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Tested: Chev Lumina SS auto

2010-07-09 06:33

Lance Branquinho

Unsubtle looks, but by no means unsophisticated engineering. Pushrod V8 features on-demand cylinder combustion and all four wheels are independently suspended.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Chevrolet
Engine 6l V8
Power 270kW @ 5 700r/min
Torque 530Nm @ 4 400r/min
Transmission Six-speed auto
Zero To Hundred 6.5 sec
Top Speed 238km/h
Fuel Tank 75l
Fuel Consumption 15.2l/100km
Weight 1 770kg
Boot Size 496l
Airbags Dual front, side, curtain
Tyres 245/45R18
Front Suspension McPherson struts
Rear Suspension Multi-link , coil springs
Service Intervals 15 000km
Service Plan 3 year/60 000km
Warranty 5 year/120 000km
Price R415 320
If ever there was a four-door performance sedan suited to South African requirements, it would be the Chevrolet Lumina.

Generously spacious inside, handsome and robust – the Bowtie Thunder from Down Under has proven the perfect foil to the more expensive, sophisticated and frailer German four-door performance sedan fare.

Although the Lumina SS is adorned with Chevrolet’s signature bowtie in the middle of the grille it remains a thoroughly Australian product.

Therefore, considering the similarities in heat, dust and distances encountered in the two rivalling former British colonies, the Lumina makes a lot of sense to South African hooligans burdened by family life.

Beyond its effortlessly crushing performance, massive 496l boot and rear seat accommodation generous enough to host the current Springbok front-row in comfort, there has always been an issue with the Lumina SS in tri-pedal configuration.

Accountable for transferring 530Nm of peak rotational force to the rear-wheels, the Lumina SS six-speed manual transmission only reacts to very deliberate thigh and forearm inputs.

Simply put – a manual shifting Lumina SS sedan can be terrifyingly tiresome to drive in congested urban traffic. Naturally Chevrolet has an alternative, a dual-pedal planetary shifter also sporting six-ratios and clever cylinder cut-out technology.

The issue at hand concerns just how much of the Lumina’s dynamic character goes amiss with the self-shifter? To find out we spent a week burbling about in the SS auto.

Still a looker

There’s no way of telling the difference between a manual or automatic SS Lumina judging by surfacing or styling details alone. This is, of course, not at all a bad thing.

The Lumina’s simple lines and bold proportions make for a big car that remains attractive and attention-grabbing even five years after its launch.

Performance sedan purists will quickly point out the ornate rear spoiler and oversized front lower fascia air intake as styling debits, yet this is a car marketed at customers who appreciate some visual clues to its latent performance potential.

All things considered, there is little to fault regarding the Lumina’s aesthetics. Finished in black and rolling 18-inch alloys, our test car looked menacing and, when accompanying me to a popular wine festival, the SS attracted quite a diffuse range of comments.

Each time I stopped, farm kids immediately gravitated to the Lumina’s rear, pointing out the set of dual-exhausts as a sign of V8 internal-combustion virility. Wine connoisseur friends weren’t particularly taken by the rear-spoiler (“what’s that for” followed by “does it really work” were the two stock responses), yet admitted the Lumina’s clean, defined lines were attractive.

South African sized

Considering the Lumina’s sheer size it is hardly surprising to find it a perfect conveyance for South African family requirements. On the school run I found myself glancing back intermittently to make sure I had all the kids on board, as they seemed lost in the sheer vastness of the rear seating accommodation.

The driving position and cabin functionally are a mixed bag. Although it is well equipped, the Lumina SS does have some rather peculiar ergonomic features. The electric windows don’t feature one-touch actuation on either the up or down stroke – which is something you find on most double-cab bakkies nowadays.

Then there’s the cabin boot release, which is a button inexplicably located within the cubby hold. It would be nice if the driver’s seat lowered a few centimetres deeper too and you scuff the back of your hand against the door pocket each time you try to adjust it. Those red voltage, oil temperature and fuel consumption displays atop the fascia are simply horrid, illuminating in a font and hue reminiscent of a scientific calculator I despised in high school.

