Look out, here comes the boat-- no, the 1991 Chevrolet Caprice.

Look at how it floats across those bumps in the road. Look how those six adults pile in easily on the cloth bench seats front and rear. Look at how the golf clubs, the suitcases, the carts full of groceries all disappear into the massive trunk.It's like looking at a part of Americana. There just aren't many big autos like this left.

Big Chevrolets have been part of the General Motors Corp. fleet for decades. Since the 1950s, sales of the middle-America, bread-and-butter cars have totaled more than 38 million.

For 1991, GM has redesigned its Caprice and looks for sales of about 200,000 units compared with 150,087 in 1989. Already this calendar year, the new Caprice, which debuted in April, is helping boost sales more than 8 percent above last year's pace.

The design and engineering changes include a 5-liter V-8 engine as standard, teamed with a four-speed automatic transmission. The package delivers 170 horsepower and provides for a maximum 5,000 pounds of towing capacity, up 1,000 from the 1990 Caprice. The previous model's 4.3-liter V-6 engine has been dropped.

The V-8 performed well in the test drive, though I could feel the shift points during demanding acceleration. Chevrolet reports the Caprice can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10.5 seconds - a respectable showing for a car this size. So was fuel economy at 17 miles per gallon, city; 26 on the highway.

GM also boosted safety features in the redesign, installing a driver-side air bag and four-wheel anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.

Suspension provided by four-wheel coil springs was on the mushy side during the test drive, giving a floating feeling as the car hit potholes and bumps on the streets.

Outside, the Caprice is rounded, both front and rear. The rear wheel fenders are skirted, adding to the sloping, aerodynamic look. The styling helps take the edge off the largeness of the car, but once you're inside and driving, you're reminded that it's a big automobile: I nearly backed into another vehicle the first time in reverse, being unused to having so much car back there.

Inside, there's ample room for six adults. Chevrolet added 3 more inches of shoulder room and 2 more inches of hip room. Because the car retains its rear-drive configuration, the middle person in back must contend with the mid-floor hump.

But even with the front seat all the way back and reclined a bit, I could stretch out my legs. The rear shelf below the back window also was one of the largest I've seen.

The trunk, with 20.4 cubic feet of cargo space, is so monstrous that a small person might have to climb inside to reach the spare tire. Chevrolet wisely designed the lid so that items do not have to be lifed up and over the body, just over the bumper.

Exterior fit and finish was good, though on the test car some of the trunk lining was not attached on one side.

Caprice buyers typically have "a fond place in their hearts for a full-size Chevy," said company spokesman David Hudgens.

Target buyers for the 1991 model

will be younger than previous buyers, who averaged about 62 years of age, Hudgens said. Many past buyers have been retirees, and they used their Caprices for social and recreational trips.

"They're in their middle years and they have time to travel," Hudgens said. "They want comfort and space."

Today, the company hopes to get more buyers who are in their 40s and 50s, who will use the car for commuting to work, too.

Base price for the test car was $16,515. Competitors include the Ford Crown Victoria, which starts at more than $16,600; and the Chrysler New Yorker, which starts at more than $19,000.

Consumer Reports magazine lists 1983-85 Caprice models as average in owner reports of trouble. The 1986 model was ranked worse than average and the 1987-88 models were listed as much worse than average.

Hudgens said Chevrolet is always trying to improve quality and that production plants are working to get reliability and durability to a world-class level.


(Additional information)

1991 Chevrolet Caprice

BASE PRICE: $16,515.

AS TESTED: $19,472.

TYPE: Front-engine, rear-drive, six-passenger, full-size sedan.

ENGINE: 5-liter, electronic fuel-injected V-8.

MILEAGE: 17 mpg (city), 26 mpg (highway).

LENGTH: 214.1 inches.

WHEELBASE: 116 inches.

CURB WT.: 3,907 lbs.

BUILT AT: Arlington, Texas, and Lakewood, Ga.

OPTIONS: Grey cloth seats, $223; limited slip differential $100; large, 15-inch tires $213; ride and handling and trailer package $220; equipment group 2 (includes upgraded AM-FM sound system, power windows and door locks, six-way driver seat, cruise control, tilt steering, floor mats, remote trunk release and power antenna) $1,666.