The sometimes-subdued but always sporty and comfortable Chevrolet SS reminds us that sometimes the ragtag team can best the boys at BMW.
In movies, it’s always the ragtag bunch that wins the day. In the end, guts, grit, and guile always seem to topple calculating competitors, no matter the challenge. That’s rarely the case in the real world, though, especially the automotive realm.
The Germans, for example, forego love, humor, and brightly colored clothing in order to dominate in the motoring world. Heck, they’re so straight laced they don’t even take their nylon socks off when wearing sandals – and no human should have to ever have to do that.
It’s obvious that the SS outclasses and outperforms homeland rivals.
Sacrificing the flavor of life has paid off, though. German brands outsell and outperform almost every automaker they encounter, especially when it comes to sedans. So unless you’re acting out a Hollywood script, you would have to be completely mental to take on Europe’s finest for full-size performance sedan supremacy.
Take the BMW 5 Series. It’s a bit boring to look at, sure, but its big V8 variant is a screamer. It can hold five people comfortably and go like hell. And in true German form, it flies a bit under the radar while also being as fun as a sports car.
It stands to reason that only some backwater yahoo would be unhinged enough to look at 5 Series and say, “Yeah, I could do better.” But with the SS, that’s exactly what Chevy set out to accomplish. In order to do so, though, it needed the help of the Aussies. It needed Holden.
From a land down under
Holden, for those who aren’t aware, is GM’s V8-obsessed Australian brand. While over the last 40 years, Americans shied away from car-based pickup trucks like the El Camino and rear-wheel drive cars powered by big, shout-y V8s, the Australians clung ever more tightly to these relics of motoring past.
So when Chevy wanted a rear-drive muscle sedan, rather than spending millions of dollars and a countless numbers of years starting from scratch, it instead looked to the land down under and to the Holden VF Commodore.
The VF Commodore is based on the Holden-designed Zeta Platform, which also underpins the current-gen Camaro, the Cadillac CTS-V, and the Caprice police car. It was also used for the former Pontiac GTO and G8 models.
When Chevy called Holden and said it needed a rear-drive muscle sedan to take on the Germans on the cheap, the Aussies happily obliged. Simple, rear-drive power is their bag.
It might not surprise you to learn, then, that the SS is built in a Holden facility Elizabeth, South Australia and shipped to the U.S. The SS is wholly Australian, masquerading as a badass American muscle sedan.
Vanilla on the outside, meaty on the inside
Rather than creating a whole new car for the Americans, the Aussies instead took a Commodore and bolted up a new nose and tail. So while the SS has a modern Chevy front and rear, the middle is all bland Commodore. After all, the Australians are great at V8s and rear-wheel drive, but not so great at dynamic exterior styling.
While Chevy might not have asked Holden to do a whole lot to the exterior in the Commodore to SS transformation, it did make some big interior changes. The SS cabin is sporty, comfortable, and about as premium as Chevy gets.
Chevy fitted leather sport seats, soft-touch materials throughout, red accent stitching, a sort-of-flat-bottom sport steering wheel, and a MyLink touch screen infotainment system. It has a very under-the-radar, grownup feeling that I hadn’t really expected.
Right now, if you’re a German engineer, you’re laughing. But not so fast, Fritz, we’ve only just begun.
The 6.2-liter LS3 V8 that propelled the C6 Corvette now powers the SS. In the SS it’s good for 415 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque. That’ll rocket this smooth-riding family hauler to 60 mph in around five seconds – just as fast as the BMW 550i.
When Chevy called Holden and said it needed a rear-drive muscle sedan to take on the Germans on the cheap, the Aussies happily obliged.
The sound of the prodigious push-rod powerplant is routed through a dual exhaust system. Unlike many modern performance sedans, the SS doesn’t have a sport exhaust package with extra baffling. It just is what it is. It’s quiet when you want and loud when you want.
