By Thane Peterson
The Good Distinctive retro styling, excellent handling
The Bad High price, tacky interior appointments
The Bottom Line Fun -- but not enough bang for the buck
SPECIAL REPORTCARS FOR A MIDLIFE CRISIS
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For My Money, Make It a Porsche
Maserati's Beauty on a Budget
Ferrari's Fire-Breathing New Stallion
The Beauty in This GM Beast
Going Topless in the Best Vette Yet
This Mustang Is Part Echo, Part Thunder
I really started getting enamored of the Chevy SSR one Sunday afternoon while driving through New York's Catskill resort region. Heading down into a little valley, I noticed that up ahead the back road I was on climbed a steep hill while curving sharply to the left. Maybe it was the wind whipping in my ears with the top down, but I got a little wild -- and at the base of the hill I punched it.The 4,750-pound SSR leaped up the steep grade while hugging the road like a cat on a phone pole. "This is some pickup truck!" I thought.
The SSR isn't really a pickup, of course. It's a very cool, retro-styled, two-seat roadster with big bulging fenders, a retractable top, and an enclosed pickup-style bed for hauling and storage.
PRICED TO SELL. When it first went on sale in 2003, most reviewers loved the styling but dumped on it as being too pokey. Why couple a "mere" 300-horsepower engine to a plain-vanilla automatic transmission in a sexy brute with such radical styling, the critics asked?
Well, the folks at Chevy have corrected those weaknesses. The 2005 model I tested had a six-speed manual transmission and a massive 390-horsepower Corvette engine that can propel the SSR from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds, which puts it in the same league as the much lighter BMW Z4. Chevy also made other enhancements for the current model year, including tightening the SSR's steering.
The other big improvement is the price -- at least if you buy an SSR right now. General Motors (GM) is running a massive Blue Light Special by selling its products at the employee discount rate. The sale knocks the SSR's base price down to $37,400 from $43,180, meaning you can save $6,000 by making your purchase this month.
SPACE ODDITY. Without the discount, the SSR just doesn't deliver enough bang for the buck: All tricked out with the six-speed stick, the Bose sound system, and other premium options, the model I tested lists at $49,890 -- close to the base price for a much more exciting Corvette convertible.
At the lower price, though, the 2005 Chevy SSR Supersport Roadster looks pretty attractive, especially if you're aiming to rev up your driving experience a bit. If ever there were a midlife-crisis vehicle, this is it. It's wildly impractical -- an extravagance that's perfect for taking the significant other for a weekend at the beach or cruising down the boulevard for an ice cream cone on a hot summer night.
But there's virtually no storage space in the passenger compartment. And if you wanted to haul your kids to school in the thing, you'd have to haul them one at a time to do it legally because there's just that one passenger seat (and hardly space behind the seats for briefcases and lunchboxes).
EYE CANDY. The SSR isn't exactly easy on gas, either: It's officially rated at 13 miles per gallon in the city and 20 on the highway, and you'll be lucky to average 14 if my experience is any indication.
But, boy, does the SSR turn heads, especially with the top down. At the first stop light I pulled up to, two halter-topped teenage girls walked by, turned around several times, and stared -- and they sure weren't looking at the driver.
What caught their eye was the SSR's styling. Under the bulging fenders are huge chrome wheels. The front end is all curves, somewhat resembling a 1940s-era pickup truck. The back is squared off, with two huge exhaust pipes that hint at the muscle under the hood.
THROATY ROAR. The retro theme continues in the interior with features such as a bank of three old-fashioned analog gauges at the front of the center console. The retractable hardtop is really cool. You push a button on the center console and within 15 or 20 seconds -- amid considerable whirring and whining of retro-sounding motors -- the top and rear window fold up and retract into a covered space between the cab and the pickup-style storage box in back.
It's also fun to drive. The Corvette engine has 405 lb.-ft. of torque, which means, despite its weight, the SSR really jumps when you stomp on the gas. The engine has the throaty growl of a 1930s roadster. It burbles and rumbles and even backfires a little on a hard downshift.
If you want smooth luxury-car ride, this isn't the vehicle for you. The SSR can get pretty bouncy when you get off on a poorly paved back road. But for a truck-like vehicle it hugs the pavement remarkably well in the curves. My main complaint is that even with the Vette engine, it doesn't have quite enough oomph when you pull out into the passing lane and try to accelerate at, say, 70 mph.
WHAT PRICE FUN? The SSR has a few other weaknesses. Some of the interior appointments are really cheesy. When you reach into the glove compartment, you discover that it's made of flimsy plastic, and the cupholder on the passenger side is a remarkably cheap-looking plastic affair that looks like it was purchased in a variety store and glued on as an after-thought. That's disappointing, considering how much the SSR costs when GM isn't discounting its price.
Then again, price shouldn't be the paramount concern when it comes to vehicles like the SSR. In a practical mood, you'd never buy one. You buy it as a second or third set of wheels, to add a little fun to your life. And by that measure, the SSR rates pretty high.
Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online