(first posted 3/4/2016) 280 pound-feet of torque: that was the highest torque figure ever seen in a GM W-Body until the introduction of the transversely-mounted 5.3 LS4 V8 to the platform in 2005. With 323 pound-feet of torque fighting with the front wheels as well as a transmission ill-equipped to deal with the powerful engine, the V8 W-Bodies – Chevrolet Impala/Monte Carlo SS, Buick LaCrosse Super, Pontiac Grand Prix GXP – were thoroughly flawed vehicles. The worst of the four, however, were the Monte Carlo SS and this, the most popular V8 W-Body, the Impala SS.
49,611 Impala SSs were manufactured between 2006 and 2009, more than all the other V8 W-Bodies combined. However, the 1994-96 Impala SS was produced in much greater numbers over a shorter period of time. Why was the FWD V8 SS a comparatively slow seller?
It wasn’t because of the price. The Impala SS was the cheapest V8 sedan in America, retailing for around $27k, or $3k lower than a Dodge Charger R/T and lineball with much less powerful, V6-engined family sedans. Its exterior styling was subtle, with only a rear spoiler, handsome 18-inch, 5-spoke wheels and badges to distinguish it from lesser Impalas.
clockwise from top left: Impala, Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, LaCrosse
The interior was far and away the most attractive of the W-Bodies: the Monte Carlo SS’s interior revision in 2006 had not been as extensive as the Impala’s, the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP’s cabin was simultaneously bleak and overstyled, and the Buick LaCrosse Super’s cabin was stodgy and dated.
There was plenty of power on tap thanks to the aluminum block LS4 V8. With 303 horses and cylinder deactivation technology (GM’s Active Fuel Management), the Impala SS managed both impressive mileage figures (16/26 mpg) and rapid acceleration (0-60 in 5.7 seconds). With a practical sedan body, a pleasant interior and a low price, the Impala SS sounds like the bargain of the century.
But then you drive it. Full disclosure: I haven’t driven one of these but I very much would like to. Why? Perhaps to see how poorly a powerful V8 and front-wheel-drive work in tandem. See, by 2006, General Motors had forty years of experience making front-wheel-drive, V8-engined cars handle with some degree of refinement and poise. It had started with the Oldsmobile Toronado of 1966. That car had managed to drive in a way that didn’t alienate buyers long used to RWD despite it packing a big-honkin’ 425 (later 455) cubic-inch V8 under its long and shapely hood. Then, there were cars like the Cadillac Seville STS that managed not to embarrass themselves in the company of European competition although could never really be said to be their equal. But by almost all accounts in the automotive media, the Impala SS was a slapdash effort and a lackluster sports sedan.
Torque steer doesn’t necessarily mean a car can’t be fun-to-drive. Yes, rear-wheel-drive allows for better balance and entertaining power oversteer but a powerful FWD car can still entertain. Alas, sonorous engine note and low-end torque aside, the Impala SS was very clearly a big engine mated to a chassis that couldn’t handle the power. It wasn’t just that it couldn’t launch cleanly off the line thanks to its manic torque steer and over-active traction control. It was also that its suspension was too soft and its motions too uncontrolled, body roll too abundant, its steering too numb, its front seats too unsupportive… It seems like Chevrolet just plopped a V8 into the Impala and called it a day.
That’s because that’s basically what they did. Oh, they strengthened the engine cradle some and fiddled a smidge with the suspension, but the Impala SS benefited from none of the performance tweaks bestowed upon its Grand Prix GXP cousin. The Pontiac had wider wheels up front, Bilstein shocks, larger brakes and even a TapShift manual shift mode on its 4T65E automatic transmission. All of these worked together to create a sedan that was still flawed and imperfect but just a little bit fun. GM was capable of making competent FWD V8 sedans. The Impala SS wasn’t one of them.
Attention to detail in the SS was thoroughly lacking. The seats weren’t even upgraded and there weren’t even gear markings next to the shifter (you had to look below the speedometer). But where all the V8 W-Bodies were really let down by their makers was in the transmission. Very, very few changes were made to the 4T65E transmission for the V8 W-Bodies despite the LS4 producing much more torque than in other applications of this automatic. Consequently, transmission failures have been very common and it’s not unusual for the transmission to require rebuilding or replacement after just 60,000 miles.
Front-wheel-drive holds a very real appeal to those in snowy areas, particularly in the Northeast. No matter how much more fun RWD can be, if your daily driver is RWD and is hopeless in the snow, you’re going to want something else. The Dodge Charger R/T was probably written off by many buyers because it was RWD-only. Until it wasn’t. In 2007, all-wheel-drive joined the options list in both V6 and V8-equipped Chargers. Sure, a V8 AWD commanded even more of a premium over the Impala SS but the extra few grand bought you a much more dynamic and yet easier to drive sedan. The already low sales of the Impala SS shrivelled up even more and 2009 was its last year.
In its best year, the SS represented only 7% of total Impala volume. Coupled with the ill-suited transmission, that means these were relatively rare and will likely disappear at a more rapid rate than the venerable and much more reliable 3.5 and 3.9 equipped Impalas.
GM stuffed a powerful V8 into an ageing chassis. When their engineers applied themselves, they managed to make a semi-decent sporty sedan out of the W-Body. Alas, that was not the Impala SS.
Photos courtesy of Brendan Saur.