In a city that revels in its swinging '60s heritage, cruising down Highway 111 in a big new Chevrolet SS sedan with a silky V-8 engine just feels right.
With its size and power, the car hints of days when locals Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope were kings here. Palm Springs was a mecca for ranch-style homes with sparkling aqua swimming pools and living large.
But the era of excess eventually ended. Out went the three-pack-a-day, three-martini-lunch way of life and cars that gulped gas like golfers chugging drinks after 18 holes.
In a revival of sorts, along comes the Chevrolet SS. It's aimed at those who appreciated the large, rear-wheel-drive performance cars of those years, for good and for bad.
"SS rounds out our performance portfolio," says Russell Clark, marketing director for performance cars. "Some people say, 'Hey I need a back seat. I need a trunk.'"
The SS is designed to seat five comfortably, with a big trunk. The 6.2-liter V-8 produces 415 horsepower, good for zero to 60 miles per hour in a lickety-split 5 seconds, says Chevrolet. It'll hold its own against Detroit's rip-snorting sedans, Dodge Charger SRT8 and Ford Taurus SHO.
That's the good. The bad comes when drivers note gas mileage. Rated at 14 miles a gallon in the city, 21 mpg on the highway and 17 mpg overall, the SS consumes so much fuel, it's assessed $1,300 under the federal gas-guzzler tax. As a result, GM officials aren't counting on selling a lot, not at a starting price of $44,700, including $995 in delivery charges. That's about $17,000 more than the base full-size Chevy Impala, one of the most acclaimed cars of the year.
SS "is a relatively low-volume product," says David Leone, a GM executive chief engineer. Because of the limited production and the fact that it's imported from GM's Holden unit in Australia, the interior comes only in black, with leather seats and fuzzy "microsuede" inserts on the dash and doors. The SS logo adorns the dashboard and front headrests. There are only two options: a $900 sunroof and $500 for a full-size spare tire.
Given prospects for relatively small sales, SS wouldn't have made business sense for a lot of automakers. It worked for GM because Holden produces a big, rear-wheel-drive sedan for the U.S., the Caprice, which is sold to police departments. The SS shares the same basic platform as Caprice, but is about 3 inches shorter and has a larger, more potent V-8 producing 60 more horsepower.
It doesn't help Chevy that unfavorable exchange rates have made it more expensive to make cars at Holden. GM tussled with the Australian government to keep subsidies in place, then announced it will end manufacturing there in a few years.
Though it may sound like a bolt from the past -- the last SS was built in 1996 -- the new SS is thoroughly updated, from its Chevy MyLink infotainment system to its tight, precise suspension. On hard cornering in the hills above Palm Springs, it held flat in the turns without the swaying associated with older sedans. Though there is no manual transmission available -- remember, hardly any options -- the SS had loads of power that make it a joy to drive.
The SS also carries Chevrolet's colors in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Leone says that through the SS racing car, Chevy will gain another avenue for gathering tips and for testing technology that can pay off on the street.
Because of its high profile, SS will play a large role at dealerships. It will be a drawing card to bring people to showrooms, even if they walk away having bought something else from the line.
SS is "meant to be a halo car for Chevy and enhances our performance car offerings," Leone says, including Corvette and Camaro.
At least one analyst who drove it here thinks it stands a reasonable chance in the marketplace.
"The fit and finish of the car is absolutely first rate," says Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting. "The performance of the car is just terrific." Rather than comparing it with its Detroit competitors, Phillippi thinks it can go up against the best of the German performance sedans.
"It's like buying a (BMW) M5 for $30,000 off," he says.
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