A Muscle Car

Posted Friday, Jan. 31, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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For years in this column, on my radio show and at Fox Four’s Good Day, I’ve praised the vast improvements in fuel-efficient vehicles, no matter which manufacturer designed and built them. Conversely, I’ve shunned reviewing most so-called muscle cars because they’ve just never done anything for me.

When I reviewed the Dodge Challenger, I was more than happy to take the standard V-6 engine, not the SRT8 version for nearly twice the price. The same can be said for the Camaro or any other car that can be purchased with a super hot V-8 for a lot more money. I’ve never reviewed the exceptional Mustang convertible because Ford never put one in the journalists’ fleet with a V-6 engine and the base model.

So imagine my surprise, after spending almost 40 years around the auto industry and believing that big engines are a waste of gas and money, I discovered I didn’t want to give a new muscle car back to the manufacturer; I wanted to keep driving it. It’s true. A week ago the new Chevrolet SS was delivered to me for review. Only this vehicle had far more going for it than simply a 6.2L V-8 engine with 415 horsepower, which can accelerate the SS from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat. Actually, the engine was the least important part of the review.

Their Last Stand

The sound and power of that V-8 was entirely reminiscent of the British V-8s in their luxury cars from decades ago. The handling of the SS was superb, the interior noise level at cruise extremely low. The dash layout was brilliantly logical; and at night, when all of the easy-to-read gauges were lit up, the SS had possibly the best (or at least among the most elegant) interior of any car I’ve ever reviewed.

The heads-up display was the best in any class of car I’d reviewed before, while its warning systems would let anyone navigate our worst congested roads without fear of an accident. The SS had blind spot indicators to warn against changing lanes if any vehicle was too close for comfort. An adjustable distance warning system put a small vehicle icon into the heads-up display; it stayed green if you kept a reasonable distance between your SS and the car in front of you, turned yellow if you started getting too close, and glowed red with warnings if you weren’t paying attention at all. A warning system also notified you if you were drifting across lanes.

The air-conditioned leather seats were magnificent, as were the sound and navigation systems. If anyone ever had any doubts that GM could build a superior luxury sports sedan that could compete with the best of the best European designs and cost a great deal less money, this new SS would end all doubts. As stated, I have little use for muscle cars, but this new Chevrolet was far more than that. And that fact truly made me sad for the new GM.

You see, the new SS isn’t really a Chevrolet: It’s a Holden, from Australia. This same Holden division gave us the last Pontiac GTO, which didn’t resemble the ones of the late sixties — but, as I said at the time, was the best driving car GM sold in America. It’s the same Holden that gave us the exceptional Pontiac G8, beloved by automotive enthusiast magazines before the Financial Meltdown of 2008 melted down Pontiac. And yes, it’s the same Holden I wrote about here a month or so back, reporting that General Motors planned to shut down that division in Australia, and the nation could soon have no automakers left.

Now the SS makes that plan puzzling. It becomes an object lesson in what can be accomplished by a division that never had much money for engineering or design.

Holden has always been one lean and mean GM division, because it never sold enough cars to properly fund the type of R & D expense that other, far larger, manufacturers can afford. Often their engineers had to work with a hand-me-down chassis from Opel, like they used in the GTO — and discovered that they could widen and stiffen it up to create a world-class platform. In the case of the new Chevy SS, the side design had people asking me if this was some type of Jaguar.

So this frequently semi-starved division has given General Motors three of its most outstanding vehicles, culminating in the new Chevrolet SS, of the past decade. Contrast that with Opel, which has given us the basis for vehicles such as the Cadillac Catera and Saturn L Series sedan — both of which chassis American engineers tampered with, (and not in a good way, for our market.

GM’s entire car line today is light-years better than any in its history in every metric of design and construction. Sorry, Dan Akerson, but we have Bob Lutz to thank for that. Yet three of those GM vehicles that most surprised reviewers over the past decade came from Down Under. And all too soon, "Down Under" will be down and out.

Option Not in Owner’s Manual

The new SS I had in my possession held one last secret, a feature that no other SS in America will: A system that warns you if you’re nearing any traffic cameras. Apparently it’s a standard feature in the SS Navigation system in Australia and Europe, just not in America. True, you can buy aftermarket warning systems for red-light cameras, but this one was built into the SS’s navigation system. At first, that actually troubled me once I thought about the implications of that feature. Most, including me, might think that’s a great way to get out of a traffic ticket for running a red light. But the more I thought about it, it should be standard equipment on every car sold in America because it warns you not to run the red light. - Or at least those with cameras.

Every week at intersections that have red light cameras (and they are everywhere), I still see people running red lights. I can’t say whether it’s intentional or someone is not paying close enough attention. Maybe it’s both. But that little chime, along with the flashing "camera nearby" icon on your navigation system, would at least cause the distracted or daydreaming driver to pay closer attention. Sure, it would cut down on traffic cameras’ issuing tickets, but it would also cut down on drivers’ entering an intersection on red and t-boning another motorist.

What’s more important, reduced ticket revenues or reducing the number of motorists seriously injured or worse? In my professional opinion, a red light camera warning system seems like the ultimate in motoring safety devices.

A Fond Farewell

GM has picked up this new SS while an Infiniti Q50 had taken its place for review. And I’ll say without hesitation that if I were in the market for another luxury sports sedan I would purchase the SS over the best-known imported makes — notwithstanding the irony that this Chevrolet is in fact imported. For $45,000, it takes on the very best and wins, for tens of thousands of dollars less.

So here’s to Holden of Australia. The company created its finest vehicles when its back was against the wall, the ultimate automotive underdog story. In the end, though, other than delivering another truly exceptional vehicle to us, Holden’s heroic effort made no difference. But if I were running GM, considering what Holden can do on a small budget, I’d keep that design and engineering staff. Then again, I’m not running GM.

© Ed Wallace 2014

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.

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