From the July 1982 issue of Car and Driver.
Pity Detroit’s poor carmakers. First America burns them at the stake for not responding quickly enough to the needs of a changing world with space- and fuel-efficient cars, so they dutifully slash and burn through their product lineups. Then, at the first sign of dollar-a-gallon gas, every 52-year-old from Mammoth Falls to Miami Beach wants to buy a rolling living room again. You can bet that Chevy is breathing heavy relief-type sighs that it didn’t go through with plans to jettison its full-sized B-car platform. Pity poor Pontiac: it did.
Chevy had originally planned to replace the aging, rear-drive Caprice/Impala with a smaller, front-wheel-drive model this coming fall. That car, said by Chevy insiders to be the best-looking B-car ever, has been shelved—perhaps permanently. Instead, Chevy will keep building the Caprice as we know it until 1985. The reason? Dealers can’t get enough of them. In the past year, sales of the Caprice/Impala have jumped from 7 percent to 15 percent of Chevy’s total. It’s the third most popular Chevy, behind the Citation and Chevette. More significantly, in the first three months of 1982, when it was neither rebated nor advertised, the Caprice/Impala outsold Chevy’s brand-new, heavily rebated front-drive Celebrity by almost three to one. Unofficially, Chevy hoped to sell 100,000 Caprice/Impalas this year; but if demand continues at the current rate, it will have to adjust plant schedules to turn out 175,000 of them.
So instead of bidding farewell to the Caprice, we find ourselves taking a fresh look at it for the first time since it was downsized in the 1977 model year. If you think today’s Caprice is a battleship at 3900 pounds (with options) and 212 inches in length, consider its pre-1977 dimensions: a 121.5-inch wheelbase, a 222.7-inch total length, and a tubby, 4350-pound curb weight. Engine options for the 1976 Caprice started with a 165-hp, 350-cubic-inch V-8. There was nowhere to go but down. As Bedard once put it, “This growth business can’t go on or we’ll be driving Fruehauf-sized sedans by the turn of the century.”
When the Caprice was cut down to its current size in 1977, the wheelbase was shortened by five and a half inches and another five inches was pruned from the front and rear sheetmetal. That year, Chevy claimed a 700-pound weight loss for the base Caprice.
As small as it seemed to us back in ’77, the Caprice is one of the biggest cars we’ve laid hands on in months. Driving it, just getting in behind the wheel, brings back memories. It reminded us of summer vacations when we were children. We could almost hear Dad saying, “If you kids don’t settle down back there, we’re turning this car around and going home!”
Big it may be; a klutz it is not. Our Caprice’s physical coordination was its most valuable and redeeming quality. But a physically coordinated Caprice is by special order only, under “F41” on the options list. At $49 (and $159 for the required P225/70R-15 tires), the F41 suspension ranks along with the 26-cent White Castle hamburger and the six-dollar case of Drewrys beer as one of America’s best buys. For your minimal investment, you get a host of beefed-up suspension pieces: front and rear anti-sway bars tuned for a greater than normal degree of roll stiffness, shocks with extra damping, stiffer front and rear spring rates, and more substantial suspension bushings.
One of the benefits of the Caprice’s body-on-frame construction is more latitude for refined suspension tuning, but getting the job done right is another story. Engineer Jack Turner did the original development work on the 1977 F41 Caprice, and when Chevy went to higher-pressure tires for fuel economy in 1980 (35 psi versus 26 psi), suspension whiz Fred Schaafsma (of 1982 Camaro fame) did the rework. The Caprice will sail regally down the interstate at any speed you choose and maintain almost equal aplomb on Michigan’s winter-ravaged county roads. Don’t leave the dealership without F41.
The steering system is as good as the suspension. Its response to driver input is surprisingly precise and linear for such a big car—you turn, she turns. Simple. Satisfying. And best of all, it works in concert with the suspension. When loads build up in tight cornering or over rippled asphalt, the car still works. This is one big American car that you can push without watching the steering response dissolve into understeer. On the skidpad, we measured a sticky 0.75 g, but we also noticed the first signs of inadequate rear-axle location at the limit of adhesion. Heading clockwise around the circle, there’s a tendency for rear wheelspin and the axle wrenches a bit in its four trailing links. We doubt that the average Caprice owner will ever push the car to that point, however.
