, let's play. In pure performance terms, there's little doubt the SS could keep pace with the 535i, which costs a cool $10k more with a twin-turbo six-cylinder engine. That said, and despite the fact that, at $44,470 and with just two available options (a sunroof and a fullsize spare tire), this is clearly the most upscale sedan from Chevy in quite some time, it's no BMW. Interior finishes are of high enough quality, and the fit and finish is generally good, but the SS is lacking the taut lines and techy feel of the Bimmer, and there aren't many consumers who'd trade a Roundel for a Bowtie.
It's most appropriate to line the SS up against the aforementioned SRT8 sedans from Chrysler and Dodge and the Hyundai Genesis R-Spec, along, we suppose, with the Ford Taurus SHO. And in this company, the SS has the best reflexes and tuning, the roomiest cabin and a torque-rich engine that pulls hard enough to make you forget that it's down on power to the big Hemi.
Despite the fact that the SS puts out 55 fewer horses and 55 fewer lb-ft than Chrysler's 6.4-liter Hemi engine, you'll need to add a $1,300 gas guzzler tax on top of the SS sedan's $44,470 purchase price. By way of comparison, buyers of the $44,385 Dodge Charger SRT8 Super Bee and $45,900 Chrysler 300 SRT8 Core will pay a $1,000 gas guzzler tax. And the $47,400 Hyundai Genesis Sedan 5.0 R-Spec has no gas guzzler tax at all. Reading between those five lines, all of these sedans are priced fairly competitively with each other. Remember, though, that Chevy is selling its sedan in just one mostly loaded trim, while the Chryslers have pricier models and many an option pack on the options list.
The 2014 Chevy SS would benefit from an eight-speed automatic transmission, or even a manual (the seven-speed rev-matching box from the Corvette Stingray would be perfect), along with direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation for more power and better fuel economy. Again, the latest 'Vette's LT1 engine would be delightful. If the SS were indeed blessed with the powertrain of the Stingray, I'd call it a bargain at its purchase price. And finally, though looks are subjective, some of us wouldn't turn down just a little more eye candy.
A four-door Corvette it's not, and neither is it a retro nod to the aforementioned Chevelle SS of the past. But that's okay. Because what the SS is – a credible performance sedan capable of lining up against the best the rest of the world has to offer – is plenty enough to make this Australian-American a winner that doesn't need gimmicks to impress... at least for a few thousand people per year, which is all that The General is planning to sell, anyway.