Saturday, June 26, 2004

Chevy SSR looks great, but ...

World's first convertible pickup was inspired by classics

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Chevy SSR


The Chevy SSR draws admiring glances, but isn't very practical and has many annoying drawbacks.
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
3 wheels
SSR less than just a pretty face.

What I drove: 2004 Chevy SSR, two-door, two-passenger convertible pickup truck

Base price: $41,370

Price as tested: $43,910 (includes options and destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: Preferred Equipment Group: engine-cover insert, memory seats and radio, heated seats, auto-dimming rearview and outside mirrors, HomeLink, Bose Premium Sound System with in-dash six-disc CD changer

Summary: "Look at me" retro cruiser

Drivetrain layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 5.3-liter V8 producing 300 horsepower and 331 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 4-speed automatic with overdrive

Wheelbase: 116 inches

Length: 191.4 inches

Width: 78.6 inches

Height: 64.2 inches

Weight: 4,760 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 16/19

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; drivetrain: 3 years/36,000 miles; roadside assist: 3 years/36,000 miles

Assembled in: Lansing, Mich.

Safety: Dual-stage front airbags, passenger-air bag off switch, side-impact air bags, seat belt pretensioners, 4-wheel antilock brakes, traction control, daytime running lights, theft deterrent system.

Cool: Retractable hard-top, look-at-me styling

Uncool: Cramped interior, truck-like handling, body shakes and tremors, must open tailgate to close bed cover, V8 offset by 4,760-pound weight

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Car Talk

When I was 9, I had a terrible crush on the Beatles' Paul McCartney. I tore his picture out of magazines, hoarded Beatles cards displaying his image and listened to his songs while daydreaming of the day we'd meet and get married.

My 9-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has a crush on a truck - the retro-styled Chevy SSR. She has cut its picture out of all my car magazines, pinned them to her bulletin board and nagged me for the past year to test-drive this object of her fascination.

So it was a sense of motherly duty that prompted me to schedule a test of the SSR last week. Not only did I want to give my daughter a thrill, I wanted to see if this heritage truck is more than just a pretty face.

From the Fifties

Inspired by Chevy's classic pickups of the late '40s and early '50s, the SSR (Super Sport Roadster) features a sculpted hood, cloud-shaped roof, color-keyed bed cover, bulging fenders, and big wheels and tires (19-inchers in front and 20-inchers in back). After being unveiled as an auto show concept in 2000, the SSR won corporate approval, moved swiftly into production, and debuted in dealerships in October.

The SSR is the world's first (and so far only) convertible pickup truck. The retractable hard top, my daughter and I agreed, is the coolest thing about it. With the press of a button, the hinged roof quietly and quickly folds into a well behind the seats.

Top up or down, this pickup gets the looks. To drive it is to relinquish all privacy. Now I know how movie stars feel.

One day between appointments, I parked the SSR in a shady spot in a parking lot to eat my lunch. I couldn't get through two bites without answering questions with my mouth full.

All about style

Within 10 seconds of climbing into the driver's seat, you realize this truck is more about style than practicality. Sure, the cockpit looks great, with its brushed aluminum shifter knob and door handles, exterior paint-colored center console and upper door panels.

But the cockpit is so tight, there's barely enough room to stow a purse, let alone a pen. The glove box can hold maybe two barrettes, and the center-console bin is owner's-manual slim. The leather sport seats, while comfortable, are pressed so tightly against the doors it's impossible to get your hand on the power-seat controls without opening the door.

The SSR's only practical feature is its truck bed. Measuring about 5-by-3 feet, the covered bed can hold 24 cubic feet of stuff, as long as that stuff is no taller than a coffin. The bed cover can be flipped up easily with the press of the key fob or a button inside the glovebox. Closing the lid is more difficult, as it takes two hands to pull down, and you have to open the tailgate first. This quickly became tedious.

People who want to carry motorcycles and lawnmowers in the bed can unbolt the cover, but they'll have to enlist the help of a friend to haul it to the garage and hang it on special wall brackets (available from Chevy dealers).

Mixed-bag performance

Based on the Chevy Trailblazer chassis, the rear-wheel-drive SSR is powered by a 300-horsepower 5.3-liter V8 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The V8 power is offset by a hefty 4,760-pound curb weight, which, combined with less-than-agile handling, make the SSR more boulevard cruiser than muscle truck. The independent front suspension uses upper and lower control arms, and the solid axle rear suspension features monotube shock absorbers, all in the name of providing a smooth and stable ride.

The SSR looks so solid, I was surprised at how it shimmied, rattled and quaked over everything but the glossiest of road surfaces. The steering column jiggled, the cowl jittered, and when the passenger seat was unoccupied, its shoulder belt clattered loudly against the door panel.

It wasn't all bad news, however. The steering felt nicely controlled, the wide Goodyear tires provided ample grip, and there was minimal body lean in corners. The four-wheel disc brakes felt well-modulated and adeptly brought all 4,760 pounds of rolling metal to a stop.

In city driving, the SSR will travel 16 miles on one gallon of gas; on the wide-open highway it'll roll three miles further. Thankfully, the SSR packs a 25-gallon gas tank to cut down on fuel stops, where it will take regular unleaded gas.

Pretty, expensive face

Unlike many of the new vehicles I test, the SSR didn't grow on me; it shrunk. The more time I spent with it, the more its rattles rankled me, the more its tiny cabin squeezed me, and the more its bed cover-closing requirements tired me.

The SSR isn't a high-performance vehicle, despite its V8 engine and large wheels and tires. It's not a practical vehicle either, despite its 24-cubic foot cargo bed.

After one week with the SSR, I've concluded that this great-looking vehicle is just that and nothing more: a pretty face with a $41,000 price tag.

My daughter, however, remains smitten.


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