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New Car Review: 2004 Chevrolet SSR

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2004 Chevrolet SSR

Every few years one of the leading manufacturers comes out with something that captures the attention of a wide swath of Americans. Other manufacturers have had their turn in the limelight with some now well-known cars; for 2004 it's Chevrolet's turn, with the SSR custom truck.

If you took upwards of $250,000 to a well-known custom car builder and specified a unique vehicle with a more-than-passing resemblance to a Chevy pickup from the late 1940s, you might get something much like the SSR. The SSR certainly would look right at home on display at a custom car show, next to the latest creations from the best-known builders. But, although it is based on a concept vehicle, it's a real production truck made from easily available parts and with a real factory warrantee. And it has something that could be difficult and very expensive for an individual fabricator to build - a power-operated, fully-retracting steel hardtop.

``SSR'' means ``Super Sport Roadster,'' and it goes from hardtop to roadster at the touch of a button. Under it's unique steel skin is a frame based on that of Chevy's mid-sized TrailBlazer SUV, with an aluminum-block 5.3-liter version of the current ``small block'' V8 to provide the appropriate power and rumble. With 300 horses and 310 lb-ft of torque, it's not merely a show machine, but has plenty of go and the makes all of the right sounds.

I've just finished an extremely entertaining week with an SSR. It has attracted plenty of admiring looks and started more than a few conversations. It is highly unlikely that any SSR buyer will have one as an only car, but it could work - there is even trunk space, lots of trunk space, under the metal tonneau.

The SSR is more than adequately quick in a straight line, and corners well on a smooth surface, but it's really not about speed and handling at the limit. It's not a sports car - there are Corvettes for that - it's a four-wheel version of a custom cruiser motorcycle. And as that, it's perfect. Drop the top, put some appropriate music on the stereo, and go cruisin'.

APPEARANCE: For this type of vehicle, styling is paramount. And the SSR's designers absolutely nailed the retro-meets-contempory custom look. Chevrolet has built on its heritage, but the result is fresh and modern.

Inspiration came from the 1947 through 1953 generation of Chevy pickup, which, with its rounded hood and fenders, had strong ties to the streamline and art deco styling movements of the 1930s. The SSR's front looks like it belonged to one of those pickups, after many hours of delicate cutting, filling, and re-profiling at a custom body shop.

The metallic trim at the top of the grille, and the horizontally-barred body color grille itself are faithful to the original; the stylized metallic crossbar below it, extending through the compound headlights, is contemporary Chevrolet.

The body is narrow and the fenders are huge - from necessity, as they are filled by gigantic 255/45 HR19 tires on eight-inch wide aluminum wheels in front and even larger 295/40 HR20s on ten-inch wide rims in the rear. The body is raked up at the rear for the time-honored look of performance.

It doesn't matter whether the top is up or down, the SSR's proportions are right. Interestingly, looking across the wide expanse of the tonneau reminded me of some other American classics - the Auburns and even Duesenbergs of the 1930s.

COMFORT: If it's be retro-modern on the outside, the SSR is completely contemporary within with ``double cockpit'' styling and bight but non-distracting metallic trim. It's strictly a two-seater, and space to the sides is tight. Upholstery is leather, as is the rim of the tilt-adjustable steering wheel, and the seats are power-adjustable except for manual seatback rake, but adjust everything before closing the doors. Body-color paint on the console and aluminum trim around the meaty metal shifter are nice touches.

To convert from hardtop to roadster or back, merely stop, put it in ``Park,'' put your foot on the brake, and hold a button down for about 30 seconds. The top folds neatly into the space between the cab and the cargo area.

Unlike some similar vehicles, you won't need a trailer to carry things when traveling in an SSR. Under the tonneau is 23.7 cubic feet of space, aided by a standard liner and built-in cargo tracks for tie-down. The tonneau is removable if necessary, and a number of useful accessories are available.

SAFETY: The SSR counts dual stage frontal airbags with a passenger-side off switch, side impact airbags, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes among its safety features.

ROADABILITY: The SSR's ride and handling characteristics are dominated by its massive wheels and tires. Its hydroformed and boxed steel frame is rigid for a ladder frame, and the steel body atop it is essentially a unit structure.

Front suspension is independent by means of double A-arms and coil springs, while the solid rear axle has five-link location and coil springs which should provide much better ride and handling response than the leaf springs commonly used in pickups. And the suspension response is supple and comfortable on smooth, undulating surfaces. But add tar strips, patches, expansion joints, potholes and the other deficiencies of modern roads and the unsprung weight of the wheels and tires, and rear axle, makes itself felt, big time.

There is no way this thing will be confused with a car. But, hey, the SSR has more character than just about every other car currently made, combined, and the jouncing and shaking just add to its bad-boy character. So does the relatively heavy steering, again thanks to the wide tires. The acre or so of contact patch does give good roadholding, at least on smooth surfaces, but at 4800 lbs., the SSR is not really a sports car (or truck) as much as it is a cruiser. And as a cruiser, especially with the top down on a warm evening, it has no peer among production cars.

PERFORMANCE: There is only one engine choice for a something with the SSR's looks, and that is a small-block Chevy V8. Fortunately the SSR is a Chevy, so this isn't a political problem. And, not only is there the latest small-block V8 under the hood, it's the lightweight, high-performance aluminum version of the small block. With 300 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, it makes all of the classic hot-rod sounds.

Acceleration isn't too bad, either, especially considering the weight, with 60 mph coming up in about 7.6 seconds. Rev it and go, a standard Torsen(tm) limited-slip differential helps keep the power to the ground. Strong four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes help it stop as quickly as it goes.

CONCLUSIONS: You'll be the center of attention in a Chevrolet SSR, a factory custom truck that is the four-wheeled equivalent of a custom cruiser motorcycle.

2004 Chevrolet SSR

Base Price $ 41,370
Price As Tested $ 43,910
Engine Type aluminum alloy pushrod overhead valve 16-valve V8
Engine Size 5.3 liters / 325 cu. in.
Horsepower 300 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 310 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length 116 in. / 191.4 in.
Curb Weight 4760 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 15.9
Fuel Capacity 25 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires Front: P255/45 HR19 Rear: P295/40 HR20 Goodyear RS-A
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent double A-arm with coil springs / solid axle with 5-link location and coil springs
Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 19 / 17 0 to 60 mph 7.6 sec Towing capacity 2500 lbs

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Preferred Equipment Group 1SB - includes: engine cover insert; memory package - seats, radio, DIC; heated seats, electrochromic inside and outside left rearview mirrors, homelink, AM/FM/in-dash 6CD changer Bose premium audio system $ 1,900 Front license plate frame $ 15 Destination charge $ 625