Chevy’s 2005 SSR halo car hooks onto performance

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

A hardtop convertible pickup styled after a late-40s Chevy truck sounds intriguing.

It sounded intriguing to General Motors, too, when Wayne Cherry, now-retired vice president of GM design, offered the idea several years ago. And as a concept vehicle, it caught the imagination of the press and the car-buying public. It was really an exceptional design.

So General Motors built it, an incredible design featuring a tri-fold power retractable hardtop that stores between the cab and the truck bed for open-air pickup truck motoring.

When we first drove a 2004 model SSR a year ago, it was hard to get away from people who wanted to look inside, watch the top in operation and ask questions. Nobody had ever seen a production-model pickup truck roadster.

Chevrolet wanted a vehicle to get people into the showroom and it succeeded. It was the perfect halo vehicle but not the perfect niche vehicle.

A hotrod pickup truck is fun to look at, but, hey, with a price tag around 45 grand you could buy a new Corvette or a big Chevy pickup and for truck loving speed enthusiasts a competitive pickup with obscene horsepower and a true truck bed not confined by a top that allowed for limited cargo capacity.

Chevrolet had a sales target of 13,000 for 2004, but only 9,648 were sold to dealers. And many of those were languishing in dealer showrooms at the end of the year suffering from things disguised by its good looks.

The original SSR came with a 5.3-liter V-8 generating 300 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque. Sounds like a lot of muscle for a two-seater, but factor in the Chevy’s mammoth weight, which approaches 5,000 pounds, and you can see why the 2004 SSR does well to reach 60 miles per hour in around 7 seconds through a 4-speed automatic. That’s not a bad number per se, but rather anemic for a vehicle that looks like it should run like a scaled dog.

For 2005 Chevrolet has sought to strengthen the SSR’s desirability with a bigger engine that turns the unique vehicle from a boulevard cruiser into the hotrod it definitely resembles.

The solution – slam the new 6.0-liter Corvette engine under the hood.  Now we’ve got something to write home about. In the SSR rendition, the pushrod 6.0-liter generates 390 horsepower and 405 pound-feet of torque through the rear wheels mated to a heavy-duty 4-speed automatic or – and here’s the good part – a 6-speed Tremec manual transmission. Now we’re talking turkey.

We tested the SSR with the 4-speed automatic and had enough torque to lay a healthy patch of rubber even with the traction control system turned on. We roared to 60 much like we would expect in a true sports car.

Those with proper testing equipment have clocked the new SSR from 0 to 60 in around 5.9 seconds with the automatic and in the 5.5-second neighborhood with the 6-speed. Figure 13.8 seconds to a quarter mile.

Whether the engine upgrade will be enough incentive to kick more than 10,000 SSRs out the door in 2005 is up for speculation. There are more than a handful of roadsters out there under 50 grand that are as quick as or quicker than the Chevy. But it was an excellent move by Chevrolet, particularly considering the price of the truck only increased by less than $500.
The most unique feature of the SSR is the retractable top. And probably the biggest kick in driving the SSR comes with the top down and wind in the hair if you’re lucky enough to have some. Push a button from the cockpit and the top stores behind the seats and doesn’t steal room from the covered bed, which has a 23.7-cubic foot storage capacity including two large lockable bins.

That’s not much when comparing it to a full-sized Chevy Silverado, but it’s a heap of space when comparing it to the standard roadster. It does very neatly hold two sets of golf clubs with room to spare for other essentials.
Perhaps because it is built on a truck platform, the SSR is not the most stable of convertibles with the top down. Cowl shake is in evidence despite fully hydroformed steel side rails that are designed to provide strength and stiffness. But it’s not unnerving by any stretch, just a bit more flex than we’ve become used to in the modern convertible and roadster over the past couple of years.

On the other hand one of the neat things about a hard top, in addition to the safety and security it offers, is that it adds tremendous stability to the vehicle when it’s in place.

The retro theme is carried over inside into a very attractively styled interior. Standard leather seating and well-done aluminum trim give the interior a quality look and feel.
Nostalgia is built into the cockpit from a shifter straight out of a late ‘60s Corvette to a row of small gauges mounted low on the console ala the early Camaro.

The nostalgia does not get in the way of user-friendly switchgear. The radio is standard Chevrolet with a tuning knob for finding stations. The gauges are clear and the round climate control knobs easy to use.

One thing we wish Chevy would fix is the power seat controls. They are located on the side of the seat, and there is very little room between the door and the seat. We had a difficult time getting our hand on the controls without opening the door. Please, no nasty remarks about fat hands.

The truck is well equipped with such standard features as antilock brakes, side-impact airbags, air conditioning, stereo with CD player, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, leather seating and power driver’s seat.

Our test truck came with the $1,900 preferred equipment package, which includes heated seats, upgraded Bose sound system with 6 CD changer, electrochromic mirrors and memory package.

Our test SSR also had a wood-trimmed cargo compartment, special paint and an auxiliary gauge package. That brought the bottom line to $46,685.

Chevrolet has made a very interesting limited-run vehicle, and it is even more interesting in 2005 with the extra horses under hood.

While we believe the SSR still helps increase showroom traffic we will sit back and see if those new ponies can pull in more buyers to make the SSR a sales success in its own right. It’s one halo of a vehicle now with devilishly good performance.