It's been 17 years since Chevrolet has built a proper rear-wheel-drive sports sedan, and even that car — the Impala SS — was mostly a corporate accident. This year, that drought ends with the 2014 Chevrolet SS, a 415-hp Australian import designed to race on NASCAR tracks Sunday, sell on Monday and convince skeptical Americans to give Chevy another look.
The SS badge has a long, if somewhat spotty, history at Chevrolet, which built its first Super Sports model in 1961. Outside of its use in the Camaro and Corvette, the SS has been most well-known for its use on the Impala SS built from the bulbous Chevy Caprice models through 1996. GM sold a bevy of SS-labeled models over the last decade, from the Silverado to the Malibu Maxx to the HHR — all of which offered more horsepower and a few special interior bits, but little else.
With the Chevy SS, GM wants to reset the expectations of its fans; according to Mark Reuss, the head of GM North America, "Chevy's never built a car like this." Fashioned from the Holden Commodore sold by General Motors' Australian division, the SS wouldn't have been possible without Reuss, who spent a few years running the business down under. It was also his decision to grant the Holden a U.S. passport only if NASCAR changed its rule book so that the cars on the speedways closely resembled the cars in dealerships.
Stock car racing has been a technological dead-end for decades; the tube-frame, rear-wheel-drive rides of NASCAR drivers have more in common with the vehicles of the 1970s than they do with the cars in dealerships. Reuss said GM took the SS to NASCAR a couple of years ago to convince the sport to drop the ungainly Car of Tomorrow shape which was masked with stickers to vaguely suggest modern designs, which NASCAR agreed to. An overlay of the NASCAR version of the SS that will take to the Daytona International Speedway this weekend — and pace the Daytona 500 next weekend — matches the outlines of the civilian Chevy SS almost to perfection.
Powered by a version of the LS3 6.2-liter V-8 in the current Corvette, the SS will spring to 60 mph in less than five seconds thanks to 415 lb.-ft. of torque turning a six-speed automatic transmission. Based on the chassis that underpins the Camaro, the SS boasts several high-performance attributes — a 50/50 weight split front-to-rear, electronic suspension controls shared with the Camaro and Corvette and Bridgestone high-performance tires also found on the Ferrari California. The result, according to Chevy execs, is a five-passenger sedan with a luxury-car interior that can pull 0.9 gs of cornering force.
While Chevy executives wouldn't discuss pricing for the SS yet, it won't come cheap. Reuss says GM only plans to make 5,000 per year for now to make sure demand laps supply, and given that the somewhat similar, less refined Pontiac G8 topped out near $37,000, the SS will slot in luxury-car territory.
But the SS isn't about numbers, but emotion — giving people who wrote off Chevy and GM following the company's bankruptcy and bailout a reason to reconsider. "We've been through a rough time," Reuss said at the SS unveiling tonight, in the shadow of the Daytona speedway where NASCAR's season begins this weekend, adding that "Chevy hasn't been known for making really good cars for a long time" — but with the Cruze, the new Impala and now the SS as a calling card, Reuss says that will change. It's one race that will run for far beyond 500 miles.