Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
There's a line in a 1980s Kool and the Gang song that proclaims, "She's as heavy, as a Chevy." In modern parlance the same sentiment might be stated using the term "phat." As in, "That Chevy is one phat ride." In both cases, the actual weight and/or proportions of the Chevrolet in question have little to do with the statement. The idea being that a "heavy" or "phat" Chevy is good.
Regardless of your specific definition of "heavy" or "phat," the 2004 Chevrolet SSR scores. The vehicle is based on the same platform as the Buick Rainier, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Isuzu Ascender. This time around, however, the platform underpins a retro-inspired, two-seat pickup rather than a high-profile SUV. Its closest ancestor in the General Motors line is probably the El Camino, but even that car-based pickup didn't include a power-retractable hardtop and a fully enclosed, hardcover bed.
Upon seeing the SSR, the first reaction from many a passerby was, "What exactly is it, and why did Chevrolet build it?" The short answer (with apologies to Harley-Davidson) is, "If you have to ask, I can't explain it." But in reality the SSR is very easy to understand. Like every manufacturer right now, Chevrolet is looking to stand out from the near deafening noise levels that consume the automotive marketplace. In a world flush with functional, comfortable, luxurious and powerful vehicles, it takes something a little extra special to stick in consumers' minds. For many companies that something extra is style, and the SSR is awash in style.
If you're still not getting it, you could simply think of the SSR as GM's Plymouth Prowler except that it's a truck not a car, it has a proper V8 and the division that makes it is still in business. Like the Prowler, the SSR is not really about functionality or comfort or luxury or performance (come to think of it, if a vehicle has enough style those other attributes seem to go right out the window, don't they?). We recently spent a week with an SSR to try and understand what exactly, beyond retro style and a hoped-for halo effect, this truck has to offer buyers for $42,000.
One of the first things we learned was that Chevrolet did indeed get the style thing right. From traditional, aging hot rodders to young yuppies to Ferrari service techs, the SSR was a universal hit at first glance. The truck's wide metallic bumper bisects its round, retro headlights in a fashion that would make any Rod & Custom reader proud. The headlights themselves sit on the leading edge of fat (and phat) flared front fenders with a similar flared effect repeated over the rear wheels. Speaking of wheels, a pair of 19-by-8-inch front wheels wearing 255/45 Goodyear Eagle tires, steer the SSR, while 20-by-10-inch rear wheels wearing 295/40 Goodyears, transmit its power to the ground.
One aspect of the SSR's style that you can't appreciate in photographs is the serious rake that's built into its design. Between the larger rear wheels, low hood and dominant rear proportions (greatly enhanced by the hard bed cover), this Chevy looks as speed-crazed as any late 1960s Chevelle or Nova with air shocks and Crager rims. The fact that our test car was painted Slingshot Yellow only added to the fuss it created whenever we rolled it out.
And as much as the SSR demanded attention with the top up, the act of powering down the retractable hardtop never failed to impress all within eyeshot. The process takes less than 30 seconds (going up or down) and the action of the roof breaking into two distinct sections and disappearing under a hard boot is as awe-inspiring as anything offered by Mercedes or Lexus. One aspect that doesn't quite live up to Mercedes-like refinement is the amount of noise emitted by the various motors involved. While not ear-piercing, the somewhat obtrusive groan of the mechanisms would never pass Mercedes QA.
With its roof retracted, the SSR's cabin plays a larger role in maintaining the truck's street cred. Thankfully, it is one of the better interior designs offered by GM. While many of the gauges and controls, including the audio head unit and steering wheel buttons, come straight out of the corporate parts bin, SSR-specific items include metallic door panel trim and steering wheel spokes. These pieces are metallic in appearance only, as close inspection reveals them to be plastic but high-grade plastic nonetheless. The area around the floor shifter, and the three dials that make up the HVAC controls, use similar "metallic-looking plastic." It may sound like faint praise, but as "metallic-looking plastic" goes, this is some of the best we've seen. At first glance it may have you fooled, and a closer inspection is required to confirm its nature. It's worth noting that, unlike the shifter in the Hummer H2 or PT Cruiser, the metallic shifter in the SSR is, indeed, made of real metal.
Beyond any discussion of materials, the cabin is a comfortable place to spend the day. The seats feature high-quality leather and provide excellent side bolstering. The seat back angle isn't power operated, but every other adjustment, including lumbar support, is. Two driver's memory positions and heated seat adjustments are offered if you opt for the LS Preferred Equipment Group, and the seat bottom can both tilt and change elevation to further increase seating options. A thick pad on the center console serves as an armrest, and does a better job of aiding driver comfort than its basic appearance would suggest. The only real downside to the SSR's seating is the tight spacing between the seat controls and the door panel. It's so tight, in fact, that it requires you to open the door whenever a seat adjustment is necessary.
The minimal space between the seats and doors is yet another reflection of the SSR's exterior style. While the front and rear fenders flare out, the doors are very tight against the interior compartment. This enhances the fat fendered look, but does compromise hip- and shoulder room somewhat (and headroom when the top is up). At six feet tall and 200 pounds, I found the cabin cozy, but not at all claustrophobic or unpleasant.
One of the side benefits of pulling from the GM SUV parts bin is the on-board computer from the Envoy. With this bit of technology on board, SSR drivers can adjust everything from automatic door locks to the seat memory response when using the keyless entry. That said, several of our editors would like an option to completely disable the automatic door locks, as they consistently proved to be the most annoying feature of the SSR.
It could be argued that the SSR justifies its existence by simply looking good while parked along the boulevard. But as a street rod, it must offer at least a modicum of "go" to back up its "show." Chevrolet addresses this issue with the same 5.3-liter V8 used in the Buick Rainier and long-wheelbase versions of the Ascender, Envoy and TrailBlazer. In the SSR, the engine is good for 300 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque, and is backed by a four-speed automatic transmission. Normally this would be a recipe for adequate, if not exceptional, performance, but in the SSR the drivetrain is double-teamed by a 4,700-pound curb weight and 20-inch tall rear wheels. In this case the term "heavy" isn't good, and when combined with a four-speed automatic meaning relatively wide gear ratios compared to a five-speed automatic you're left with an overburdened 300 hp.
Roll into the throttle and you can almost sense the engine's computer trying to reconcile these factors as it decides which gear is appropriate. What often feels like a missed downshift when booting the throttle at highway speeds is simply a result of those 20-inch wheels and relaxed gear ratios. At least the large dual tailpipes aren't just for show; the deep bass rumble emanating from each chrome trumpet is as authoritative as that real metal shifter.
Ride and handling response is similar to throttle response. That is to say somewhat delayed, but better than you might expect from a 4,700-pound truck. My experience with the Ascender, Envoy, Rainier and TrailBlazer has not made me a fan of the GMT-360 platform (at least not when doing anything but going in a straight line), but the SSR benefits from a lowered suspension, stiffer springs and wide tires. It's not an easy vehicle to drive fast, but it is eminently stable and well behaved when hustled down a twisty road. The live axle rear end provides a stiff but controlled ride, and the rack-and-pinion steering combines solid weighting with very little slop.
During performance testing, we confirmed that this heavy Chevy is relatively well behaved for a heavy Chevy. Stopping from 60 mph in less than 130 feet, for instance, is a feat we didn't foresee. The SSR also managed to sneak into the very high 15s (15.9 at 87 mph) in the quarter-mile. But during performance testing, as well as when parked with the engine running, we noticed a steady creep in the temperature gauge and felt hot air emanating from under the car. That's the thing about classic bodywork it rarely aids engine cooling.
Further, the SSR's outer shell doesn't contribute to a quiet cabin at highway speeds. With the top up, a noticeable roar intrudes from just behind the cab at above 50 mph, probably a combination of those 20-inch wheels and the covered cargo area acting like an amplifier. The cargo hold itself is bizarre in that the cover must be opened first (via a button on the key fob) before the tailgate can be lowered. Closing it requires you to shut the cargo cover before closing the rear gate to ensure a tight seal between each (otherwise the cargo area might double as a portable koi pond after a rainstorm).
The more time we spent with the SSR, the more we understood what it was (and wasn't) about. For example, with a 2,500-pound towing capacity and limited cargo space, it's not about functionality. With a loud cabin at highway speeds (even with the top up) and tight shoulder and headroom, it's not about comfort or luxury. And with a near 16-second quarter-mile it's not about performance.
But this is a halo car. And as we've already established, a halo car is about much more than functionality, luxury and even performance. It's about things that, if you have to ask, probably can't be explained. After a week in the SSR, we knew to stop asking and just enjoy the ride.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says: It's gonna sound crazy, but I like this car. I am usually the first person to make fun of those who buy into a trend, then get hammered on resale value and/or look stupid a few years later when their fad car is horribly outdated (please don't start with that "collector car" baloney). But I have a weakness for this thing. As a kid, my dad had a '52 Chevy pickup, so the styling for me is really cool. Plus, I just love the exhaust note. The interior design is a real strong point, simple and elegant, new combined with old very nice!
The downer is that it really isn't all that fast. I don't know what I was expecting, but the SSR is not quick. Granted, it's fast enough so that you won't look silly, but this thing is just begging for an aftermarket supercharger and a K&N-type air filter. I wonder if downsizing those monstrous 20-inch wheels in back would help the performance? Probably. And while we're at it, the SSR is also begging to be lowered. Tuck those big meaty tires up under the pontoon fenders and then we'll really have a boulevard cruiser.
And that's really the point, the SSR is a cruiser not a drag strip champion. Top down, warm Saturday night, a little Bob Seger flowing out of the 8-track, I mean CD player. It's a terribly inconvenient car but who really cares? The SSR is tacky, wild, different, odd and just plain cool.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says: There is no doubt the SSR delivers plenty of image moxy with its pin-up girl curves that are slung low to the ground all the while reminding you she's not so nice with that engine whose roar makes your teeth chatter. And dropping the two-piece hardtop is a visual coup d'état.
I had a chance to rip up Pacific Coast Highway with the top down to take it all in. The SSR is possibly one of the best cruisers I have ever driven. However, being a great cruiser doesn't necessarily mean it's a great performer. The engineers chopped off quite a bit of the platform that the Envoy and TrailBlazer use for the SSR, but there is still plenty of weight, and you can feel it. The steering is slow to react and it doesn't get moving nearly as fast as the engine would lead you to believe. But for me, that's totally forgivable since it is a cruiser.
What aren't forgivable are the flimsy center stack dials and the ridiculous removable passenger-side cupholder. The cupholders as a whole are pretty weak on this vehicle. Maybe Chevrolet's taking cues from the Germans in their assumption that you should be driving, not drinking. My only other gripe would be the way you have to open the tailgate to close the bed cover, even though the cover can be released independently of the gate.
All in all, the SSR is about style, the journey, but not the destination. If you don't care how long it takes you to get there and you just want to see what's around that next corner, the SSR is definitely the vehicle to take you there.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our test vehicle had the optional sound system that is included with the LS Preferred Equipment Group package. It includes a 250-watt amplifier, six Bose speakers and an in-dash six-disc changer. Each door has two speakers and an additional speaker is behind each seat. The head unit is standard-issue GM, which is somewhat disappointing considering how unique the rest of the interior looks. There are redundant controls for volume and station seek/track advance on the steering wheel.
Performance: Between the 250-watt amplifier and speed-control volume, this system is more than capable of keeping ahead of wind and road noise when the top is down. In fact, the system automatically increases in volume as soon as the hardtop completely folds away to account for the altered acoustics. Two sound imaging modes ("Spacious" and "Driver") effectively alter the system's performance. Overall imaging is excellent, but the system's bass response is too aggressive, even by today's generally overaggressive bass standards. And at higher volumes, the midrange and low-end separation weren't as crisp as I'd have liked.
Best Feature: Plenty of power and good imaging.
Worst Feature: Overly aggressive bass response has to be reeled in.
Conclusion: This one thumps your rump, whether you want it to or not. Pure power isn't an issue, but pure fidelity could be better. Karl Brauer
"I just got a yellow SSR. Driving it home 120 miles after getting it at MSRP washed away all my 40-plus years of stress and anxiety. Sure it didn't have the acceleration, it felt heavy, somewhat noisy and lacked many convenience features of Japanese cars. But who cares? It's an American-made icon. Why would you race or compare anything with this SSR? I drove slow at 60 mph letting all the traffic pass me by and just watched their faces. Would Ford Lightning do that?" hotdhs, Jan. 9, 2004
"I see the SSR going the way of the Plymouth Prowler, another icon that didn't offer much other than good looks for a high price. After a couple of years, the look got old and sales declined. I just wonder what's going to happen in 3-4 years. Are we going to get a new SSR? Or is GM going to end production? I just can't see how GM can recoup its cost on this." mirth, Jan. 29, 2004
"When I saw the SSR at the auto show a couple of years ago, I thought that it was pretty neat, especially since a mid-30s price was being thrown around. So it comes out at almost $50K? It's nice that it's a pleasant cruiser, but 300 hp driving 4,700 pounds, at that price, with a bed that is borderline unusable? There was a recent article in USA Today about how GM is pinning all of its hopes on specialty coupes and retro cars. With the PT and Beetle fading fast, and the T-Bird a flop, isn't it a little late to the game?" gesmike, Feb. 28, 2004
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