Monte Carlo SS built to perform

DETROIT--The 2004 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS may be the perfect antidote for enthusiasts who are tired of the high-tech gadgetry and operating-room sterility of newer performance models from Europe and Asia.

The Monte Carlo SS is simple, tasteful and affordable -- virtues that too many would-be competitors have ignored or forgotten.

Best of all, it's highly entertaining, without sacrificing the utility and family values that have been Chevrolet hallmarks for decades.

Curiously, General Motors Corp.'s crosstown rivals don't make anything like it. If you're looking for a relatively inexpensive, sporty two-door from Ford Motor Co., the rear-wheel-drive Mustang is a totally different beast from an earlier era. DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group offers the Sebring and Stratus coupes, but these tame two-doors appear to be aimed at the same undemanding crowd as the Honda Accord Coupe and the Toyota Camry Solara.

Targeted primarily at a middle-aged male audience, the Monte Carlo SS is familiar and comforting, like your favorite baby blanket -- with a supercharger thrown in to remind adult men that we've never fully outgrown the adolescent streak that still lurks in most of us.

The Monte Carlo appears to be aging well. A sporty-looking two-door companion to the mid-size Impala sedan, the Monte Carlo rides on GM's long-lived MS2000 platform, which also underpins the Pontiac Grand Prix and the upcoming 2005 Buick LaCrosse.

The SS badging should be familiar to baby boomers. Dating to the early 1960s, it originally stood for "Super Sport" and could be found on a wide range of Chevys -- everything from compact Novas to full-size Impalas.

In high school, my buddy Dennis Lendzion owned a forest-green 1969 Camaro SS396 with a wide, double white stripe down the middle. It was a hot car that made Denny even more popular -- especially with the girls.

Now, Chevy has revived the SS brand on a series of performance variants of production models, including the Impala SS sedan and the Silverado SS pickup. In the future, we'll see SS derivatives of the new Cobalt compact and the mid-size Malibu Maxx, among other Chevy products.

Chevy says the SS package typically includes performance enhancements, including larger tires and beefier suspension; unique gauges and instrumentation; special wheels and trim, and often special engine modifications to increase horsepower and torque.

In the case of the '04 Monte Carlo SS, the critical component is the powerplant -- a supercharged edition of GM's familiar pushrod 3.8-liter V-6. It delivers 240 horsepower and 280 pounds-feet of torque to the front wheels via a Hydra-matic heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission, and feels surprisingly like a small-block V-8. It won't necessarily make you feel like Dale Earnhardt Jr., but you should have no worries about leaving most midsize Hondas and Toyotas in your wake.

As an added bonus, fuel economy as measured by the Environmental Protection Agency is 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway -- remarkable for a midsize,five-passenger vehicle with exceptional performance.

Chevy also has fitted plenty of supporting hardware. The Monte Carlo rides on a firm, well-damped suspension that provides a controlled ride and absorbs impacts without jarring occupants.

The all-independent setup features MacPherson struts and coil springs at all four corners. The spring rates are stiffer and the ride height has been lowered, but not enough to compromise ride comfort. Front and rear stabilizer bars help keep the car glued to the pavement when you're cornering.

The car's 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels are shod with Goodyear 235/55R17 performance tires that offer the right combination of traction and comfort.

Four-wheel disc brakes with standard antilo k and electronic traction control furnish excellent grip and stopping power. Thevariable-rate power rack-and-pinion steering has been tuned for quick, responsive handling.

I have mixed feelings about some of the add-on SS cosmetics, among them a deck spoiler, ground-effects rocker panels, stainless-steel dual exhaust tips and fog lamps.

The not-too-subtle exterior color -- Chevy calls it Competition Yellow -- is not a good choice for introverts who shun attention. If Victory Red or Galaxy Silver also seem a bit over the top, Chevy offers the Monte Carlo SS in basic black, a choice that the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. no doubt would approve.

Inside, the cabin feels instantly familiar and comfortable. Slip behind the leather-wrapped sport steering wheel into the form-fitting bucket seat, and the six-gauge instrument cluster will transport drivers of a certain age immediately back to the Sixties.

All the controls, dials and switches are easy to decipher and operate, and don't require a thick technical manual, a doctorate and a two-hour refresher course. The Monte Carlo SS can accommodate four to five adults with no problem.

Our $31,000 test car was well-equipped with safety and comfort features. Standard items include power windows and mirrors, power locks with keyless entry, dual-zone air conditioning, lighted visor vanity mirrors, AM-FM stereo with cassette, split folding rear seat and a tilt steering wheel with radio controls.

Besides antilock brakes and traction control, the Monte Carlo SS includes a standard tire-pressure monitor and can be equipped with $350 side air bags.

My test car included a $1,960 SS preferred-equipment package with CD player, 200-watt audio system, heated outside mirrors, heated front seats with power for the driver and an OnStar satellite communications system.

The base model starts at $27,135, plus a $660 destination charge.

I find it an amusing irony that this all-American performance car is actually assembled in Canada at GM's Oshawa, Ontario plant. That's a good thing because the Oshawa plant has one of the best records in the industry for productivity and quality.

It shows in the Monte Carlo SS. The trim pieces fit tightly, with no unsightly gaps or excess flashing. In fact, this is one of the best-built, highest-quality GM products in recent years.

I spent the better part of a week driving the Monte Carlo SS around Detroit when there was occasionally plenty of snow and ice on the roads, and still had a terrific time. My wife, however, dismissed it as "an old-fashioned guy car."

For some guys, that counts as a ringing endorsement.