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Story and photos by Paul Williams
At the 2000 Detroit Auto Show, Chevrolet unveiled its SSR (Super Sport Roadster) concept vehicle. According to all reports, grown men swooned at the sight of it. The response was so positive that GM decided to put the vehicle into production, aiming originally for late-summer, 2002, but settling on late fall, 2003 (what we call winter in Canada). Now, all the swooners can hand over some cold cash (the SSR starts at $69,995), and take their baby home, right?
Well, there’s the rub. A lot of other nice vehicles were introduced since 2000, and car nuts are a fickle bunch. How long does a retro-styled, convertible pickup truck of limited utility hold your attention?
Well, it certainly gets attention. In bright, “Slingshot” yellow, the vehicle looks for all the world like it just drove off the cover of “Concept Car” magazine. You feel like the legendary George Barris himself motoring down the highway in one of his celebrated Kustom Kreations.
Aside from the obvious hot-rod design cues, there are two more unusual features that distinguish this vehicle. First, the aluminum wheels are huge, with 19″x8″ rims on the front and 20″x10″ monsters on the back. Tires are P255/45 and P295/40 respectively. Second, there’s a fully retractable roof operated by a switch on the dashboard. Designed by specialist ASC Inc. (whose address in Michigan is One Sunroof Center, by the way), the roof uses an ingenious set of hinges and panels to disappear in 20 seconds. To put it back up takes 24-seconds.
Does it drive as outrageous as it looks? Not really, but it sure makes fine sounds. The platform for the SSR is same one used for the rear-wheel drive GM Trailblazer/Envoy mid-size SUV. It’s a body-on-frame platform, although it’s been shortened by about 32 centimetres for use in the SSR. There are only two seats and you’re up fairly high, looking at the other traffic over the big, ‘Forties-inspired, front fenders.
With its performance exhaust system, the cast-aluminum, 5.3-litre Vortec V8 engine makes 300-horsepower and 331 lb-ft. of torque, and thankfully runs on regular gas. Fuel consumption is no better than typical trucks of this size and weight, but there’s a 94.6-litre gas tank, so you’ll have plenty of fuel for cruising.
The only transmission available is a four-speed automatic. It does a nice job but it would be nice to have a manual option.
Aside from the raucous exhaust note, it’s quiet in the cabin with the top down, and there’s very little buffeting from the wind. Some of the switches and knobs are from the Chevrolet “parts bin” but the interior looks distinctive enough and the instrument cluster is unique to the vehicle. The leather-covered sport seats are very comfortable, and provide good support and stability in all the key areas.
The SSR is fun to drive, that’s for sure, although you really feel the its 2,159 kilogram (4,760 lb) weight when you step on the gas or turn sharply. It’s not slow by any means, but it’s not nimble, either. However, even with the power and the weight, towing is restricted to 2,500 lbs.
Acceleration to 100 km/h takes a bit under eight-seconds, and although presumably the novelty wears off, it was fun getting it up to speed every time. The driving experience brings to mind a 1960s muscle car with a 409 under the hood (sounds like one, too), but with a modern suspension and all the creature comforts you could want.
Speaking of comforts, the SSR comes standard with the power, retractable top; heated, power mirrors; dual zone climate control; a rear compartment cover with a removable hard tonneau, cruise control, CD stereo, front and side impact airbags; power, leather seats and fog lights.
My test vehicle came with a $3,495 preferred equipment package (bringing its total price to $74,385 with the premium paint colour) that added a Bose sound system with six-disc changer, auto-dimming mirrors (both inside and out), heated driver and passenger seats and a power driver’s seat with memory.
The SSR is a fun vehicle that has wild looks, the requisite V8 engine and a definite rarity factor (expect only about 1,500 to be sold in Canada this model year). But with its four-foot box, low towing capacity and adequate, but not exceptional, drivetrain, it won’t haul your trailer or win any drag races. And it’s definitely pricey.
In other reports, GM has referred to the SSR as a “halo” vehicle that creates a positive image for the whole lineup of its products. With this in mind, vast numbers of SSRs don’t have to be sold for the vehicle to achieve its goals. And it certainly makes a statement about Chevrolet’s connection to its past, and ability to make boutique-style vehicles.
However, the SSR harkens all the way back to GM’s “Advanced Design” period from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. It’s been my experience, that people who like classic cars (or classic car designs) gravitate toward vehicles that were current when they were children, which means the people who’ll really get a kick out of the SSR will now be approaching age 70. One wonders how the look of the SSR will resonate with younger buyers, and apart from its novelty, whether it will have relevance for them at all.