During my travels around the United States in the role as Chief Justice of the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court, I often take advantage of the real-world transportation needs of a race organizer (plus the coolness-judging skills a captive audience of car-crazed racers) to evaluate new cars.
In the Race Organizer Review series, we've seen the '13 Mini Cooper S Paceman at Sears Point, the 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer GT at MSR Houston, and the 2014 Mitsubishi Evo GSR at Road America. A race organizer lives on the road in much the same manner as a rock star, only without the glamor, luxury, quality food, and groupies of a rock star -- come to think of it, perhaps we're more like carnies -- and so the strengths and weaknesses of a vehicle become clear during the Thursday-through-Monday grind of a LeMons race trip.
When you're a LeMons race organizer, the first thing you do after you get off the plane and into your car is make a stop at the supermarket to pick up supplies. Many cases of water, snacks, spray paint for the LeMons Supreme Court's BRIBED stencils, plus the luggage of one or more coworkers must fit into this vehicle.
The S, being an Americanized Holden VF Commodore, is a proper big sedan right out of Australo-GM tradition stretching back to the postwar era, and so the car passed this test with top marks. Likewise, the back seat is plenty roomy for adult-sized humans. No complaints in the roominess department.
It's a mean-looking car from some angles, right out of V8 Supercar racing, although few drivers seemed to notice it on Dallas-area freeways; I was expecting a lot of double-takes and approving gestures from musclecar-loving Texans, but it turned out that only the most knowledgeable of car geeks can pick out this car from a sea of black sedans.
Of course, that cloak of sedan invisibility was torn away as soon as the SS rolled into the Eagles Canyon paddock. In fact, the only new race-organizer car that has ever attracted more attention from LeMons racers was the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG that Judge Jonny Lieberman and I brought to the 2011 Skankaway Anti-Toe-Fungal 500 race. Those Lone Star State racers hovered around the SS all weekend, admiring the sheer excess of its Texan-style proportions and horsepower numbers.
The 6.2-liter LS3 V8 in the SS makes 415 hp and is the culmination of six decades of GM's steady improvement of the pushrod V8. The SS scales in at just about 2 tons, so this masterpiece of an engine doesn't make the car terrifyingly quick; the SS runs quarter-mile times in the respectable low 13s. It does, however, make it much quicker than just about any nostalgia-infused GM product so beloved by its probable North American target market, including such totems as the Buick GNX and 1964 GTO, and (unlike those cars) the SS is fully civilized as a daily driver.
However, just a great engine and lots of interior space don't necessarily make for an ideal race organizer's car. I ran into some troubling issues with the SS over the course of the weekend (no, not the standard complaint about the lack of a manual transmission that you've been hearing about; a manual would be fun, but the 6-speed automatic does a fine job of choosing the correct gear at the correct time). First of all, you can't turn off the computerized traction- and stability-control overseers enough to get the car sideways for a dramatic photograph; while the SS is happy to kick its rear end out a bit under heavy throttle input, I finally had to convince the 24 Hours of LeMons' tame racing driver and race controller, Jeff Glenn, to don a cardboard cowboy hat and find a way to get the SS to pose for this not-incredibly-dramatic shot.
I didn't take the car around the racetrack, but I could tell from its behavior on some access roads that it wouldn't be as much fun on a track as the power numbers, big Brembos, and taut suspension might suggest. Then there's the problem of the incessant beeping. Put the SS into reverse and itwill find some reason to beep at you, regardless of what obstacles may or may not be nearby; start moving forward and the maddening danger beeps will continue. The GPS system thinks there's a speed camera ahead? Beeeeeep! I think I'd find a way to hire 1337 hax0rz to reprogram the ECM to turn off this "feature" within weeks of owning this car. On top of that, the car's audio system couldn't see more than a dozen or so files on the current-model iPod Nano I plugged into the USB jack; for the entire three days it was plugged in, the car gave me an "indexing files" message when I tried to find any tracks outside of the original dozen.
Then there's the interior. In a $30,000 American car, I'd be OK with the ersatz racy bling inside the SS, but at $45,770 (as tested) I think this car's passenger compartment ought to have better materials and/or more understatement. The seats are what GM describes as "leather-appointed," and they're quite comfortable… but then you've got these fake race-harness "slots" in what I fear may be chromed plastic. The pebbled hard plastic bits are right out of the Brougham d'Elegance playbook, the crypto-suede on the dash looks like something swiped from an antibacterial doormat, the manually-actuated steering-tilt mechanism looks and feels Blazer-ish, and so on.
Perhaps what this car needs is a full-on, unapologetically skulls-and-flames interior, all done in orange-and-red Naugahyde to the specifications of a crack team of third-gen-Camaro-driving tattoo artists in Bakersfield. Or perhaps shaving five grand off the sticker price and giving it the type of no-frills gray-cloth-and-black-plastic interior that GM's fleet pickups get might work better.
We had to throw the checkered flag of the 2014 North Dallas Hooptie 24 Hours of LeMons early on Sunday, because a vicious winter storm suddenly slammed into North Texas and turned the track into solid ice within a matter of minutes. Snow, ice, and sleet built up on the roads; fleeing the track and piloting the SS the 50 miles to DFW on icy two-lane blacktop proved a harrowing experience. All that power and sticky summer tires gave me the sense that the car was always on the edge of a guardrail-seeking tank-slapper… but it made the drive without wrecking or getting stuck, which is more than the owners of many stranded and/or crashed cars I saw on the route could say.
So, the Race Organizer opinion of the '14 SS: impresses the hell out of guys hanging around the track, glorious engine, nice spacious interior and trunk, crazy-making beeping, irritatingly faux-racer interior, scary on ice.
Base Price: $43,475
On sale: Now
Drivetrain: 6.- liter V8, RWD, 6-speed automatic transmission
Output: 415 hp, 450 lb-ft
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 17/14/21 mpg
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