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Payne: The NASCAR next door, Chevy SS

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Daytona Beach

The green flag flew over a new NASCAR season Sunday, unleashing 40 bellowing, V-8-powered Toyota Camrys, Ford Fusions and Chevy SSs on the high bankings of Daytona International Speedway. Just feet away from the starter’s stand, I felt the ground shake. The eight-cylinder tremor rattled my rib cage, shook my fillings, tingled my ear drums. It was glorious.

But if you want to drive a V-8 on the street, you won’t find it in a Camry or Fusion. Only the Chevy SS is the real deal.

With rear-wheel drive, port fuel-injection and 415 misbehaving horses (just shy of NASCAR’s restrictor-plate-limited, 425-horse Daytona output), the SS is one of the last of a dying breed of sedan. Its only true competitor is the Dodge Charger R/T.

Six-holers are increasingly the standard in performance engines: BMW’s M3 has replaced its V-8 with a twin-turbo V-6. So has Cadillac’s ATS-V. Even Camaro’s 1LE will offer a six-pack in addition to its traditional V-8 when it debuts this fall.

At $50,000, the SS inhabits luxury territory where brand is king. Most motorheads with that kind of coin will want something like a BMW, not a Chevy.

The SS is autodom’s sleeper car — a chariot with the face of a Chevy Cruze and the heart of a Corvette. Under its hood beats a ferocious, small-block LS3 V-8 shared with the last-generation C6 ’Vette. With standard magnetic shocks and a neck-snapping 4.6-second zero-60 run, the SS (is that Super Sport or Super Sleeper?) will leave most luxe sedans in the dust.

Its modest wardrobe is its undoing. Most folks want looks with their brawn. The SS is as sexy as a loaf of Wonder bread. Harsh maybe, because Chevy has baked in a few tasty morsels like shark gills and delicious double-barrel exhaust.

Dollar per pound, there are few more capable cars on the market. It has BMW M5 performance for half the price. Thirteen more cubic feet of interior room than a Cadillac CTS-V (and a much more functional console). It has the muscle of a Camaro SS, but with four doors so you can pick up the kids at soccer practice.

Heeding the mating call of NASCAR’s V-8, I headed south for Daytona Beach in a 2016 SS.

My journey began in Charlotte. If Daytona is the birthplace of stock car racing, then Charlotte is where it got its degree. The sport’s engineers, teams and development are located there. After a lap around NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, I lit up the tires for Daytona like a good ol’ boy runnin’ moonshine.

I last tested the SS in the San Bernardino Mountains north of Palm Springs in 2013. The mountain curves brought out the best in its chassis, which is impressively nimble for a 3,975-pound sedan. By contrast, southern America’s roads were laid out by a triangle and a T-square.

Only the V-8’s prodigious power at stoplights, long straightaways and interstate cloverleafs saved the 675-mile trip from total boredom. I launched the SS up the enormous Sidney Lanier Bridge over Fancy Bluff Creek onto Jekyll Island, Georgia, with more smoke than the Atlantic Coast had seen since the last shuttle launch. The SS’s 418 pound-feet of torque generate so much low-end thrust that I quickly ran out of revs in first gear, banging against the 6,500 rpm redline before I could reach for second gear.

The balky shift linkage is one of my few complaints with the big Chevy, which will nevertheless smoke a Tesla 70D from zero-60 (4.6 seconds vs. 5.2). While the gorgeous Tesla shows battery power’s promise, the old-school SS reminds how far electric cars have to go to get to the mainstream. For similar size, speed and handling ability, the fully loaded, $50,000 SS is 20 grand south of the base Tesla. You could buy a low-mileage Chevy Volt with the difference.

The SS posed for photos with two Tesla-owning friends in Hilton Head and Savannah. Both use the Model S as a commuter. Neither has visited a gas station in months. Both would sweat my racehorse drive to Daytona, where hard flogs from zero-100 and sustained interstate speeds of 80 mph would drain the Model S batteries faster than Jeb Bush’s poll numbers. While my SS returned just 17.3 mpg under my lead foot, its 325-mile range dwarfs the Model S.

Production SS met NASCAR’s SS at Daytona (I couldn’t finagle a NASCAR test drive). Badging aside, the two have as much in common as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. They share no body parts, no drivetrain pieces, not even exhaust tips.

But the essential rear-wheel drive V-8 DNA is there.

Chevy is aware of the SS’s, um, homely wardrobe and has given it some beauty tips for 2016: Vertical air vents add both downforce and character to the front end. Functional hood scoops add menace. Paint it blood-red like my SS and it’ll get wolf whistles.

But fans are few and far between. Fewer than 3,000 were sold last year. That 2017 will likely be the SS’s last hurrah is apparent in the interior, where SS lacks Chevy upgrades like Apple Car Play and Android Auto.

Which begs the question: What will replace the SS in NASCAR’s lineup? Will it be a front-wheel drive Malibu imposter like the Camry and Fusion? Or a worthy performance entry?

My suggestion: a four-door Camaro SS, like how the Charger complements the Challenger. Camaro’s exquisite Alpha chassis would carry on the SS’s legacy of linebacker power with running-back quickness.

That would be a Chevy worthy of Daytona.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2016 Chevy SS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $48,570 base (as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 415 horsepower, 415 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (Car & Driver); top speed, 130 mph (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,975 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway/17 combined (manual, as tested)

Report card

Highs: Addictive, dual-mode exhaust sound; roomy

Lows: Vanilla styling; dated technology compared to other Chevys


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