Can the Chevy SS Really Compete With the BMW 5 Series?
Credit Chevrolet for sheer audacity: “The SS has several advantages over the BMW 5 Series, including 2.4 cubic feet more trunk space, OnStar 4G LTE with Wi-Fi, and auto-park assist,” says the top line, in bold font, on the press packet I find when I receive the car.
Yes, that's Chevy selling its 2016 SS sedan directly against the long-dominant BMW 5 Series.
No, not the Camaro SS. Everyone who heard I had the SS this week said, “Oh, the Camaro!” No, the one called just SS. Yes, I know it’s confusing.
It gets weirder.
GM imports the SS from its plant in Australia, where the sedan is sold as the Holden Commodore SS. It’s positioned as a midsize luxury sport sedan, even though Chevrolet is hardly a luxury brand. Holden is the GM subsidiary in Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the South Pacific. Next year’s version of the SS will (probably) be the last ever, since the Holden plant closes in 2017. (I say probably because GM declined to confirm this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it also didn't deny it, either.)
If you buy the $46,575 rear-wheel-drive sedan, you’re going to have explain all this to your friends and family, to help them understand why this was a good choice for your driving lifestyle.
Because it is a good car, despite GM’s recent history of product misses and financial troubles. That’s the weirdest part of all.
Behind the Wheel
GM has given the 415-horsepower SS the same 6.2-liter V8 engine that it put in the previous-generation Camaro and Corvette, so its dual-mode growl (quieter in lower gears, louder in higher gears) is just as mean. It comes with a six-speed automatic or manual transmission (get the manual, of course), and it can hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. Top speed is 165 mph.
Compare that to the $58,150, automatic-only BMW 535i xDrive—which has 300 hp on an inline-six engine; a 5.4-second sprint time; and a 130 mph top speed;—and on paper this specimen dominates. In fact, other auto-writing colleagues of mine have gone on record saying the SS is, in fact, even better in real life than the significantly more expensive, way higher-tuned $94,100 BMW M5 (this one does have a very good manual option). I’m not sure I’d go that far. The SS feels markedly less well-made, less ergonomic, and less durable than either of those German counterparts. More on that later. But I won’t argue that for behind-the-wheel thrills, the SS stands up to the comparison.
Driving the SS feels like a proper denim jacket: it makes you stand a little straighter, with a working-man attitude. Point it in the right direction, and it’ll go. When you press the alloy pedals through first, second, and third gear, the 415 pounds-feet of torque press you firmly back; the magnetic ride control smooths out that aggression like frosting. New this year are standard 19-inch alloy wheels paired with performance-level Brembo brakes that seem to suspend time when they grab hold. You might as well freeze, mid-air.
What it doesn't have is the same steroid-fueled feel to 60 mph as does the Chevy Camaro, and it doesn’t have the finesse of the Mercedes E Class. The SS also doesn’t have the notoriety of either—if you like a little status associated with your ride, don’t buy this car. One look by the lay person at the Chevy badge, and they’ll assume it’s an econo-box.
Another note about the drive: At 3,960 pounds, the SS weighs less than the 4,156-pound 5 Series, which undoubtedly contributes to its lighter handling. (I wouldn’t say it’s nimbler—I like the tighter steering on the BMW better—but if you like something that feels light on the road, the SS may be more your style.) It’s too bad the aluminum hood and cheap-feeling rear deck—30 percent lighter than traditional steel—didn’t help more with efficiency. A 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway rating have earned SS the notorious $1,000 federal gas guzzler tax.
Chevy says the hood vents are “functional”—at the very least they’re new for 2016. The LED headlights and front fascia with the aero-ducts on either side are also all new this year. It looks just the same as previous years but a touch more streamlined through its oblong oval front grill, rectangular headlights, and wide flat hood. They look fresher, like subtle plastic surgery that nobody notices except to say you look “well-rested” and “happy.”
The rest of the car could belong to any one of the midsize sedans we have on the market. There’s not much to see or say here. The quad tailpipes, though, add gravitas. And I do appreciate that rear spoiler for its aesthetics even if it does feel like plastic to touch.
I drove an SS in “Red Hot” exterior paint. If you want the newest color option, choose the “Slipstream Blue.”
The interior is where Chevy fails to bring it, as they say, in the luxury segment.
Much of driving and owning a luxury car is about sensory perception—how thick does the wood feel, how soft is the leather, how cold does the chrome feel when you press it against your skin, how heavy does the door sound when you slam it, and how whisper-smooth does it latch? Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar and, yes, BMW present as luxury cars in this way. Their interiors are tightly apportioned, with seams of stitching tight and even, nubile leathers, and alcantara or carbon fiber at every turn.
The SS does offer leather on the steering wheel and stick shifter, and of course the seats, but the as you run your fingers over their flat surface, it feels less supple than the kind offered by true luxury brands. Another example: The standard adjustable heated and auto-dimming mirrors are great—but the fact that they’re manual folding rather than push-button is a step down from what you might expect. It's in that extra 5 percent effort where true luxury lies.
The forward collision and lane departure warning systems, blind spot alert, and rear-vision camera with automatic park assist are all standard, easy, and practical to use. But the heads-up display uses graphics that look years old compared with what you see from BMW and Mercedes, and it’s situated so low that I had to duck down and peer over the steering wheel if I wanted to see all of it.
Elsewhere the SS will suit you fine. It has room for five adults to ride for extended periods and not hate each other by the end of it. The dashboard with its SS stitching, dual dials behind the wheel mirroring two huge vertical air vents on either side of the computer screen, and huge Chevy logo on the wheel are certainly there. Does it seem elegant? No. Do you care? Probably not. But don’t fool yourself—this isn’t a luxury interior, and if you’re expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.
A Collectable in the Making
All told, the SS I drove cost $48,570, which included that gas guzzler tax and some destination charges. I like that—it says to me that this car is straightforward and doesn’t need a lot of fluff to make it worthwhile. I say this as a member of the press used to getting the top-end, optioned-out version of most of the cars I drive, which often cost tens of thousands of dollars more than the base model and which can obscure the more elemental joys—and flaws—of a given car. Chevy laying it bare here, not playing that game, earns my respect.
I’d also like to say that I predict the manual 2016 SS will become collectable after 30 years’ time, more or less. Its odd heritage, plucky driving character, and relatively small production numbers (roughly 3,000 sent to the U.S. this year) line it up for that nicely. It’s like a modern niche version of the old Camaros and Firebird Trans AMs that were affordable, uniquely good drivers, and part of the American automotive manufacturing tradition.
So take the SS as is. It’ll do the same for you. Barring any news from GM, your time to enjoy it will soon run out.