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FIRST DRIVE

A Chevy head-turner

The SSR is the vanguard of an array of new models aimed at luring motorists back into the automaker's showrooms.

August 20, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

It's not easy to be inconspicuous in a purple vehicle.

It's impossible when the purple machine is a Chevrolet SSR, or super-sport roadster, which bowed three years ago as a concept and is now arriving in production version at dealerships.

The SSR is a roadster truck with a metal top that retracts and stacks in hiding behind the seats to transform the vehicle into a convertible with an enclosed pickup bed.

"With an SSR, people will hunt you down," warned SSR marketing manager Bob Walczyk only seconds before a pair of automotive sightseers blocked access to the machine outside a diner.

The SSR is significant in that it calls attention to an automaker that hasn't been producing many head-turners for several years. No one, for example, ever got whiplash trying to get a second look at a Lumina or Venture.

Turning heads is important. Chevy plans a host of new vehicles in the next two years -- a mid-size Malibu sedan as well as a mid-size Colorado pickup this fall; an extended-length Malibu Maxx hatchback and an entry-level Aveo sedan in January; an Equinox sport utility vehicle in the first quarter of next year; the Cobalt replacement for the Cavalier; and the next-generation Corvette in fall 2004.

The SSR is the designated magnet.

"A lot of people grew up with Toyota and Honda, and we want to let them know Chevy exists, to come back and give us a look again because we aren't sitting still and have a lot of new product coming. SSR will bring new people into the showroom," Walczyk said.

That's why the SSR sports 16 Chevy bowtie logos.

"Make no mistake, we wanted people to know this novel vehicle is a Chevy," Walczyk said.

To appreciate the SSR, you have to accept what it is and understand what it isn't meant to be.

"The SSR is style; the Corvette is performance," Walczyk said. "SSR isn't a retro, a fresh design of an old vehicle to re-create the past," he said, but rather a heritage machine that borrows styling cues from 1947-53 Chevy trucks to showcase a modern-day retractable hardtop convertible.

And it's not a modern El Camino, a mid-size car with a truck bed. The SSR is a truck with a car-like retractable roof.

The rear-wheel-drive vehicle is powered by a 5.3-liter V-8 engine that develops 300 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque, up from the 290 horses and 325 pound-feet in that same engine that powers the TrailBlazer SUV.

The concept built off the Chevrolet S-10 pickup platform carried a 6.0-liter V-8 that promised more than 300 horsepower. But the 6.0-liter was steel and the 5.3-liter is lighter aluminum, so the 5.3 won out, Walczyk said.

That doesn't rule out a more potent V-8, he said, noting that as with the Chrysler PT Cruiser, a few new features every so often will help maintain interest in the low-volume sports machine.

"We're looking at our options and alternatives, and not just engines but accessories, to keep the car fresh," he said.

As reported, the SSR is planned for a five-year life cycle. Walczyk said Chevrolet was working on more limited-volume niche vehicles, one of which was announced late last week: the 2006 HHR, a compact Chrysler PT Cruiser-size car-truck crossover that's another heritage model, borrowing its styling cues from the 1949 Chevy Suburban SUV.

The 5.3 is teamed with a four-speed automatic. No manual for now, to simplify production and get the SSR to market quickly. Don't rule a manual out, but it won't be a clutchless, lever-slapping wannabe, Walczyk said. "If we do an automatic stick, it would be in another series of vehicle," he said, hinting that the SSR probably isn't the last niche Chevy.

We tested a Signature Series SSR, one of the first 25 models built that are identical in looks (purple) and content and are being used for promotional, celebrity or racing events before 000001 ends up in the General Motors museum and the rest go on the auction block for charity -- where Serial No. 000002 brought $137,850. This was serial No. 000020 reserved for media testing before auction.

Chevrolet will produce 3,500 SSRs, including these 25, as 2003 models, converting to '04s in November, and then make another switch to '05s early next summer. Chevy will build 10,000 '04s and 14,000 to 15,000 '05s.

The SSR is lively and energetic and a blast to tool around in, but if you want to be slapped back into the seat at takeoff and stick like glue into and out of each twist in the roadway, reach for a Corvette.

The SSR responds quickly to pedal input, and giant radials (19-inch front, 20-inch rear) help the launch. But, as Walczyk noted, style wins out over performance. The suspension is tuned to favor smooth, car-like ride over aggressive handling. With the SSR tipping the scales at 4,760 pounds -- and you feel it in the wheel -- don't expect a light-footed, nimble performer but rather a vehicle that is more truck-like when it comes to handling maneuvers.

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