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2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS

The throaty roar of the V-8 returns - but is it enough?

How far can you push (ok, pull) front-wheel drive? How about 303 horses, 5.6 seconds to 60 mph and a top end pushing 145 mph? These are the raw numbers for Chevy's updated and seriously pumped-up 2006 Monte Carlo SS coupe. Yes, it has a V-8, the first time one's been available in a Monte Carlo since the mid-1980s. And yeah, it drives the front wheels this time.

Is that a problem?

For the ideological purist, it's tough to get cozy with the idea of a serious performance car that isn't rear-wheel drive, like the Reagan-era '83-'88 Monte Carlo SS was. But take a turn behind the wheel; give it a chance. This '06 model makes a persuasive case for itself no matter which set of wheels happen to be laying down the rubber. Streetbound Monte Carlos have long emulated the stock-car look. This one delivers the stock-car experience.

For starters, the new SS has an all-alloy 5.3 liter V-8 burbling out a stout 303 horsepower - quite an uptick from the old SS's puny (by current standards) 180-hp "high output" 5.0-liter V-8. For another, it's almost three full seconds quicker to 60 (mid-low fives vs. the mid-low eights for the '80s-era SS). And finally, there's next to no torque steer when you hammer it, thanks to equal stiffness half-shafts and an extruded aluminum engine cradle and triple engine mounts designed to limit engine flex under torque load, among other refinements.

A proper front-drive burnout is both doable and enjoyable without awkward skittering left to right.

We worked the SS hard at the world famous Charlotte Motor Speedway , a 1.5-mile NASCAR track where the Monte more than proved its mettle. Full-throttle from a stop it hewed straight and true, lighting up the 18-inch Goodyears as stoutly as a '70 SS 454 Monte Carlo . And it actually felt on its game banking the oval at 120-plus - impressive for a production car, front-drive, rear-drive, whatever. About the only time you get any negative feedback from the front-drive layout is when you punch it from a stop and make a hard left or right-hander; then the traction control system cuts in to keep you on an even keel and prevent any torque-induced damage to the half-shafts.

Not entirely environmentally insensitive

Thanks to displacement-on-demand technology, which allows the engine to operate in four-cylinder mode under light throttle/cruise-type conditions, highway fuel economy is an impressive 28 mpg. The old SS couldn't touch that rolling down a steep hill in neutral.

Chevy has also upgraded lower-caste Montes. The standard 3.5 liter V-6 engine in the base model LS ($21,380) now makes a very decent 211 hp and the mid-level 3.9 liter V-6 that's optional in the LT and standard in the LTZ metes out 240 hp, 60 more than the old V-8 SS of the mid-late '80s. Both V-6s feature variable valve timing, but not displacement on demand. OnStar is standard across the line.

There have also been extensive sheetmetal changes, including the use of laminate "quiet steel" in critical places to dampen noise that would otherwise intrude into the cabin. Everything from the A-pillar forward is new: the tail is less "bubbly," the front end more pointed. It looks shorter but it's actually about the same overall length. Overall, the car's lines are much smoother, far less redneck-rococo. In black or dark navy blue, it is nicely menacing in a Dale Earnhardt, Jr., kind of way, not in a silly Teutel sort of way.

All '06 Montes get a revised gauge cluster with tachometer and 140-mph speedo that's more tailored to the car's latter-day muscle car personality. All SS versions get contrasting aluminum-look trim as well as a standard full-perimeter "ground effects" body kit (with "whale tail" trunk-mounted spoiler) that adds to the car's Winston Cup-ready appearance. All versions - base LS, LT, LTZ, and SS - get air conditioning, tilt wheel, remote keyless entry, and power windows/locks. The mid-point LT upgrades to dual-zone climate control, 17-inch rims, and a new-for-'06 remote start key fob. The system is pretty trick; not only does it start the car for you remotely (from as far away as 197 feet), it automatically turns on the heat/defrost when it's cold outside or the A/C when it's hot, so the car is comfy when you slide inside.

In addition to the bruiser V-8, SS models get a heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission that's calibrated for firm-shifting, defeatable traction control, 18-inch machine face or polished aluminum rims with W-rated Goodyear RSA high-performance tires, FE4 sport suspension with 34 mm front and 18 mm rear stabilizer bars, upgraded brakes and interior/exterior trim enhancements. There are no plans at present for a manual-transmission SS - but the big V-8 has so much torque you don't really miss it. You can even break the tires loose from a 10-mph roll-on. That's all right in my book.

The SS model I flogged at Charlotte carries a base price of $27,130, putting it well below the Pontiac GTO and right in the middle of Mustang GT territory. And while it may not be a direct competitor of rear-drive performance coupes like the Goat and Mustang, it is an alternative - one with real back seats, a big trunk (15.8 cubic feet), a very appealing price tag, and more than enough performance to be credible when the time comes to put up or shut up.

The infusion of V-8 power means that Monte Carlo SS owners are no longer condemned to motor toothlessly around the parking lot at Talladega or Martinsville looking silly in their V-6 pretend stockers - all decal, no cattle. The bark of that 303-hp V-8 is plenty convincing.

GET Kelley Blue Book Pricing for this vehicle

2006 Monte Carlo SS

Base price: $27,130; price as tested: $31,225

Engine: 5.3 liter V-8, 303 hp/323 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 196.7 x 72.9 x 55.8 in

Wheelbase: 110.5 in

Curb weight: 3489 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/28 mpg

Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes with

Electronic Brake Assist, traction control, dual front airbags

Major standard features: Sport suspension with 18x7-inch wheels; dual-zone air conditioning; remote start; ground effects body kit with dual exhausts; power windows/locks/mirrors; tilt wheel; AM/FM stereo w/CD and iPod/MP3 connectivity

Standard warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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