The last hurrah for a grand old traditional.

by Ray Thursby

Throughout its six-year production run, the current Chevrolet Caprice has gone through a metamorphosis few cars can match. At introduction, it was uncharitably branded a whale (especially when painted police-car black and white, and/or taxi yellow) for its expansive size and rotund proportions. Then, two years ago, Chevrolet resurrected its historic Impala nameplate for a high-performance version of the big four-door sedan.

Now, whether whale or African antelope, all Caprices are dinosaurs, set to go out of production at the end of this model year. The demise has been brought about by a need to free plant capacity slated to meet the demands of the booming sport-utility market combined with steadily declining sales. The times are changin', and cars such as these -- big and thirsty -- are rapidly fading from the scene.

When the last Caprice (now called Caprice Classic) is assembled, Chevrolet's -- and General Motors' -- last rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame big cars will be history.

Caprice's departure brings the number of players in the class down to two. Chrysler abandoned its fullsize rear-drivers years ago; rumor has it that Ford contemplated a similar move, but continues its Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis models to suit a small cadre of loyal civilian customers and the law-enforcement market. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that Ford's decision was strongly influenced by GM's decision to abandon this class of cars.

Be that as it may, there are still plenty of good reasons to give these behemoths a (last) look. They offer interior space not found in today's smaller front-drive sedans, and are far better suited to trailer towing. They are easier to convert into stretch limousines, too. And taxi fleet operators love 'em.

Beyond that, the Impala SS, our test car, is surprisingly high on the fun-to-drive index.

Walkaround

Size aside, Caprice sedans and wagons are pretty handsome machines. Much of the credit for their current graceful appearance goes to a 1993 redesign that opened up the rear wheel arches and allowed a widened rear track.

Even with requisite bright trim in place -- there's plenty, from the grille and its companion standup hood ornament to window surrounds to the standard full wheel covers -- Caprices manage to avoid (or at least make a virtue of) excess while maintaining the "formal" look that's played so long and so well in the American market.

The Impala SS is another story altogether. Each of the three available paint colors covers more than just the main body panels; bumpers, door handles, grille and side moldings join in the monochrome treatment. Window frames are given a classy black satin finish. The Impala's large 17-inch polished alloy wheels and lowered ride height add to the purposeful look. For all its size, this car is downright stylish.

There's more here than mere cosmetics, of course. The size of the Caprice permits four large doors for easy entry and exit (and a good-sized tailgate on the wagon), plus a monstrous trunk. Those are virtues that the target audience (overwhelmingly male, more than 75 percent at or beyond retirement age) appreciates.

Wagon buyers will approve of the two-way tailgate, which swings down to act as a mini-tailgate or opens to the side for use as a door. A rear window wiper is standard.

The Inside Story

This is familiar territory for anyone who has ever ridden in a fullsize American sedan. A pair of bench seats carries six people in stretch-out comfort. The wagon adds a small third seat for two children or flexible adults, and the Impala has individual front seats -- we make this distinction, because it's hard to think of the Impala's front seats as sporty buckets.

Individual though they are, the Impala's front chairs lack sufficient lateral support to encourage the kind of fun and games the chassis can indulge. Like the standard bench, they are fine for extended travel, however.

Luggage space is more than adequate. The sedan's trunk holds over 20 cubic feet of luggage, a figure that the wagon more than doubles at 54.7 cubic feet.

The large dashboard holds a digital speedometer (Impala has analog speedometer and tachometer dials) and analog readouts for fuel level and coolant temperature, a standard AM/FM/cassette audio system -- which can be upgraded with a CD player -- plus standard air conditioning. There's still room for a good-sized glovebox and passenger airbag.

What there's not much room for is options. All the basic comfort features are included, from a tilt steering wheel to power door locks to attractive cloth upholstery. Leather seat surfaces are available (standard in the Impala), as are power front seats.

All Caprices have automatic transmissions, column-controlled on sedan and wagon and operated via a floor-mounted shifter in the Impala. Like every GM automatic on the market, our test car's four-speed was smooth and positive, an excellent representative of its breed.

Ride & Drive

Buyers looking for long-distance smoothness and civility will find it in Caprice sedans and wagons. That's always been their attraction, and that's what they still deliver.

Lazy V-8 engines, slick-shifting transmissions, light steering and a soft (though well-controlled) ride are major elements in the full-size sedan mystique, and they're executed well in the Caprice.

These are the last of GM's old-style body-on-frame cars. Body-on-frame construction means that the chassis and bodywork are assembled separately, meeting only in the final assembly process. Most cars today are unibody, which means the chassis and body are assembled as one unit.

Although unitbody construction saves a lot of weight, body-on-frame is rugged and can take more of a pounding, which is why it's favored by New York taxi drivers and also in truck manufacturing.

The Caprice's separate chassis does a good job of isolating passengers from road noise, and squeaks and rattles are conspicuous by their absence. And we know from decades of experience that long-term durability goes with this territory.

Caprice's standard engine is a 4.3-liter V-8 rated at 200 bp. It operates in an unstressed manner that few V-6s can match, delivering seamless performance and reasonable fuel economy, although progress away from stoplights is leisurely.

Once again, the Impala SS presents a different picture. Thanks to its 260-hp engine (also standard in the wagon and available in the base sedan) the SS has plenty of scoot, and its uprated suspension -- essentially the same one used in police cars -- gives it agility and responsiveness one would not expect in a two-ton sedan.

The standard car's feather-light steering wouldn't be appropriate in the SS, so a faster-ratio, higher-effort steering rack is supplied. Four-wheel disc brakes (with ABS) are standard on the SS, replacing the Caprice's disc/drum setup.

Caprice buyers who want to bridge the gap between the standard car's soft ride and the responsiveness of the SS can order a Sport suspension package of larger tires, limited-slip rear axle, the trailer package's firmer springs and heavy-duty cooling system, an engine oil cooler and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Most of these elements are also present in the Law Enforcement Package, which also includes the SS's four-wheel disc brakes. Surprisingly, the relatively anemic 200-hp engine is standard for police use.

Final Word

If you're a fan of the full-size American passenger car, you won't need much coaxing to check out a Caprice, because this year will be your last chance. Well-built, well-equipped and stylish, it's a great way to travel.

It is also big. Bigger, maybe, than most people need it to be. That's one of the reasons the Caprice is on its way out.

But a couple taking friends on post-retirement vacations (while pulling an Airstream, perhaps) and large families will love the spacious Caprice interior, while drivers will find it far more manageable -- even in city driving -- than they expect.

The Impala SS is even better, delivering most of the expected family-car attributes plus a dash of performance that will surprise drivers moving in from smaller sport sedans.

Again, a cautionary note is in order: if you think one of these grand old cruisers might be what you're looking for, better check them out soon. It won't be long before they're extinct.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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