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‘91 Caprice Puts On a Hefty Face

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just when you thought it was safe to convert half of your garage into a workshop--Chevrolet decides to rework its Caprice into a retrospective of the tugboats that Detroit has always done so very well.

Hefty days are here again: The 1991 Caprice Classic weighs two tons--so did the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.

Deja vu : The Caprice wheelbase stretches almost 10 feet--only a smidge shorter than the 1951 Oldsmobile Super 88.

How many ax-handles across? The new Caprice is more than 6-feet beamy--so was the 1967 Buick Riviera.

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The heartbeat of this Chevrolet comes from a big ol’ cast-iron Ahmurrican V-8 with a real distributor. As it was with the ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air and the ’60 Impala. As it is with the 35,000 police cruisers that Chevrolet sells each year to law enforcers.

(Editorial Aside: In a perverse effort to balance the ecosystem, the gendarmes then motor forth in their Chevrolet Caprices to bust the errant aboard Chevrolet Corvettes.)

The new Caprice has a bustle, a beer belly overhang, and acceleration times that would place it wheel-to-wheel with a 1971 Thunderbird. Dadgum it, Verne, this Chevy’s even got rear-wheel drive.

And there’s an old-fashioned speedometer with a needle the size of a pool cue, interior space for a half dozen steel workers with lunch pails, and a trunk the size of Meteor Crater completing a package that’s about as Middle America as downtown Cleveland.

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What General Motors is proving by all of this, said a Chevrolet spokesman, is that despite the fuss over smaller imported machinery and performance nippiness, “there still is a sizeable portion of the American public that wants a domestic, full-size, six-passenger, V-8, full-frame car.”

True. That American public also wants a domestic car that retains the handling ease, the smooth ride and stove-bolt reliability of yesterday’s full-sized vehicles--without the rolls, grunts, waddles, cushioned numbness and travel sickness of the eon when the great-finned DeSoto Fireflite roamed our land.

The ‘90s buyer has further dictated that today’s American land yachts must be aerodynamic and stylish to match the imports. While offering the latest in safety technology.

So Chevrolet--to snitch the 1959 ad line for the Biscayne, Bel Air and Impala--made the Caprice all new all over again.

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Enormous trouble has been taken with the looks of the Caprice and something that is borderline huge has been made to appear reasonably compact.

Any sculptor will explain it to you. Sharp planes and acute angles seem to reach, implying a size beyond the actual dimensions. When those stark lines are softened, when all is a curve or a rounded corner until the silhouette bulges softly from all points of viewing, bulk becomes minimal.

Thin window pillars lighten the look. Flush windows provide smoothness. The lowered belt line on the Caprice slenderizes what otherwise could have been seen as deep, slab sides.

A windshield with a 62-degree rake flattens the profile of the car--until you see a lick of Lexus here and a suggestion of oversized Taurus there.

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In silhouette, the back end is shaped like the front end of a bottle-nose dolphin and that has stirred some negative commentary. Despite rear wheel arches cunningly curving back to carry the eye forward, the trunk overhang (with trunk space somewhat restricted by a full-size spare intruding into the cargo area) could use a little liposuction.

But overall, the aura is one of Euro-suggested refinement and careful styling associated with much more expensive motor cars. Here, quite obviously, is a vehicle intent on becoming a Motor Trend Car of the Year.

Similar attention should have been paid to the interior.

Yes, there is a driver side air bag. Also three-point safety harnesses. But these are about the only modern touches in living quarters that are at least one decade behind the times.

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Interior volume is larger than in a Lincoln Continental or a Ford Crown Victoria, but that simply means greater room to display more vinyl than a $100 sofa. Leather is an option and in a car this roomy, hide upholstery may be seen as a worthwhile investment in the overall touch and look of quality.

The AM-FM-tape sound system is Basic Bose. It’s OK for standard drive-time listening but offers precious few adjustments to get the best out of audiotapes. Especially if the spoken word is by Henry Kissinger and in profound basso.

A fuzzy fabric covers the rear window sill and it is best described as burgundy GI blanket. And tactile corpuscles will cringe at a steering wheel with two fat spokes mounted at the 8 and 4 o’clock positions, a thin rim and nothing in between that feels really convenient to the hand.

The platform of the Caprice is about 15 years old. The 5-liter engine predates it by several years. But in this instance, clinging to yesterday means staying with the solid, the trustworthy and the proven that can still be fixed by the average shade-tree mechanic.

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The V-8 engine tugs quietly and wonderfully well in meeting the demands of freeway and surface travel. It is not brutishly fast from rest. But it is an efficient mate for a silken four-speed automatic, and for mid-range acceleration there’s power to spare.

Anti-lock brakes are standard on the Classic. They are more than the average driver should need, although a little stiff in application.

Remember when turning a full-size American car meant taking up a quarter-turn of steering slop and counting to three before the front wheels responded? In the Caprice, steering response is immediate, precise and just firm enough.

Remember when big cars wallowed on cotton candy suspension systems and rolled around corners in passable impersonation of a California gray whale? The Caprice corners tight, light and flat. Chevrolet drivers who negotiate a turn by swinging wide then floating from inside to outside lane can no longer blame the car.

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Change, however, isn’t always improvement.

The base price on a 1991 Caprice Classic is $17,370.

The sticker on a 1961 Impala was $2,950.

And that was for the convertible.

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1991 CHEVROLET CAPRICE CLASSIC

COST: Base: $17,370. As tested: $20,629 (options included power seats, electric mirrors, tilt steering wheel, Bose sound system, keyless locking and cruise control.)

ENGINE: 5-liter V-8 developing 170 horsepower.

TYPE: Rear-wheel drive, four-door, full-size sedan.

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PERFORMANCE: 0-60 m.p.h. 11.5 seconds.

Top speed, in excess of 115 m.p.h.

Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 17 to 26 m.p.g.

CURB WEIGHT: 3931 pounds.

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THE GOOD: Soft airflow styling.

Reliability of mechanically proven.

Handling and ride free of excesses.

Big car built with huge care.

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THE BAD: Outdated interior.

Trunk space reduced by central spare mounting.

THE UGLY: How do you service a furry window ledge? With vacuum cleaner or Miracle-Gro?


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