You pay for that power at the pump, though. The SS is slapped with a Gas-Guzzler tax, as it is only rated to achieve 14 mpg city and 21 highway. The Bimmer, on the other hand, gets 15 mpg city and 22 highway.
Mated to that most American of V8s is a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode, operated by paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. While it’s not the quickest shifting auto, it’s not the worst either. Through the auto, power is sent in true Australian form to the rear wheels.
To ensure you can stop your 3,975-pound muscle sedan, Chevy bolted up a performance Brembo brake package. These four-piston brakes apply firm braking power all the time and never get overheated.
Power to the pavement
As much as I love Australians and their “Arkansas on the beach” ways, I wasn’t sure a rough-and-tumble “down under” sports sedan would stack up against the competition in America.
Chevy ran us up through the same canyons in the SS that we had enjoyed the day before in the Stingray Convertible. To get to Highway 74 from our hotel, though, we had to drive eight miles along a more populated Palm Springs highway, lined with car dealerships and high-end shops. This gave us a great look at what the SS was like when not in Sport mode, before we welded the throttle to the floor.
I quickly found that the volcanic power of SS is cleverly disguised by its family-friendly pretentions. The SS is smooth, quiet, comfortable, well connected, and a pleasure to maneuver through suburban traffic. Neither your passengers nor passersby would ever realize that you’re packing enough power under the hood to restart a dead star.
When we made the right-hander onto Highway 74, though, we shifted into Sport and all bets were off. The LS3 roared with much fury as we ascended the desert mountains. This, I expected. What I hadn’t expected, however, was the SS’ ability to handle corners.
Neither your passengers nor passersby would ever realize that you’re packing enough power under the hood to restart a dead star.
At the top of the mountain range, the temperature dropped to 34 degrees. Running on summer tires, I thought this might be a problem. It wasn’t. For dramatics, I’d like to say I hurled the SS in to the corners – and, honestly, I did. But how it reacted wouldn’t seem indicative of being manhandled, or hurled. I gripped the brilliantly sculpted sport steering wheel, turned hard into the corners, and the SS responded without hesitation or fuss.
The SS remained remarkably planted. Driving at my comfort limit on a road I didn’t know, in a car I wasn’t yet in tune with, in cold weather running summer tires, I drove as hard as I felt comfortable. The SS never got squirrely. It never complained. It took each corner with grace and a loud, unforgiving V8 thundering.
I tried both manual and automatic modes for the six-speed. As much as I like shifting, letting the transmission do its own thing was the best bet. Shifting on the paddle shifters was less a command and more a suggestion; it ended up shifting when it wanted to anyhow. I relented and just let it do its thing.
It’s obvious that the SS outclasses and outperforms homeland rivals like the Dodge Charger SRT8, which is less livable, and the Ford Taurus SHO, which it bests in every way. But what about the Bimmer? That’s a tougher question.
The comparably powered BMW 550i makes 445 hp but will run you $63,900. The SS, on the other hand with its 415 hp, will only set you back $44,470.
Yes, the BMW has a bit more cachet, but does it have $21,000 worth of extra gravitas? No, it absolutely does not.
The SS is a brilliant car. Although its Australian lines are a bit bland, it looks good. Although a bit fuel inefficient, it goes like a good muscle car should. Although not as couth as a BMW 5 Series, it still has a great interior for three quarters of the price.
Do all those parts add up to a whole worth having? Yes. The SS is that perfect mix of Australian braggadocio and American might powerful enough to best even BMW.
- Exhaust can be both quiet and shout-y
- Well-sorted six-speed automatic
- Strong, fade-free braking
- Sporty, clean and comfortable interior
- Bland exterior styling
- The best external hard drives for 2021
- 2022 Toyota GR 86 first drive: Old-school thrills meet modern tech
- 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz first drive: Finally, something new
- Genesis GV70 first drive: New money
- 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class first drive review: Titan of tech