Aside from the abovementioned ergonomic gremlins the sound system is superb, huge steering wheel entirely in step with the Lumina’s dynamic intensions and those seats are awfully comfy – whether you’re at the helm or along for the ride as a passenger.

Modern muscle car

Whether commuting to the office or navigating my way to Robertson for the wine festival, the Lumina SS displayed a benevolent duality – one part effortless sedan cruiser, the other half pure four-door muscle car.

Unquestionably, the six-speed auto is a superior car in traffic. Theoretically it should be a trifle more efficient too thanks to GM’s active on demand fuelling technology, which runs the Lumina SS auto on only half its eight cylinders when you’re not in a hurry.

At this point I know what you’re thinking. If it is an auto, and only runs on four-cylinders most of the time, how badly does it lag behind the manual SS? Well, it does – but the effect is negligible.

Occasionally you feel a delay when suddenly requiring full fuelling at lower speeds from both the transmission and engine. We are talking fractions though.

Despite the engine’s pushrod valve-gear arrangement it does feature camshaft adjustment and when you have 6l of swept capacity at your disposal a lack of performance is never going to be an issue.

Tally the statistics and 530Nm peaks at 4 400r/min, with 270kW following on at 5 700r/min. For an engine powering a performance sedan the output peak crank speeds are peculiarly low (especially considering the engine’s oversquare internal architecture), yet this is part of the Lumina SS auto’s appeal.

At even the most negligible throttle opening it surges ahead on a nearly inexhaustible supply of internal combustion urge. Although critics will point out that the Lumina SS is unable to dip below the six-second barrier with regards to the benchmark 0-100km/h sprint, the car's verve once up and running is beyond the measure of mere statistics. 

Thanks to six-engine mountings (instead of four) vibration is well damped. This means you end up with a characteristic V8 acoustic signature, a surfeit of performance and none of the vibration issues usually associated to sitting behind such a large capacity engine.

Buoyed by a ZF limited-slip differential the Lumina SS is not unduly upset by substandard surface changes, yet in damp conditions extreme caution should be exercised unless you have a fetish for perpetual traction control interventions.

I expected the Lumina SS to be fast on open roads (I’d driven a manual SS before) and docile in a congested urban environment (thanks to the automatic transmission). What surprised was the fluid cornering dynamics.

The SS is a large car. It never feels particularly agile.

With all-wheel independent suspension it does track with poise though and despite the oversized steering wheel feeling a little ungainly at first, actual road feedback via the helm is quite linear.

It may be an alarmingly entertaining off-the-dealer-floor drift car when suitably provoked, yet the all-round dynamics are neatly sorted. One has fair warning before the rear breaks away, which only happens if you really hoof it with plenty of steering lock in play.  

Once I had established that the Lumina SS was not going to default into oversteer at each possible dynamic input, its pace over back roads (especially badly surfaced South African back roads) was startling.


Big car. Simple shape. Looks all the better for it.


Absolutely massive. Build quality is good, yet ergonomic foibles abound. Transporting five adults – and their accompanying luggage – is effortless.

Driving it

Immense urge is very accessible, even more so in automatic guise. Tidy dynamics once you are familiarised with the Lumina’s size. Consumption on test varied between a best of 13.2l/100km and a rather thirsty 18l/100km.


The Lumina SS unquestionably offers the best ratio of performance-per-Rand available on the local market. Factor in its massive cabin and, for the family man requiring significant dynamic engagement, it is nearly an unbeatable deal.

Essentially, the question at hand is whether you should order a dual- or tri-pedal six-speed car. In my experience most Lumina customers are urbanites, where the six-speed manual’s heavy clutch actuation can be maddening in traffic.

Although it takes some edge off the dynamic driving experience at the limit the Lumina SS automatic is a fair compromise, especially if your partner or kids need to drive it occasionally and aren't the most committed of petrolheads - in which case it will be a far safer, more tolerable proposition to them.

If you grew up yearning for the small-block Can-Ams of yore and now find yourself burdened by a consideration to family logistics, the Lumina SS auto won’t disappoint.

It is a very neat Australian solution for a market like ours, lacking an affordable, spacious high-performance sedan tailored to local conditions and customer requirements.


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