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New Car Review: 2004 Chevrolet SSR

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MODEL: Chevrolet SSR
ENGINE: 5.3-liter V8
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 300 hp @ 5,200 rpm/332 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic
WHEELBASE: 116.0 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 191.4 x 78.6 x 64.2 in.

As with so many vehicles these days, I'm often not impressed when I first see them, but the admiration grows the more time I spend with it.

Such was the case with Chevrolet's dramatic SSR truck. At first, I thought it was a nice concept, but wouldn't make production. Then, when it was announced that it would be produced, I wondered what it was really like.

I had my first chance behind the wheel last fall at Pocono Raceway, where I had an opportunity to put the SSR through its paces on both the oval and infield road course. The SSR had tons of power (300 horsepower and 332 lb-feet of torque) so it was able to get up and move quickly. It also handled extremely well, and exhibited almost zero lean, even during hard cornering.

That power can get the SSR from 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds and can tow 2,500 pounds.

Ah, but the true test of a vehicle is a week behind the wheel. That's the best way to discover the bugs that can make some of the best vehicles annoying.

The SSR didn't have any bugs, other than a tendency for the body to rattle more than it should. The odd two-seater convertible truck with the huge fenders covering huge tires passed the test with flying colors.

The most distinguishing feature of the SSR is its retractable hard-top. This top doesn't fold, as do many retractable hard-tops, but it stacks, almost like shuffled cards, into a well just behind the passenger compartment. Almost no cargo area is sacrificed for the stowed top. With the top down, there's some wind inside the cockpit, but it's enough to add charm to the truck that has suddenly become a sports car.

The second most distinguishing feature is the covered cargo area. A hard tonneau cover is hinged at the back of the passenger compartment and lifts to provide access. The cover doesn't lift that high, so you can't carry a refrigerator or motorcycle, for example, but there was certainly enough room back there for all my grass clippings, and the person who had the SSR before I did carried firewood in it. Chevrolet quotes 23.7 cubic feet of cargo volume.

My only complaint about the cargo bed was that the lid couldn't be lowered with the tailgate up. Also, the tailgate was carpeted, so you'd have to be careful about the degree of dirtiness of what you're carrying.

The third most distinguishing feature about the SSR is the huge fenders and aerodynamic hood. The fenders cover 20-inch rear tires and 19-inch front tires, so they're needed. I felt a running board connecting the fenders might be a neat touch, and I understand an optional `board is in the works for the `05 model year.

I'd also like to see a boattail design to the cargo bed, but I'm not the designer.

Design is everything with the SSR. I spoke with chief designer Ed Wellburn (after he was named vice president of design for all of GM) and he pointed out such neat features as the drawer just to the right of the steering column for holding small items, the matching cupholder (when closed) on the passenger side, and the brushed aluminum door handles that take the form of a circle with a slash through it. In addition, there is brushed aluminum trim on the dash, on the shifter and on the center console.

A neat feature is a fold-down cupholder that attaches to either the passenger or driver side of the transmission hump. And Wellburn added outside rear-view mirrors that resemble those of a race car.

The classis, white-on-black instruments are located in brushed aluminum nacelles in front of the driver. They are a speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, water temperature and oil pressure. It's good to be aware of the oil pressure in that aluminum small-block Chevy engine.

When the SSR was delivered, there were teenagers coming home from the high school down the road from my house. Brakes screeched and two cars stopped across the street. Four kids got out and began reciting all the details of the SSR. I was impressed with how knowledgeable they were about this niche vehicle.

That's the kind of excitement it generated wherever we went. It's a vehicle that makes you sit up and take notice. And it's one you like being noticed in.

2004 The Auto Page Syndicate