CC’s Best of 2017: Curbside Expatriot: 2017 Chevrolet SS – “She’s the last of the (four door, RWD, manual) V8s!”*

(First published May 6, 2017 – Updated) Sometime this past week (around the end of April, 2017), the final Chevrolet SS was expected to have rolled off Holden’s production line in Elizabeth, South Australia. Orders closed in February, and with average production-to-delivery times being around six months, the last SS will be likely delivered to its new owner right around the time local Holden production is being wound down for good. We’ve often lamented on these digital pages that we (here in the USA) never get some of the interesting cars available in other markets – well, the SS is one case where we did, and in fact, it wasn’t the first time we got an expat Holden.

*apologies to Max Rockatansky’s Falcon XB.

The list of Australian-manufactured cars that have been exported to the US domestic market (USDM) is fairly short (at least that I could find), and includes two non-GM brands, the ’93–’96 Mitsubishi Diamante wagon, and the ’91–’94 Mercury Capri, which used Mazda 323 mechanical bits.

GM Holden’s first expat was the 2004–06 Pontiac GTO, a rebadged Holden VZ Monaro brought to the US by Bob Lutz not long after rejoining GM as Vice Chairman of Product Development. The platform architecture was derived from that used on the Holden VT Commodore, which in turn was based on the 1993 Opel Omega B platform. It helped that Holden was already exporting to other markets, so all the correct LHD bits existed for the USDM. Initially powered by the Corvette LS1 engine making 350 hp (261 kW), it was uprated to the LS2 engine at 400 hp (297 kW) for ’05-’06. Sales were not that brisk, with only a total of 40,745 units sold during its run. The “bloated Cavalier” styling and unpopular use of the iconic GTO name meant the car never quite caught on with folks who otherwise might have embraced it. Pricing didn’t help, either, as a weak US dollar and higher than expected development and production costs pushed the price up around US $33,000, over $5,000 more than a loaded Ford Mustang GT. The GTO was canceled when Holden began transitioning to a new platform architecture in 2006.

As a side note, and well prior to the GTO’s debut, John Rock, the last General Manager of Oldsmobile and who ran Holden from 1979–82, revealed in a 2006 interview that he had shopped the idea of a Holden-sourced Oldsmobile with his boss and was told “Do you realize you’ve just wasted three-and-a-half hours of my time? Don’t you understand what we’re trying to do at General Motors?” Rock left not long after…

Additionally, at the 1995 North American International Auto Show, Buick displayed the XP2000 show car that was based on the VT Commodore platform and featured then-cutting-edge technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane assist.

Lutz wasn’t done following the GTO, and in early 2008 (for the ’08 Model Year), Pontiac introduced its second rebadged Holden, the G8. Based off the new Zeta platform VE Commodore, it was initially offered with either a 3.6l, 256 hp (191 kW) V6 in Base form, or a 6.0l, 361 hp (269 kW) V8 in GT trim. Both automatic and manual transmissions were available. A subsequent GXP trim uprated the engine to the LS3 6.2l V8 making 415 hp (309 kW) along with suspension and brake upgrades. The G8 had the distinction of being the first full-size, RWD four door sedan offered by Pontiac since the 1986 Bonneville and Parisienne. Sadly, it would also be the last, as GM announced on April 27, 2009 that the Pontiac brand would be retired, despite prior hints that it had been planned to migrate Pontiac back to a “pure performance” brand with all-RWD offerings.

The G8’s untimely death also put paid to rumors that Ute and Sportwagon variants would also be expatriated to the USDM – we came that close to actually having a RWD, V8 El Camino successor, folks! A total of just under 30,700 G8s were sold, including 1,829 GXPs. Interestingly, at the end of the production run, about 1,500 Holden Commodores were sold as Special Editions in Australia with (presumably leftover) Pontiac G8 front end fascias and other bits.

