The coolest V-8 sedan of the ’90s is less than $20K
By the 1990s, the full-size, rear-wheel-drive, American family sedan was an endangered species. The automotive industry had embraced front-wheel drive due to the layout’s advantages in efficiency, cabin space, and manufacturing costs. Accordingly, cars like the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry had almost completely taken over family-hauling duties. Chevrolet’s redesigned Caprice Classic was one of the few rear-wheel-drive holdouts in 1991, but it was a slow seller that appealed only to fleet buyers and traditionalists.
Jon Moss, the head hot-rodder of GM’s Specialty Vehicles Group, was tasked with reinvigorating the Caprice. His solution was simple: Put a big engine in it, make it look cool, and revive an iconic nameplate. A 260-hp version of the Corvette’s LT1 V-8 engine was added to a 9C1 police-package Caprice, and the 1994 Impala SS was born. The trim was painted body color, the hood ornament was removed, five-spoke wheels were fitted, and a BMW-like kink was added to the rear-most pillar. Black was the only color available. “Lord Vader, your car is ready,” the ad copy went.
It was an instant hit. Chevy sold more than 69,000 examples during the car’s short three-year production run and didn’t see the need to change much on the Impala SS. Two new colors, Cherry and Dark Green, were offered in 1995, but most buyers still went with black. The 1996 model received full analog instrumentation and a console-mounted T-handle shifter, as opposed to a column shifter.
If you’re in the market for an Impala SS, beware of clones. It’s not difficult to convert a regular Caprice to SS spec. Look for WX3 on the Service Parts Identification located in the trunk to verify if it’s the real thing.
Mechanically, the Impala SS is pretty stout, but there are a few things to look out for. Opti-Spark, the LT1’s optically triggered ignition distributor, can fail, and replacement is labor-intensive. The four-speed automatic transmission—4L60E in GM speak—has a mixed reputation. Failures seem to happen north of 100,000 miles or with prolonged hard use. Owner Mike Reily grenaded the 4L60E in his Impala at a track day. Instead of replacing the autobox, he swapped in the six-speed manual transmission from a contemporary Camaro. “Jon Moss let me drive the GM Specialty Vehicles 1994 six-speed prototype Impala SS in 2001 at the Dreamapalooza car show,” he explained. “At that point, I knew I needed to do the manual transmission conversion.”
Unmodified Impalas are worth more to collectors, but Reily is probably having more fun in his car. Rowing through the six-speed’s gears is immensely delightful, like giving the torquey V-8 a firm handshake. Even with its sport-tuned suspension, the Impala SS is not light on its feet. You are always aware of how substantial this 2-ton behemoth is when you pitch it into a corner. Not to say that the SS won’t stick to the road—Car and Driver reported an impressive-for-the-time 0.86 g figure in its skidpad test.
GM unceremoniously killed the Impala SS at the end of 1996, when its Arlington, Texas, assembly plant was retooled for SUV production. But the cars have enjoyed a cult following. It turns out Americans think a big rear-wheel-drive sedan with a big engine is still a timeless recipe for cool.
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8
Power: 260 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 330 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
Weight: 4036 lb
Power to weight: 15.5 pound/hp
0–60 mph: 7.0 sec
Price when new: $24,405
Hagerty #3 (Good) condition value: $13,900–$19,800
This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.