The base Caprice comes with a 3.8-liter V-6 engine, but you can choose one of three V-8s instead: a 4.4-liter (not available in California, and planned for elimination in 1983), a 5.0-liter with a four-barrel carburetor, or an Oldsmobile-built 5.7-liter diesel. The Caprice wagon has the 4.4-liter as the base powerplant.
We went straight for the biggest gas burner, the 5.0-liter, blowing off fuel economy in exchange for fun. In the long run, this two-ton sled is better off with the added horsepower than with the extra two miles per gallon the V-6 would bring it. The 5.0-liter engine also comes with a four-speed automatic overdrive transmission and a lockup torque converter as standard equipment. The up and down shifts of the four-speed are crisp, but they happen too frequently when driving between 30 and 50 mph. Manually downshifting to third gear around town clears up that annoyance. You can also feel the torque converter kicking in and out of action, but it’s only noticeable rather than irritating as in our recent Eldorado test car (C/D, April).
The only really sore spots of the Caprice are found inside the cabin. The seats are the absolute pits. They’re thin, flat, and set too low to the floor for comfortably working the pedals. The upper cushion is angled too far back and offers no lateral support other than the restraining nap of its velour covering. The lower cushion stops uncomfortably at mid-thigh.
The flat-black dash has four large, easy-to-read dials rimmed in Day-Glo orange pinstriping. It’s a shame to see this crisp, bold design wasted on a set of optional gauges that includes nothing for your money but a temp gauge, a trip odometer, and a fuel-economy gauge, which operates on intake-manifold vacuum. The last of these spent most of its time in our hands pegged on the “minimum” side of the scale.
Car manufacturers tend to dismiss our criticisms of their luxury cars for being what they call not pertinent to the type of person who would buy a car like the Caprice. But who would complain about getting some real information from the instrument panel? And who would complain about a seat that held you securely in front of the controls and didn’t compress your spine after twenty minutes? There’s got to be a happy medium between a Recaro and a couch, though probably not in this car’s extended future.
A more daring management team at Chevy could have made a down-home version of a Mercedes from the Caprice; the ride and handling are that good. But a more conservative inner voice was heard, and Chevy decided basically to rest on its 1977 laurels. Granted, that effort was right for its time. It was not only good enough to become America’s most popular car that year, but also sound enough to stay on Chevy’s future product-planning schedule at a time when the market is flooded with space-efficient, high-mileage, high-quality, front-wheel-drive sedans.
Dad isn’t buying high-tech. He’s buying a Caprice because, with twelve cubic feet more cabin space than the Celebrity, it gives him more room to move around in. He gets a trunk in which he can lie down flat. He’s buying a Caprice because it’s nicely carpeted and swathed in velour and chrome. The body doesn’t squeak, and nothing rattles.
Mostly, Dad’s picking Caprice because the price is right and its reputation is golden. It has more of that all-American abuse-the-damn-thing-and-it’ll-still-run aura than any other car in Chevy’s fleet. And with a base price of $8827, it can be loaded with every luxury, convenience, and performance option encouraged by the dealer and still ring out cheaper than a smaller, comparably equipped Celebrity.
American car buyers are too fickle for this big-car craze to last forever. When the price of gas resumes its ascent, look for today’s front-drive A-cars to come into their own. If that doesn’t happen for a while, Chevy at least has one good big car to fall back on.
If you’d like to know what America’s carmakers have been up to for the past eighty or so years, you owe it to yourself to test-drive an F41-equipped Caprice—or any Caprice, for that matter.
These days, it’s fashionable to think that our automakers are incapable of building good cars. Certainly, they’ve been feeling their way with small cars, but to believe they’re technologically bankrupt is to sell them far short.
