Owning a Chevrolet SS is like following an underground band. Chevrolet has sold fewer than 3,000 SS sedans in the last 12 months (about three days’ worth of Honda Accords). What’s more, we already know the band’s breakup is imminent, as General Motors plans to close the Australian factory that builds the SS by the end of 2017.
Against this backdrop, the rear-drive Chevrolet SS enters its second year with significant improvements. Magnetorheological dampers like those offered with the Camaro ZL1 and four-wheel Brembo brake calipers are newly offered. Moreover, the Chevrolet SS can now be had with a six-speed manual transmission, meaning Chevrolet now offers the only stick-shift V-8 sedan besides the BMW M5 and M6 Gran Coupe. A six-speed automatic remains a no-cost option.
Chevrolet can afford such investments in its lowest-volume car because they aren’t really investments. The Holden Commodore on which the Chevrolet SS is based already comes with a manual, and the hot rod Holden Special Vehicles version comes with the trick dampers. That doesn’t diminish the proposition the SS presents for enthusiasts. Magnetic Ride Control improves already quick reflexes without imparting any bad manners. Even with the dampers in their stiffest setting, the 19-inch wheels glide over potholes. The numb electric power steering is less satisfying, yet it becomes perfectly weighted and precise at the speeds where it matters most. (Note that our test car rode on winter tires, not the summer tires that come standard on the car.)
The manual transmission is all we hoped for and more. The Tremec shifter’s throws have just the right amount of mechanical crunch. The clutch is light enough for driving in traffic yet retains a clear engagement point. Moreover, the sedan’s 6.2-liter V-8 is the sort of engine that plays well with a manual: naturally aspirated and happy to rev.
The immediacy and control of the stick shift complete the circuit connecting the driver, the powerful V-8, and the live-wire chassis, which makes the car feel much smaller and faster than it is. Dive into a corner, squeeze the Brembo brakes, snap down a gear, and feel the rear end twitch as you ease on the throttle. Do it all smoothly, and the SS will keep up with lighter cars. Or mash the throttle and enjoy the hell that breaks loose—just be ready to catch it with full opposite lock. Or you can use the stick to conduct a symphony of burbles and backfires as you cruise through traffic. In any situation, the Chevrolet SS feels and sounds livelier than just about any big sedan.
If only there were more indications on the outside, which carries over unchanged from last year. In Australia, where everyone recognizes a Commodore, bigger wheels, a decklid spoiler, and flared fenders are enough to signify this as a sporty variant. But 10,000 miles from home, the styling says nothing. The interior similarly fails to excite, and the expanses of black soft-touch plastic fail to justify the near-50-grand window sticker.
Our choice of a vehicle from which to photograph the SS—our Four Seasons 2014 Chevrolet Corvette—drives home what the sedan lacks. The Corvette wins stares and cheers wherever it goes; the SS garners only the occasional ignorant query (“Is that a new Impala?”) and, far more often, nothing at all. Success rides on charisma as much as talent.
The irony is that most of the people who admire the Corvette (or, for that matter, the Camaro) would like the practical Chevrolet SS much more. It’s as close as Chevrolet has ever come to a four-door Corvette and is closer still with Magnetic Ride Control and a stick shift. With muscular styling and a long-term commitment from GM, the Chevrolet SS could become a mainstream hit. But it’s likely to remain a well-kept secret.
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