Nashville, Ind. — Even though you travel the Bill Monroe Memorial Highway to get here, this Nashville’s reputation has little to do with “pickin’ and grinnin’.” Driving Chevy’s SSR (for Super Sport Roadster) through this artists’ colony seems appropriate, though, for while it may or may not be a work of art, it is a vehicle for those who want to be noticed.
“It’s not as if we figured General Motors needed a two-door convertible V-8 pickup truck to fill a market niche,” noted Bob Walczyk, SSR marketing & product manager. We agreed, then queried him on who is the customer for this vehicle. “We’re rather excited to find out ourselves,” was his reply. “We think the demographics will be similar to the Corvette’s, but those folks would be more discerning on ride and handling.” Walczak is sure that these 45-to-50-year-old males with a $90-95,000 household income “aren’t the Lexus type.” But given the SSR’s $41,995 base price they are in Lexus territory.
Concept to reality
First a little background on how the SSR got to be, period. Back in 1999, General Motors styling director Wayne Cherry thought it was time for a Chevrolet truck to carry a “heritage design.” Retro-styled cars, both concept and production, previously had been the norm at GM. Ed Welburn, GM Design’s executive director of body-on-frame architectures, headed the development process because its focus was a truck. After considering four “modern interpretations” of past Chevy designs, Welburn and his crew decided to mimic 1947-52’s “Advanced Design” pickups with one major addition, a retractable hardtop. That idea came from one of the passed-over designs, which “included an open-air cab,” according to Welburn. “We were intrigued by the more contemporary and fun attributes of that type of vehicle, so the idea of a pickup truck that was also a modern convertible roadster held great promise.”
2004 Chevrolet SSR
Of course there was what Wallace calls “the business side” of the SSR, so that GM “can make some money.” To keep overhead and investment costs down, GM decided to build SSR using the underpinnings of the TrailBlazer, (32 percent by the reckoning of most of the GM folks we asked.) Other than the top, the biggest departure from Trailblazer was replacing its standard 4.2-liter in-line six with a new, aluminum block version of GM’s 5.3-liter V-8 that develops 300 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque. GM’s 4L60-E four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission delivers that grunt to the 10-by-20-inch rear wheels (the largest standard GM units) with help from a Torsen Traction Differential on the rear axle. Combined with the SSR’s engine-based traction control, the Torsen unit sends the most power to the rear wheel with the most traction. It works under slippery road conditions or when the driver’s right foot gets a bit carried away.
One other interesting engine “note” is the V-8’s sound. “Our exhaust note target was the Camaro SS,” SSR program engineering director Ed Ivey told us. “It was important to get that great throaty V-8 sound.” Mission accomplished; it definitely evokes that hot rod rumble. Otherwise, “how did we get from TrailBlazer to SSR?” program engineering manager Mickey Sabol rhetorically asked. “We started with a modified 370 frame and took 13 inches from its center.” (“370” is GM’s internal designation for its long wheelbase — 129 inches — mid-size SUVs, XLT models of Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy.) But SSR’s 116-inch wheelbase is three inches longer than the standard length TrailBlazer (a GM “360”), although overall lengths are almost identical. More noteworthy are the SSR’s four inches of additional width, one inch more front track and 2.8 inches more rear track.
Real-world benefit? The SSR grips the road with tenacity unusual for a vehicle weighing nearly two-and-one-half tons. Large, low-profile 255/45R-19 front and 295/40R-20 rear Goodyear tires help, because they’re “specially formulated and designed for the SSR’s unique ride and handling requirements and contribute to its aggressive look.” That press kit tidbit sent us back to our notepad. “Suspension is all TrailBlazer, but modified for the SSR ride and handling,” Mickey Sabol had told us. Again, the double A-arm front- and five-link live axle rear-suspension proved its worth during our back roads ramblings through southern Indiana, as did the SSR’s steering, not a TrailBlazer strength in our opinion. So we inquired.
“Basically we started with the TrailBlazer’s steering box and replaced all the guts,” said engineer Mike Grohs. “We also knew we needed a quicker ratio, plus we have unique front stabilizer bars and bushings.” Throw in shorter lower control arms, different shock and spring rates and you have steering and handling prowess TrailBlazers can only dream about. Throwing the SSR around curves at 50 mph on narrow country lanes near Brown County State Park made us believers.
2004 Chevrolet SSR
If you’re not a fan of late ’40s/early ’50s Chevy pickups, chances are you won’t be fond of the SSR, trick engineering notwithstanding. Judging from the stop-and-stare reactions that the SSR elicited during our scenic tour of points south of Indianapolis, I’d say most folks think it’s cool. The flared fenders and rear quarters were production challenges because tolerances today are far more severe than 50 years ago and far fewer assembly line workers are available. But a new innovative die and stamping procedure combined with the use of “new Grade 5 deep-draw quality steels” allowed the SSR team to accurately reproduce shapes not fabricated in steel for decades.
2004 Chevrolet SSR
Now back to pricing. The aforementioned $41,995 is for a “base” SSR, which is sort of a misnomer because beyond the 25 “Signature Series” trucks that we drove, there will be just one SSR model. There are a number of accessories however, enough to take the sticker beyond $45,000. That’s pretty hefty. Chevy plans to build between 14,000 and 15,000 SSRs annually. If they can sell them all, “we are going to make a little money and that’s all I’m going to say,” Tom Wallace said.
“There’s no other vehicle like it anywhere in the world,” said SSR Marketing Director Janet Eckhoff. “It’s the quintessential Chevrolet, affordable but aspirational.” I agree with the latter, but not the former. We journalists are a skeptical lot. Many of us wonder if SSR might suffer the retro Thunderbird’s fate. Everybody who really wants one will get it early. After that, sustaining 15,000 annual sales could be a challenge, especially given SSR’s price and limited practicality. For GM’s sake, I hope we’re wrong, for the SSR deserves better and GM deserves praise for producing it. But the marketplace is tough; niche vehicles enter at their own risk.
2004 Chevrolet SSR
Base price: $41,670 (includes $625 destination)
Engine: 5.3-liter V-8, 300 hp/331 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed electronically controlled automatic, rear-wheel drive with Torsen Traction Differential and traction control
Length x width x height: 191.4 x 78.6 x 64.2 in
Wheelbase: 116 in
Curb weight: 4760 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 15/19 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, traction control
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD-sound system with six-disc changer, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, power windows, locks, remote keyless entry, power seats, cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles, roadside assistance