Lutz still wasn’t done, and indicated that “The last time we looked at the G8, we decided that we would continue to import it as a Chevrolet. It’s kind of too good to waste.” Thus, in 2009, the Chevrolet Caprice PPV (Police Patrol Vehicle) was announced with initial availability in 2011. While also based on the Zeta platform, it utilizes the longest-available wheelbase at 118.5″ – four inches longer than the Pontiac G8. Based on the Holden WM Caprice, it interestingly was already being sold as a Chevrolet Caprice in the Middle East. Powered by a 355 horsepower (265 kW) V8, the only transmission choice is a police-duty-rated automatic transmission. In 2015, the Caprice PPV received updates concurrent with updates to the Holden WN Caprice, plus a column shift for the automatic transmission making more room for equipment. The unmarked/detective version was discontinued at this time.

There’s a bit of a following in the civilian market for used PPVs, but a tremendous amount of effort is required to put them in mufti, as interiors were very basic for the police market. The Caprice PPV sell rate has been fairly low, with just over 15,200 units moved since its introduction. It will be retired this year along with the rest of Holden production.

Not long after the PPV introduction, more rumors flew after another Lutz statement that “…we want to take a look at reintroducing a civil version as a high-end Chevrolet. Because when you get down to it the thrill of high performance driving is unmatched by anything that doesn’t have rear-wheel drive, bags of torque and a nice transmission. So there’s a possibility of a premium Chevrolet sedan that would be sold in limited numbers. Think of it as a kind of four-door Corvette.”

Adding fuel to the rumors were a March, 2012 announcement that Chevrolet would be replacing its Impala NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racecar with a new model – which implied that “new model” would also have to be available to the general public. Speculation immediately ran to use of the Commodore platform and some form of “SS” or “Super Sport” naming and volumes in the 13-15,000/year range.

Which brings us to the introduction of the final Holden expat, the 2014–17 Chevrolet SS, which was the first V8-powered, RWD, four door sedan offered by Chevrolet since the 1994–96 Impala SS. Initially equivalent to the VF Commodore SS V Redline, it was updated along with the VF Series II Commodore for the 2016 Model Year. Although the early VF Commodores were powered by an L77 6.0l V8, the SS debuted with the same C6 Corvette LS3 engine used in the HSV (Holden Special Vehicles) Commodores, making 415 hp (309 kW). Oddly, the 2014 model was only offered with an automatic transmission, but the excellent Tremec 6 speed manual returned for 2015.

As noted above, the SS was introduced concurrently with Chevrolet’s new NASCAR racecar, and in fact, the only formal public announcement of the ‘street’ SS was at an airplane hangar next to the Daytona International Speedway. Surprisingly for a “halo” level car, there was no big car show splash, and in fact, there have been no national-level ads run for the SS at all (the only official mention I’ve found is in a Holden commercial). While GM officially spins this with the “limited production specialty car” line, the reality seems to be that contractual agreements required 30% of Holden production to be exported in order to continue to receive governmental aid and the US market was one avenue to help meet that number. From the standpoint of US marketing spend, it also appears to have made little sense to divert cash away from other high-performance Chevrolets such as the C7 Corvette or Camaro.

In an interview with Automobile, Mark Reuss, head of Global Product Development and former head of Holden, indicated that “It [the SS] does fill a need. I don’t know how we’re going to sell it. [emphasis mine, ed.] What’s going to happen with it now that we’ve announced [Holden manufacturing is] gone? It’s either going to be hot or it’s not.” When pressed with the point that there’s almost a curse with bringing Holden cars to America, he replied, “I know. But because we don’t have a replacement product on [SS’s] heels, I tell the guys at Holden we ought not go out there broadcasting dates on this stuff because as long as people buy ‘em, we’ll make some. There’s no reason we can’t.” It’s almost like GM was phoning it in at this point. However, Reuss was also earlier quoted in reference to the Caprice PPV, “The cop car was something I really wanted to have happen here (in the US) because it’s very stable volume and it can be (employing) almost a shift of people at Adelaide in South Australia…” So the reality seems to be that the PPV and SS were one last effort to keep Holden viable in Australia, and having a performance sedan in the Chevrolet lineup was merely a happy secondary benefit to those of us here in the States.

