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2003 Chevrolet Suburban 2500 by John Pearley Huffman (4/14/2003)
The wheels keep on turning -- in some exotic ways, now.
Dating back to the 1961 Impala, Chevy’s SS “Super Sport” moniker has meant enhanced performance, handling and muscular design packages for the bowtie brigade. Chevy recently announced that its entire line would soon see SS variants, and right off the bat we have the Silverado SS, created from a 1500 extended-cab, short-bed pickup. The new offering should sooth the souls of those still smarting from the discontinuation of the SS 454 some years back.
From the outside, the truck wears the badge well. It features full front and rear bumper fascias that wrap completely around the body, and extend from the belt line down almost to the frame rails. The front includes a wide center-band air scoop, flanked by two rectangular corner scoops. Their diamond-pattern mesh is harmoniously integrated with that of the grille, which features Chevy's new gold bowtie emblem. "Silverado SS" badges accent the front doors and left rear quarter panel. Bodysides are clean, with understated moldings. Sporty five-spoke polished aluminum 20 x 8.5-inch wheels feature Chevy's emblem in their center cap and the tailgate includes a body color cap. The dark charcoal interior is equipped with uplevel LT trim and leather bucket seats with special "SS" embroidered headrests. Our Arrival Blue Metallic Silverado SS can also be had in Black or Victory Red.
A standard high-output LQ9 version of the Vortec 6000 V-8, with 345 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 380 lb-ft of torque at 4000 revs, mates to a Hydra-Matic 4L85-E four-speed automatic overdrive transmission.
A standard full-time, all-wheel-drive (AWD) viscous-coupled transfer case provides—in the words of Chevrolet’s press kit—“exceptional on-road, wet or dry pavement handling.” (More on this below.) It requires no driver intervention, automatically and continuously transferring torque from slipping wheels to those with a firmer grip.
A unique Z60 high-performance chassis package features Silverado's largest-ever 20-inch wheel and tire combination. Ride height has been lowered two inches in front and five inches in back, creating a level side profile. An 18mm wider track and P275/55R20 Goodyear Eagle radials, mounted on 8.5-inch rims, enhance stability.
A truck is a truck
If you treat the Silverado SS as a muscle car and run it on clean, smooth, dry roads, the package performs as promised. Power delivery through the Vortec, the electronic tranny and the full-time AWD transfer case is immediate and seamless, and the tuned exhaust, with a trick 3.5-inch outlet, delivers a lovely, NASCAResque rumble. Dusting slowpokes off on two-lanes is ridiculously easy and predictably dramatic. With a top speed of 115 mph, the Silverado SS loses out in the top-end wars to the Lightning F-150, but it does provide Chevy fans with an attitudinal alternative they’ve not had for some time.
There is, however, no getting around the essential reality of the Silverado SS being at heart a full-size, near-three-ton pickup truck, and as such the Silverado SS can’t really deliver on the handling promises of the SS badge. It’s quite easy to bring the SS up to speed, but it tends to push through turns, even with AWD, particularly if there is any dust or unevenness on the road surface. Part of the problem lies in tire structure: the stiff, low shoulder of the 55-series Eagles, the large patch area and the performance compound compromise lateral grip. In comparison, the Cadillac Escalade ESV we tested last month uses the same drivetrain in a package that weighs incrementally more (but, being an SUV, has more uniform weight distribution) than that of the Silverado SS, and on conventional all-season radials the big Caddy performed like a ballerina en pointe.
Larger brake rotors would be in order; they would look great under the huge 20-inch wheels and would help reduce momentum-induced understeer. Steering responsiveness in the recirculating ball system could be enhanced as well; the 14.0:1 ratio is a little tall for a performance package, even though the 3.4 turns it provides lock-to-lock are fine for simply getting around town—although why QuadraSteer isn’t made standard across the line remains one of life’s great mysteries. It would sure come in handy maneuvering the Silverado’s 143.5-inch wheelbase in parking lots.
As noted above, Chevy touts how the SS package with AWD gives this Silverado exceptional handling on wet or dry pavements. This does not necessarily mean that one can’t be caught out on the occasional downhill, decreasing-radius, snow-covered right-hand bend, as happened to yours truly on our first night with the truck as we were creeping home from dinner in a surprise late-spring blizzard.
I had stupidly forgotten that we were outfitted with dry-weather performance Goodyear Eagles. Thus shod, we were treated to a demonstration of how, as Richard Petty once said, “Once they get gone, they stay gone.” As the bend tightened, the tail broke loose, and we started a long, sweeping pirouette to the left. The half-inch of snow on the pavement made turning into the skid and feather-throttling the AWD system useless. There was a gentle nudge as we kissed the guardrail, which corrected the situation and allowed us to bring the truck safely to a stop. We had smacked the butt end of the guardrail with the tip of the rear bumper, piercing the bumper fascia and ripping the left end of the bumper straight back for about a third of its length. Deeply embarrassed, I reported the incident to Chevy’s press fleet handlers the next morning, and they were surprisingly kind about the whole thing, given I had triggered a logistical nightmare of epic proportions: the SS had been scheduled to star at Automobile’s “Reader’s Choice” awards ceremony in New York the following week, and now it wasn’t going to make the party. I understand a replacement was to be trucked in from Detroit.
There’s never enough grey matter to go around, and there may ultimately be a few consumers who will make the same sort of error I did. There is already a Silverado SS enthusiast site whose creator, who has yet to buy the vehicle, anticipates getting some off-road capability from the package because of the AWD system. Such individuals need to truly understand that the SS package creates something that ultimately is neither fish nor fowl. A case in point would be the optional Z82 tow package fitted in our tester, which provides a rated towing capability of 7,500 lb. Should you actually be towing that much bulk, you’d probably be much happier with something taller than the standard 3.06 first gear that helps the SS launch off the line so impressively.
But if you simply like getting attention in a pickup while smoking the pokey, you can’t do much better than the Silverado SS.
2003 Chevrolet Silverado SS
Base price: $39,995
Engine: 6.0-liter V-8, 345 hp
Transmission/driveline: Four-speed electronic automatic, full-time all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 143.5 in
Length x width x height: 227.6 x 81.5 (mirrors folded) x 72.2 in
Curb weight: 5298 lbs
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 12/16 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Dual-zone climate control, power adjustable front seats w/ memory, power rear-view mirrors, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, premium AM/FM/cassette/CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles