Chevrolet has been rolling out the big guns lately. The bargain supercar Corvette Stingray, the trackable Camaro Z28 and the Ferrari-eating Corvette Z07 are easily some of the best American performance cars ever made, and they look the part.
The problems with looking so damn impressive are twofold. For one, you can’t surprise anyone. And then there’s the issue of extremes — not everyone is inclined to drive something with yellow or red sheetmetal more sinewy than a cheetah at full lope, and not everyone can afford to. In fact, most of us with high-octane petrol in our veins are somewhere between frat parties and mid-life crises and require a car to match. Chevrolet still cares about us. How do we know? The Chevy SS, one of the best modern sleepers in the business.
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A sleeper, by definition, is a car that’s built for speed and performance but whose relatively muted appearance belies the beast under the hood. When a car manufacturer, especially an American car manufacturer, decides to build such a car, they go against the grain. America does flashy muscle cars and sedate family sedans, but rarely do the two meld anywhere in the middle. Combining those two things, conventional wisdom says, doesn’t make money. This time, Chevy damned the sales figures. They decided to sell us something that’s stealthy crazy.
And they hit the cylinder on its head. Crafted in the same spirit as the now extinct Pontiac GTO and Pontiac G8 power sedans, the SS (or Super Sport) is based on the SS Australian Holden Commodore SS-V. Just like its down-under brother, the SS is all business with the right amount of understated luxury and doesn’t fit the mass-marketing bill like the other Chevy performers. Most advertising for the SS shows a black or dark gray car, revealing that it’s not meant to be an attention grabber. The SS embodies Chevy’s commitment to the driving enthusiast, and to top-notch performance that doesn’t sacrifice practicality. This is something they failed to accomplish with pseudo-performance models like the HHR SS and the SSR, which were anything but sport or super.
Though it’s definitely a handsome car, the SS doesn’t look much more dramatic than a slightly gussied-up version of the Malibu family sedan. For sleeper lovers, that’s a very good thing — and so is the Corvette-derived LS3 6.2-liter V8 engine, which belts out 415 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels and moves the SS to 60 in 5 seconds. That’s fast enough to get you in trouble.
Though it carries some ethos from the mid-’90s Impala SS, the modern SS can crush its semi-predecessor in the handling department. Chevy engineers gave it a robust chassis, a 53/47 front-to-rear weight ratio for superb balance, a sporty suspension setup, a limited-slip rear diff for traction under hard driving and big Brembo brakes so you can hit the apex hard. Right now, the SS is outfitted with GM’s 6L80 six-speed automatic transmission, but rumor has it that a manual tranny will be offered. That’s the one we want.
Yes, there are other American-made sedans with balls out there, but the SS is decidedly the mature man’s performance car among them. If the Chrysler 300 SRT is a blingy Russian limo, the Chevy SS is a home-grown reincarnation of the V8-powered BMW E39 M5. There’s a comparison feather for Chevy’s cap if ever there was one.