We froze our tails off in a 2005 SSR during a Michigan December so we could give you the lowdown on the upgrades that Chevrolet granted its sweet-looking but poor-selling retro roadster truck. Chevy didn't give us an SSR without a heater, mind you: we just dig convertibles, and the SSR's nifty tri-fold power hardtop is too cool to resist.
During our maiden SSR voyage to the 2003 Indianapolis 500 (August 03:78), we weren't impressed with its power, but said "it is probably fast enough" to be a boulevard cruiser. Not many people want a slow $41,995 cruiser, though, and sales were disappointing, with a 301-day supply as of December 1 (which prompted GM to halt production at the SSR-factory in Lansing, Michigan, for five weeks of the first nine weeks of early 2005).
For the SSR's third model year, Chevy finally woke up and added 390 hp and 405 lb-ft of Corvette power and an optional manual transmission. Also new is retuned steering, revised exhaust routing, the addition of a dead pedal, an optional mp3-capable stereo, and more.
The host of "Tool Time" would grunt about the 30 percent more horsepower and 22 percent added torque that the '05 SSR picks up from the Corvette-sourced LS2 6.0-liter V-8. With the new Tremec six-speed manual 'box, the 4760-lb SSR will blast to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and through the quarter in the 13.8s, more than two seconds faster than the '03-'04 models. The new four-speed automatic is about two-tenths slower than the stick, but still gives the acceleration you'd expect from a "Super Sport Roadster." We'd be pretty pissed if we had an '03 or '04 model, however, because the '05 price increased by less than $500, and you'd have a hard time selling an underpowered, used SSR with such a surplus of the fast ones dormant on dealer lots.
The added muscle still doesn't make the Trailblazer-based SSR the hands-down choice of car buyers searching for an under-$50,000 toy. There are quite a few $45,000 roadsters out there today, most of which are just as quick as the new SSR, use higher-quality materials, and handle much better than the hefty truck. Even so, the convertible pickup doesn't have any apple-to-apple rivals, and it has a ton more cargo space than an Audi TT or Chrysler Crossfire.
Notice we didn't say "stowage space." While the SSR has 23.7 cubic-feet of cargo space in a carpeted bed that's capped by a nice hard tonneau cover (which leaked a bit in heavy rain), the truck is worse than a regular-cab S-10 for stowage space in the passenger compartment. The smallish door pockets are only hand-scrapingly accessible and the thin center console is big enough for a couple Clementine oranges and the owner's manual. Coaxing your grandmother's cat out of a tree is easier than closing the glovebox, which isn't big enough for the owner's manual. Smoker? Your pack of Winstons won't even fit in the nearly useless drawer next to the ignition. Nor will your cell phone. We wouldn't suggest budgeting space behind the seats for a jacket. And don't even get us started on the Little Tyke-quality flip-down cupholder, which jammed at the plastic pins when we tried to flip it closed once.
Still, GM does a good job of matching the SSR to its hot-rod image. Besides the head-turning looks, some of our favorite custom touches include the bow-tie side-marker lights, body color highlights in the interior, semicircular brushed aluminum doorhandles, round silver HVAC controls, and an optional wood-trimmed truckbed. The five-star 20-inch wheels in the back and 19s on the front are mega-sharp. Despite all of these slick custom elements, the corporate parts bin still contributed nasty pieces like the Cavalier turn-signal stalk and Suburban radio.
The nifty convertible-top mechanism is an impressive feat of engineering and a head-turner by itself (check out photos at www.chevy.com/ssr). Yet like your favorite drop-top of yore, the solid-looking convertible exhibits excessive top-up wind noise, body shake, and cowl shudder. Driving the SSR top-down is an invigorating experience, especially on a 30-degree Michigan evening, although the optional heated seats make this a tolerable trick. If you have the seats on low, though, there are detectable gaps on the cushion and seat that don't get the heat.
We drove the automatic, which shifts with the rapt authority of an American muscle car. If you want more influence in cog choice, you'll have to manually shift like you would in a Chevelle because there's no manu-matic mode. According to a few co-workers, the automatic is preferable for proving the SSR's worth as a smoky-burnout monster, even with fat 295/40R20 Goodyears fastened to the rear wheels. Further proof of its tire-searing intentions is that the traction control automatically disengages if you manually downshift into first gear.
As far as handling goes, a Novacaine junkie on a bender could feel the road better in a Lotus Elise than a teetotaler captaining the SSR. But the SSR is acceptable for carving up canyons, with crispish yet hollow-feeling chassis movements. For more relaxed driving, the SSR satisfies with comfortable seats and solid high-speed stability. According to the information center, we averaged 18 mpg during a mixed highway/city cycle, but economy is an afterthought because the sound of the LS2 at high revs is so intoxicating.
If you want a retro-looking hot rod with the comfort of a factory warranty, lots of performance, and room for a few suitcases, this is the truck for you. The SSR's problem is that's a limited market. For 48 grand, you could build up a better-handling, very cherry vintage rod with the satisfaction that yours is one-of-a-kind, faster, and hasn't sat discarded on a dealer lot for nearly a year. Or, if you can fight the urge to be different, try a proven winner from the same fleet and go for the Corvette-it costs just a bit more and is worthy of universal admiration.