2006 Chevy Impala SS

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The Chevy Impala SS sedan ought to be (and could have been) a winner — but it’s a microcosm of the problems besetting General Motors.

If you took the time to drive it, you would probably like it. The newly available 5.3 liter V-8 engine (303-hp) which replaces last year’s supercharged V-6 (240-hp) is as strong as a Budweiser Clydesdale — and the car’s 0-60 capability of 5.7 seconds is certainly impressive. The ’06 SS is not only quicker than the old Caprice-based Impala SS of the mid-’90s (which ran in the 7 second range, zero to 60), it’s quicker (and much faster on the top end) than all the old-school bruisers of the ’60s, including old 409 SS that dominated NASCAR for a couple of years in the early 1960s.

And though it’s still front-wheel-drive (a sore point for some enthusiast drivers) it is well-sorted and delivers a confident-feeling performance car experience — along with room for six people and a family-sized 18.6 cubic foot trunk.

But will you take the time to drive it? Or even notice it?

Like so many recent GM products, the new Impala SS is about as visually exciting as a “Matlock” rerun. The stylized vaulting chromed Impala badges are the only design touches that show any real flair — or hint at the car’s muscular capability. Yeah, it has 18-inch wheels. So does every other car on the road, just about. Dual exhaust tips? Ok — but again, nothing especially special.

Accords have those, too.

There isn’t even a spiffy console or unique handle for the shifter — the kind of extra detail touch that used to be a given in an SS back when “SS” meant Seriously Special as much as Super Sport.

How much more could it have cost to add a Hurst shifter? Something. Anything.

The car is by no means unattractive — but that’s not the standard here. Any car wearing the SS badge ought to be the four-wheeled equivalent of a big-armed biker on a loud Harley rolling menacingly up to the curb. Lots of engine — and even more attitude. Think of cars like the revered “porcupine head” SS Impala 409 of the early ’60s (“She’s so fine, my 409”) and brutal-looking street stalkers like the later SS 396 Chevelle.

Those were the real deal.

Even the Caprice-based Impala SS of the mid-’90s had that Darth Vader heavy-breathing malevolence so essential to the appeal (and success) of a car in this category. (It remains a much-loved collectible to this day, too.)

This one? Who’d notice it? It’s as easy to lose in a crowd as a refrigerator white Lumina or Taurus rental car — the same absence of vibe that caused the reintroduced Pontiac GTO to belly-flop so loudly (despite the latter-day Goat being much quicker and faster than any of the classic-era GTOs before it).

Performance is important, yes — but it’s not the only thing that matters in a performance car.

The company desperately needs to hire someone with vision, who understands — like former Chevy chief engineer and later, GM president Ed Cole, whose motto was “Kick the hell out of the status quo.” GM needs cars that are as exciting to look at and be seen in as they are to drive. When it comes to performance cars, if you can’t get them to look, you can’t get them to buy. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that.

GM still hasn’t figured this one out.

The Impala’s $27,130 MSRP doesn’t help matters, either. At $24k — the entry-level price point of the V-8 (and rear-wheel-drive) Ford Crown Victoria — people would probably snap them up. Police departments, too. A big engine in a big car at a low price has eternal appeal. But pushing $30K, people want more than just a fast box.

They want something that looks fast, too.

The Dodge Charger (an Impala competitor) is a case in point. The base V-6 version of that car (no slouch itself, with a standard 250-hp V-6) looks a whole lot tougher than the V-8 powered Impala SS. And the MSRP of the V-8 powered (5.7 liter, 340-hp) and rear-wheel-drive Charger R/T — $29,520 — is almost exactly the same as the “out the door” price of my test Impala at $29,320. Yes, my tester had about $2,000 in options (heated leather seats, Bose premium stereo with XM satellite radio and polished 18-inch rims). But the Charger has more power (itself a big deal), is rear-wheel-drive (an even bigger deal in a high-performance vehicle) and (biggest deal of all) has that bad-ass biker stance the nothing-special-looking ’06 Impala so sorely lacks.

The Charger is a slam-dunk home-run “gotta have” car. People notice it — and want it. Dodge has no trouble finding buyers for the Charger. Is this a surprise? Is it that hard to understand why?

There are certainly folks out there who will appreciate the SS Impala as a fast and comfortable large sedan that can run under the radar — unnoticed by cops and insurance companies alike.

But not being noticed isn’t what being an SS is all about — or used to be about, at any rate.

Throw it in the Woods?

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