SS Sales in the United States
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year Total
2013 N/A 1 178 239 418 10,584
2014 232 283 350 283 297 217 241 152 111 115 105 93 2,479
2015 115 215 264 299 287 354 321 344 222 192 148 134 2,895
2016 88 165 286 592 228 254 521 14 5 554 212 94 3,013
2017 64 248 1,217  250 1,779

That seems to jive with what John Fitzpatrick, Marketing Manager for Chevrolet’s performance cars, said in an interview with “If you look at its competitors, it’s going up against the Dodge Charger SRT8, the Chrysler 300 SRT8 and the Ford Taurus SHO. If you look at how many cars are in that segment, it is only about 3000 to 5000 cars for the entire calendar year.” And indeed, the SS has only turned sales numbers in the low hundreds per month, with exception of two 20% off MSRP inventory clearance sales, one in 2016, and one this past March, 2017, which netted the highest-ever sales month for the car. Production of the car has been on a “by order” basis, with shipments being loosely batched in order to avoid the very inventory gluts those two sales attempted to clear. With current inventory running at a slightly higher than industry-normal ~77 days (as of late April), it’s unclear whether GM will offer one last “clear the decks” sale on the SS, but speculation runs high among potential purchasers. Meanwhile, some dealers are starting to inflate prices above MSRP, anticipating a run on the final units.

So what, then, exactly, is the SS? It’s certainly not an economy family hauler, although it will seat five adults quite comfortably. It’s also not really a sports car like the Corvette or Camaro, although its performance numbers are quite good and it truly does warrant the “sports sedan” moniker. Depending on who you ask, it’s either “too bland,” or “the perfect sleeper.” The car is offered in a single “Base” trim, yet is loaded down with every bit of parts bin bling Chevrolet could throw at it. Unfortunately, the radio head unit is based on 2012-era tech and seems quite dated and clunky in a modern $50,000 car. On the other hand, the bi-modal exhaust note is simply delicious in Sport Mode, and you might not even bother turning the radio on on most drives. Additionally, the driving experience is engaging – the car drives smaller than its weight, and more than one reviewer has favorably compared the car to the ’98–’03 (E39) BMW M5, which the SS slightly bested in a Motor Trend shootout on The Streets of Willow racetrack. Working against the excellent vehicle dynamics is the questionable interior fit and finish, which is nice for a Chevrolet, but not on par with any other $50K automobile.

SS owners also quickly get used to explaining that the car is “Just ‘SS,’ and no, it’s not a Malibu (or Cruze),” as virtually no-one knows about them. Other than a few ‘in your face’ colors such as Orange Blast Metallic, they really don’t stand out in a crowded parking lot. As noted in a recent CC post, it’s popular among SS owners to re-rebadge the car back as a Holden, and indeed, all the right bits are easily available to do so, many right from your friendly GM parts counter here in the States.

As happened with the GTO, the SS model name sometimes raises an eyebrow with those who remember the ground-pounding SS trim level cars from years ago – never mind that today’s SS would best them in many metrics. The SS designation first appeared on a 1957 Corvette prototype race car built for the Le Mans 24-hour race, and was first used on a production vehicle as an option package for the 1961 Impala. SS has subsequently been used on quite a few Chevrolet cars and trucks, but always as an option or trim package. However, during a short period in the early 1970s, Holden sold 1,182 units of a version of the HG Monaro in South Africa as the Chevrolet SS (model name, not trim level), and Chevrolet itself displayed a Chevrolet SS concept car at the 2003 North American International Auto Show, which was never intended to go to production. So today’s SS is the only volume production Chevrolet sold to date as a full SS model, as opposed to an option package.

When Holden stops producing its own cars in October of 2017, it truly will be the end of an era, as it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another somewhat affordable four door, high-performance V8, rear-wheel-drive, manual transmission car sold here (USA) again. While the SS is going out in the States with a 20% off sale and a whimper, Holden is doing the opposite, with several limited-edition variants of the platform, including the Holden Director and the HSV GTS R W1 Supercar, featuring a supercharged LS9 V8 engine making 636 hp (474 kW).

