It's a bit sad and somewhat ironic that General Motors is ending production of its rear-wheel-drive cars when it can't build enough Impalas to satisfy strong demand. GM has scheduled the last Impala SS to be built in December. A combination of factors led to the demise of the Chevrolet Caprice, Cadillac Fleetwood and Buick Roadmaster, the cars from which this incarnation of the Impala was spawned. The disastrous 1991 redesign of GM's big cars and slumping demand for full-size cars set in motion the chain of events that ultimately brought down these full-size sedans. The '91 Caprice, with its mismatched front and rear wheel wells, skinny tires and bulbous rear end, was so ugly that it became the butt of jokes. It turned heads for all the wrong reasons. The Buick and Cadillac weren't much better looking. Dumpy looks and a soft market spelled trouble, and sales sank like the Titanic. Then an interesting thing happened: In 1993 Chevy designers took another look at the Caprice. The rear wheel wells were opened up so that they matched the front. The rear wheels were pushed out a few inches. That, along with a few other changes, suddenly made the Caprice look respectable. Then in 1994 the Impala SS came along, and suddenly men in their late 40s and early 50s were beating down Chevy's doors to buy the mean-looking black sedan. The Impala SS had - still has - a modified Corvette engine, police car suspension system and several cosmetic improvements over the Caprice. Chevy's big car was turning heads for all the right reasons. Chevy will build about 20,0001996 Impalas, and even though demand continues to increase, the decision to phase out all large GM cars has been made and won't be reversed. It comes down to dollars and, some believe, not a lot of sense. GM can make more money selling Tahoe and Yukon sport-utility vehicles than it can selling Impalas. So the factory space occupied by the Impala and the other big GM cars is going to be used to increase production of GM's hot-selling sport-utilities. If you want an Impala, you better start getting very chummy with your local Chevy dealer. Most dealers know exactly how many Impalas they'll get between now and December. If you don't put down a deposit, you're not likely to get one. No Chevy sedan in the last 20 years - and maybe none since the legendary 1955-57 models - has struck such a chord with Chevy lovers. Despite its limited three-year run, the Impala SS already is well on its way to becoming a classic. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The Impala SS comes with a 260-horsepower, 5.7-liter LT1 V-8 and a four-speed automatic transmission. It's a beefy setup that yields quick acceleration from a stop and plenty of power for quick bursts of speed in the 40 mph-to-60 mph range. Despite its performance-oriented nature, the Impala SS is smooth and quiet. Think of it as a civilized, mature hot rod that doesn't need to make a lot of noise to impress. The automatic transmission shifts gears crisply, exactly the feel you want in a muscle car. One reason the Impala has been so popular is that Chevy enthusiasts know how easy and inexpensive it is to increase the horsepower. A few simple modifications, such as a high-performance computer chip and a free-flowing exhaust system, move horsepower into the 300 range. Those with an extra grand in their wallets and a thirst for serious speed can easily squeeze 400 horsepower out of the 350-cubic-inch V-8. Indeed, a cottage industry supporting the Impala has sprung up, and all sorts of aftermarket modifications are available. I logged 347 miles on our black test car. In the city, driving with a heavy foot, the 4,036 pound Impala delivered 18 miles per gallon. On the highway, that figure increased to 25 mpg. The Impala is outfitted with a host of high-performance suspension hardware. It has large front and rear stabilizer bars, whic limit body lean in turns; strong, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; spec ial shocks; and fat, high-speed-rated 17-inch tires. If you drive quickly into a turn, you'll sense the body lean slightly. But as you reach the apex of the curve, the suspension tightens and the car breezes through easily. On roughly paved roads the Impala provides a very quiet ride. The car's 2-ton weight enables it to ride flat over most bumps. You don't feel much of the turbulence from the steering wheel. The power rack-and-pinion steering, specially calibrated for the Impala SS, is light and quick. The 39-foot turning radius is good for a full-size car. All in all, the Impala SS is fun to drive. FIT AND FINISH The 1996 models probably will be the most sought-after Impalas. That's because this year Chevy installed a nice-looking analog instrument cluster that includes a tachometer and a floor-mounted shifter that is housed in an attractive console. Previous Impalas had the same analog/electronic instrument panel as the standard Chevy Caprice and a column-mounted shifter - not very sporty. There are some things about the Impala that make it seem a little dated. For instance, the dashboard is so large you could land a Cessna on it. And the chrome-plated switches on the door panels haven't evolved much from the 1960s. But these things are of little consequence to the people who love to drive the Impala SS. Our test car's gray leather seats were semi-firm and comfortable. The lower cushions seemed exceptionally wide, as if they were designed for large posteriors. The back seat had acres of room and there was plenty of space in the trunk. The Impala SS comes loaded with things such as power windows and mirrors, cruise control, remote-controlled power door locks, air conditioning and a powerful AM/FM/CD radio. In light of what you could get for $26,000 in an import, the Impala SS must be considered nothing less than a steal. In fact, this car has no direct competition, foreign or domestic. Chevy plans to offer high-performance versions of the front-wheel-drive Lumina mid-size sedan, but it is doubtful that a V-6-powered Lumina could find the same kind of devoted following as the rear-wheel drive Impala SS. The car may be going out of production at the end of the year, but it won't be going out of the hearts and garages of Chevy enthusiasts any time soon. Specifications: 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS LENGTH Overall 214.1 FRONT COMPARTMENT Head room 39.2 Leg room 42.2 REAR COMPARTMENT Head room 37.9 Leg room 39.5 WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile no-deductible bumper-to-bumper; six-year, 100,000-mile rust protection; 24-hour roadside assistance. MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Front-mounted engine and transmission, rear-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel disc with anti-lock system. Engine: 260-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Truett's tip: The final edition of the Impala SS will heighten this big Chevy's ascension to classic status. The '96 model got all the improvements enthusiasts wanted.
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