Curbside Classic: 1994-96 Chevrolet Impala SS – Killer Whale

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A spacious cabin. Surprisingly good fuel economy. A controlled and relatively compliant ride. Low repair costs and widespread parts availability. These are attributes of the Impala SS that aren’t often discussed. After all, the Impala SS is an object of lust purely by virtue of its badass styling and powerful LT1 V8 alone. Any other attributes are simply a bonus for those enamoured with its swagger. Considering all of its strong suits, it’s clear the 1994-96 Impala SS was the ne plus ultra of full-size, body-on-frame sedans.

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There was controversy when Dodge dusted off the Charger nameplate in 2006 for a sedan, but nobody batted an eye when Chevrolet dubbed its flagship performance sedan the Impala SS. It was the first four-door Chevrolet to wear the SS nameplate and the first Chevrolet to wear the Impala nameplate since 1985. Like Bel Air and Biscayne before it, the once mighty Impala name – introduced on the flagship Chevrolet in 1957 – had become a mere fleet special, popular with police and taxi fleets. Caprice had become the volume-selling full-size Chevy nameplate. By 1986, Caprice was the only full-size Chevy nameplate.

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A controversial redesign in 1991 had dented sales of the full-size Chevy and so Chevrolet general manager Jim Perkins requested Jon Moss of Chevrolet Special Vehicles to create something to stimulate some excitement. A show car was commissioned and displayed in 1992 and 1993, generating tremendous customer interest. The Impala SS reached production the following year, supplanting the existing sporty B-Body, the slow-selling Caprice LTZ.

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It didn’t cost much for Chevrolet to engineer the Impala SS as it was basically a police Caprice underneath. This included the 9C1 police package’s heavy-duty suspension with stiffer shocks and springs, bigger front and rear stabilizer bars, larger (12-inch) vented four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and excellent stopping power, a 3.08 rear axle ratio, and a dual exhaust.

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Photo above and below courtesy of William Rubano

Exterior modifications included a new grille, black trim around the taillights, a subtle rear spoiler, 17-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels in 255/50ZR17 all-season Z-rated tires, and a modified rear quarter window to provide a subtle but attractive kick-up in the beltline. It was this final tweak that was carried across to all B-Body Chevy sedans for ’95. The only color at first was black, but Dark Grey Green and Dark Cherry were made available for ’95. The interior was swathed in gray leather and bereft of woodgrain.

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The Impala nameplate was catapulted to the top of the full-size Chevy price list, with the ’94 SS retailing for $22k. However, that was a bargain considering the power on tap: the 5.7 LT1 V8, also available as an option on ’94 Caprices, pumped out 260 hp at 5000 rpm and 330 ft-lbs of torque at 3200 rpm. It was detuned somewhat from its Camaro and Corvette applications, the latter of which offered a cool 300 horses, but unlike those coupes it could run on regular; gas mileage was rated at an impressive 17/25 mpg. Also unlike the coupes, it came with only one transmission: a four-speed, column-shifted 4L60-E automatic.

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With a curb weight of 4,218 pounds, the Impala SS wasn’t going to break the sound barrier. However, 0-60 was accomplished in 7 seconds, rather rapid for the time and a noticeable improvement over the 4.3 V8 in the base Caprice which produced 200 hp and 245 ft-lbs.

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Eurosport, Euro and LTZ were the nameplates worn by sporty Chevrolet sedans during the 1980s and early 1990s. They had featured firmer suspension tunes, floor-mounted shifters and blackout trim, but none of them had been especially exciting despite their European pretensions. The ’94 Impala SS was an unashamed throwback to the golden age of American muscle and yet it offered extremely capable handling for a car of its sheer size. Sure, the seats were too soft, there was no tachometer, the speedometer was digital and the auto transmission was column-mounted (a console shifter, tachometer and analog gauges were only available in 1996), but the Impala SS was otherwise an adept all-rounder.

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The Impala SS had been intended as a niche vehicle and, true to that purpose, initial production was limited: only 6,303 units were produced for ’94. But as the popularity of the line became clear production was increased, jumping to 21,434 in 1995 (only 15k had been planned) and 41,941 for its final season.

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Its success was linked to its unique value proposition. It was priced closely to the Ford Taurus SHO, Pontiac Bonneville SSEi and Eagle Vision TSi, all fun-to-drive and powerful sedans. But as they say, there is no replacement for displacement and in that respect, the Impala SS was unparalleled: there were no rival performance sedans at this price point with rear-wheel-drive and a V8 engine. The closest thing was optioning the heavy-duty suspension on a Crown Vic, but that left you with a deficit of 50 horses and 60 pound-feet of torque.

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While Impala SS sales increased each year, the rest of its B-Body brethren – Caprice, Buick Roadmaster, Cadillac Fleetwood – were seeing their sales shrink. GM decided to retool the B-Body’s Arlington, Texas factory for truck production. The B-Bodies would not be moved to another factory and the axe fell on all of them. 

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The Impala SS name would reappear in 2004 on the W-Body, front-wheel-drive Impala with a supercharged 3.8 V6. The 2004 SS was 600 pounds lighter than the ’94, so despite having 20 fewer horses and 50 fewer pound-feet of torque, it reached 60 mph just as fast. The redesigned 2006 SS packed an even more powerful 5.3 V8 with 303 hp and 323 lb-ft and bested the ’94 in off-the-line performance. But neither of these FWD flagships have anywhere near the following of their 1994-96 predecessor, and the 2006 SS in particular was marred by poor handling and a weak transmission. 

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There is no longer an Impala SS, but Chevrolet will sell you a sedan known simply as “SS”. A rebadged Holden Commodore, the SS packs a 6.2 LS3 V8 with 415 hp and 415 ft-lbs of torque. It also has a modern chassis, excellent handling, an available six-speed manual transmission and Magnetic Ride Control, not to mention the latest in luxury and technology features. It’s the best car nobody knows exists and it isn’t long for this world. Some criticize it for its inoffensive styling but that complaint is baseless. After all the Impala SS, visually, was a subtly tweaked version of the oft-derided ’91 Caprice. With time, the current SS will become a hot collector’s item, especially given its production numbers that make the ’94-96 look as popular as a Ford F-Series by comparison.

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The ’94-96 SS is on its way to becoming a collector’s item despite its relatively high production numbers. That collector status will be well-deserved. The Impala SS was an impressive end to a long and storied history of full-size, body-on-frame Chevrolets. 

The featured Impala SS was photographed in Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

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