Making its brief debut Aug. 17 during the annual Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise,
the bright yellow 2003 Chevrolet SSR pre-production prototype was quite a sight
for other motorists driving hotrods and vintage cars from the 1940s to the 1980s,
writes Joseph Cabadas.

The SSR (Super Sport Roadster) was first revealed as a concept car for the
2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit and received rave reviews
from the public. Then at an automotive conference in August of that year, GM
announced that it would produce the SSR for 2003.

In an unusual move for the No. 1 automaker, General Motors President and CEO
Rick Wagoner and Chevrolet General Manager Kurt Ritter took the SSR on a brief
drive down Woodward Avenue, one of Detroit’s major north-south boulevards,
before putting the car on public display in the Metro Detroit suburb of Birmingham.

Normally, GM keeps its pre-production prototypes out of public view until they
are much closer to their introduction date.

One
man watching the Dream Cruise shouted to Wagoner: "This looks really good.
Are you really going to build it this time?"

Wagoner replied: "You just wait, man, this is a sure thing."

The exterior lines of the SSR are reminiscent of the 1947-53 Chevrolet pickup
trucks, but the SSR sits much closer to the ground, much like a car.

Like the concept vehicle, the prototype SSR has rear-wheel drive, a two-piece,
power-operated, retractable hardtop that stores flush behind the passenger compartment
and a pickup bed with a lockable cover.

"It’s a beautiful vehicle and evokes many of the classic lines and
appearance of vehicles of this category," Wagoner said. "And, it’s
a unique vehicle – a sports vehicle on a pickup truck concept. There’s
not really anything like it."

The production model of the SSR comes as close to the 2000 concept vehicle
as the engineers could make it, Wagoner said.

"It’s as true as can be – a 99 percent job," Wagoner said,
adding that it is quite an accomplishment to be able to take a stylised concept
vehicle and make it production capable.

GM and other American automakers have often been criticised for taking snazzy
looking concept vehicles and nearly destroying their unique designs when they
are put into production. Car buffs have cited the 2001 Pontiac Aztek sport utility
vehicle as an example of how GM turned its 1999 concept into a production model
that looks too weird for most American motorists’ tastes.

Inside, the Chevy SSR has two leather trimmed bucket seats, front and side
impact air bags and classic analogue speedometer and rev counter housed in the
instrument cluster in front of the steering wheel.

The concept SSR was said to be equipped with a six-litre V8 engine but Wagoner
announced that the pre-production model he was driving during the Woodward Dream
Cruise had a 5.3-litre V8. There’s no word on whether Chevrolet will offer
a V8 on the SSR,but American automakers tend to favour a two-engine marketing
strategy.

The
V6 engine is "going to be hot; this isn’t a very heavy car, so it’s going
to be fun," Wagoner said.

The SSR shares its platform with the Chevrolet TrailBlazer sport utility vehicle
and both have the same 2,869 mm wheelbase. Like the TrailBlazer, the SSR will
have four-wheel disc brakes with four-wheel antilock.

Other SSR specifications are still secret because many of the details are still
being worked out. The concept version of the vehicle had five-spoke alloy sport
wheels with 19-inch tyres in front and 20-inch tyres in back. The pre-production
version appeared to have similar wheels.

GM is still working on many of the vehicle’s specifications, a spokesman
said. In particular, the final look of the pickup bed is still being worked
on, along with the equipment package.

The automaker also has concerns about the two-piece retractable hardtop. In
years past, cars with that kind of design have developed leaks during rainstorms
or in the car wash as the rubber seals age.

The Chevrolet SSR will be built from the end of 2002 at GM’s Lansing,
Michigan Craft Centre.

Production volume will be kept low but will be greater than 5,000 units per
year. The price will be less than the Chevrolet Corvette, which has a manufacturer’s
suggested retail price starting at $39,830 to $47,000.

GM has described the SSR as a fun, rear-wheel drive vehicle with a "take-no-prisoners"
performance that seems reminiscent of its advertising campaign for its aging
Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird sports cars which may be retired after
the 2002 or 2003 model years due to slow sales.

Is the SSR the Camaro’s replacement?

"No, I won’t say that. We weren’t thinking of it that way at
all," Wagoner said. But he refused to speculate about the future of the
Camaro and Firebird.

The SSR’s target customers will be those who already have other vehicles
but are buying the roadster "because it evokes a certain emotion in them,"
Wagoner said. "People who love these products and have a particular fond
memory of Chevrolet and Chevrolet power and spirit."

Although American regulators may classify the SSR as a pickup truck, Wagoner
said it was a unique vehicle with no direct competitors in its segment.

When the concept version of the SSR was revealed, GM said it would be a roadster
that would be at home cruising on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, South Boulevard
in Miami Beach, Florida, or on the German autobahn. Yet, Wagoner seemed to nix
the idea that it would be sold overseas.

"I don’t believe we plan to sell them overseas. Some will probably
find their way to Europe, but this is really a U.S. and Canadian product,"
he said.