A ride in the Caprice put this all into perspective for me. Most Europeans and Japanese drivers would marvel at this car’s velvety ride. And at its library quietness and automatic transmission, as well as its ultra-efficient climate-control system. With the F41 package, it moves with an assurance that approaches that of the cost-no-object brands. Sure, the decor is tacky—and there’s an energy shortage under the hood too. Still, it’s easy to understand why George and Irma America made the downsized Caprice the largest-selling model three times in the past six seasons: it’s a fine piece of work. It also makes me all the more confident that our boys on the front lines will keep gaining ground on the imports. —Rich Ceppos
The Chevy Caprice is America’s Mercedes 380SEL. It’s big and heavy by today’s standards, but great fun to drive. If it’s a true dual-purpose machine you’re after—a mild-mannered family hauler for the weekends, a cut-and-thruster for daily carpooling—look no further. Just make sure you sign up for two critical ingredients: the (gasoline) V-8 engine and the F41 suspension.
Unfortunately, Chevrolet is letting the Impala/Caprice go to seed in its autumn years. The revitalization that took place in 1980 may have looked good in the wind tunnel, but it bloated the trim, chiseled look this car was born with. And the seats and instrument panel seem more disappointing every year. J-cars were born with decent seats, and GM’s human-factors experts have toiled diligently over Camaro and Firebird orthopedics, but Chevy’s finest has been left to live out its days without so much as a backrest-angle adjuster. Instead of useful instrumentation, we’re given a vacuum gauge that wags its needle scoldingly with every tickle of the gas pedal. There’s no denying the Caprice is elderly, but its Chevrolet management deserves some of the blame for letting it get old before its time. —Don Sherman
I’ve always had a big soft spot for these cars, and this Caprice has just made it bigger and softer. I love it. I think it’s America’s finest example of Big Car. The Caprice is the very essence of the fussless, imperturbable container that soaks up endless stretches of these Unites States as if they were all scaled on Rhode Island lines and set on West Texas topography.
Even knowing General Motors’ penchant for doing the right thing at about the right time, the pleasures of these cars were a surprise when they first came out and they remain a puzzle today. Who can explain why some cars simply come together with a unity of purpose that escapes 0thers entirely?
I will not try to tell you that this Caprice is the game equal of a big Mercedes-Benz, and yet I want you to know that it has much of the same feel in its ability to hustle without ever hurrying. Yes, the big Chevy could use better seats and steering and doubled horsepower, but it will soon roll off the line for the last time and I will go off muttering. GM, after all, could have gotten it altogether wrong and I’d have had a big blank space in my heart where the Great Caprice has set aside a permanent soft spot for retirement. —Larry Griffin
1982 Chevrolet Caprice Classic
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 6-passenger, 4-door sedan
Base/As Tested: $8827/$12,260
Options: air conditioning, $695; power windows, $240; cloth interior with split bench seat, $195; automatic transmission, $172; P225/70R-15 radial tires, $159; power door locks, $152; two-tone paint, $141; rear-window defogger, $125; tinted glass, $102; limited-slip differential, $80; 5.0-liter V-8, $70; instrument package, $64; sport suspension, $49; intermittent wipers, $47; other options, $1142.
pushrod V-8, iron block and heads, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 305 in3, 5001 cm3
Power: 145 hp @ 4000 rpm
Torque: 240 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Suspension, F/R: control arms/trailing arms
Brakes, F/R: 11.0-in vented disc/9.5-in drum
Tires: Goodyear Custom Polysteel Radial
Wheelbase: 116.0 in
Length: 212.2 in
Width: 75.3 in
Height: 56.4 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 58/52 ft3
Trunk Volume: 21 ft3
Curb Weight: 3900 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 4.4 sec
60 mph: 12.6 sec
1/4-Mile: 18.9 sec @ 74 mph
90 mph: 36.2 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 5.2 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 8.2 sec
Top Speed: 104 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 212 ft
Roadholding, 282-ft Skidpad: 0.75 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 14 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/City/Highway: 21/17/28 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED
Source: Reviews - aranddriver.com