And the rumor mill is still quite active as to the possibility of a replacement for the SS. Fuel was added to this fire based on an informal answer to a question about the end of the SS made in an interview with Car Advice by Al Oppenheiser (Camaro Lead Engineer), to the effect that, “I didn’t say we were going out. I didn’t say it.” He dodged further questions about what that might mean…

Which now brings us to the point where the story gets personal. Back on March 8, 2017, Paul posted a QOTD in which he asked,  If You Had To Replace Your Current Car(s) With New 2017 Models, What Would You Get? Having recently purchased a 2015 RAM 2500 4×4 farm truck and a 2015 Honda Fit, I really couldn’t think of anything I’d want different – I certainly wasn’t in the market for a car! But after some reflection, I went back and mentioned that I had read something about the Chevrolet SS, and perhaps that might be of interest. Well, I shouldn’t have pulled that sweater thread, because less than 48 hours later, I had a deposit on one and my Honda was listed on Ebay.

Those of you who remember my brief fling with a VW Beetle TDi convertible and subsequent purchase of the Fit, may also remember that I spreadsheeted that purchase to death (as I typically do with all my vehicle purchases). This time was different, as I bought with my heart, not my head. I took a test drive in an automatic SS the next day, and when I learned of the 20% sale and that it ended a few days later, that was all she wrote. I ran the numbers and checked with my bank and insurance company the next morning. Everything looked workable, and I decided if I were ever to own a car like this, now was the time.

I purchased from a dealer in St. Louis (3.5 hours away), as that was where the closest car with a manual in the color I wanted could be located – manuals have run around 15% of total production, and are getting hard to come by here at the end of the production run. While my Honda sold within a week, it ended up taking six weeks for the SS to arrive from the port in Benicia, California, where it apparently had gotten lost in GM’s systems.

And yes, this will be the second car in a row that I will rebadge to a ‘Strayan brand – just as my Fit became a Jazz, that bow tie will soon be replaced with a Holden lion.

As I write this, I’ve had the car for two weeks and have over 900 miles on it already. While the Honda was a hoot to drive, fun to autox, and would have served me well for a long time to come, I have no regrets at all about changing horses so soon. Aside from the clunky tech (non-upgradeable) and Harley Earl-approved amounts of chrome (easily rectifiable), the SS is simply an incredible car to drive.

Or, as ‘Goose’ observed in Mad Max, “You can shut the gate on this one, Maxie… it’s the duck’s guts!”

December 2017 Update

Since writing the original post back in May, I’ve racked up 24,500 miles on the SS in travel to 16 of these United States, and I’ve mostly completed rebadging it as a Holden Commodore SS-V Redline (still have to have the head unit reprogrammed with the Holden logo). Snow tires went on a few days ago (just in time for a White Christmas!), and (sacré bleu) I plan to drive it like I’ve driven every other car I’ve owned – all year long. No RWD anxiety, either – it’s doing just fine on the snow and ice. And with production ended, I now know that I have one of 670 Nightfall Grey Metallic Chev SS cars (and one of 33 in my color & options configuration).

While the car is top-drawer in the handling department (and very comfortable on long road trips), the tech has been a real disappointment. The head unit froze up/rebooted itself a few times early on, and it turned out there was a TSB for that. It took about four months for the new head unit to arrive, and upon inspection, it looks like the exact same unit that it replaced (no newer version number on the data label). Oh, well. Not wanting to pay the OnStar tax, I’ve been using an iPad Mini 4 for a surrogate nav / music system, which works just fine (there are no aftermarket HUs that work with the car).

The other tech-related issue is that I’d really like to disable all the driver assist warning beeps, buzzers and bells – they’re distracting and often throw alerts where there’s nothing there. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do this. Holden tended to get GM tech several years after the NA market, so I’m basically driving a 2017 car with 2012 technology, which wasn’t that good to start with…

And to bring our story to a close, on October 20, 2017, the last Holden car (a Some Like it Hot Red Metallic Commodore SS-V Redline – 6MT, of course) rolled off the production line at Adelaide, destined for a GM museum somewhere.

I still get a grin every time I fire up the LS3 or see other drivers craning around trying to figure out what the car is – oh, to have a nickel for every time I’ve been asked the “What is it? A Peugeot / The new Malibu?” question! Holden, you made a great-driving car, and while no-one really knows for sure why we ended up with 12,856 of them here in the States with zero marketing, I’m sure glad to have one!

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