Every so often, a vehicle comes around that’s truly groundbreaking. The Lexus RX, the Ford Maverick, the Chrysler minivans, and the Mazda MX-5 all either invented or rejuvenated a segment thoroughly enough to be sales successes, spawn a raft of competitors, or both. However, just as often, a segment-breaking vehicle can be a complete dead-end. Remember the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet? The Chevrolet SSR is a curious case, because it was truly unlike anything before or since. Can you think of another power retractable hardtop convertible pickup truck hot rod made by a mainstream manufacturer? However, a novel idea is nothing without both execution and a need. Welcome back to GM Hit Or Miss, where we clear the fog of pre-bankruptcy General Motors product planning and see what worked and what didn’t. You know the drill.
In order to understand why the Chevrolet SSR came into being, we have to understand the trends of the time. By the new millennium, the ouroboros of postmodernism had firmly established a cycle of impenetrable nostalgia, and Chrysler was making money hand-over-fist on PT Cruisers. The Volkswagen New Beetle had captured the heart of every ex-hippie who emerged from a ditch weed-fueled haze as a white collar Reaganite, and even BMW was hopping on the bandwagon with the reborn Mini. It seemed that GM had no idea what to make of this retro-look gold rush, but being the myopic beancounters they were, knew there was money in nostalgia, and began doing the bare minimum analysis.
To make the SSR anything approaching an economical business decision, Chevrolet decided to base it on the Trailblazer midsize SUV. Now, the Trailblazer wasn’t bad for what it intended to be, but turning that platform into a sporty convertible is a bit like telling The Aristocrats in a convent — it’s just a bad idea. You’ll never get the center of gravity, ride height, or the weight right, and in the beginning, GM didn’t even try to compensate with horsepower or gears.
When the Chevrolet SSR launched for 2003, it got the same 5.3-liter LM4 V8 from the Trailblazer EXT. While 300 horsepower and 335 lb.-ft. of torque, once hitched to a four-speed automatic transmission and saddled with 4,760 pounds of retro styling, pretty much every performance car on the market could wipe the floor with the SSR in a straight line. The testing professionals at Motor Trend managed a zero-to-60 mph run of 7.49 seconds and a quarter-mile ET of 15.36 seconds at 91.35 mph, slow enough to get creamed by every 17-year-old in their parents’ V6 Altima.
Things finally perked up in 2005, when Chevrolet dropped some more gusto into it’s retractable-roofed financial morass. The LM4 and standard four-speed automatic were out, the six-liter LS2 and a six-speed manual gearbox were in, horsepower leapt to 390, and the zero-to-60 mph time fell to a respectable 5.5 seconds in Car And Driver instrumented testing. Unfortunately, two model years is long enough to build a reputation, and this newfound turn of pace was tempered not just by the model’s reception, but also by poor handling despite a re-jigged steering rack. As Car And Driver wrote:
The steering does feel a bit more accurate, and it’s easier to maneuver the SSR around town, but the truck still isn’t any fun for slaloming through corners. Push the SSR, and its truck roots are quickly revealed by its bouncy ride. The SSR pulled 0.82 g on the skidpad and stopped from 70 mph in 185 feet, the same distance as the one we tested in 2003.
Unsurprisingly, the SSR was glued to the showroom floor. While Car And Driver reported sales forecasts of 12,000 units per year, when Chevrolet only shifted around 24,000 in total throughout a four model year production run. However, the sales disappointment didn’t just happened because the SSR didn’t do the roadster thing well, it also happened because GM was targeting a particular customer without having a clue what that customer wanted.
According to an internal GM sales training video, the the targeted SSR buyers were “dyed-in-the wool automotive enthusiasts with a deeply-ingrained affinity for style. They consider themselves innovators, and if it’s a choice between style over pure performance, they’ll most often opt for style.” In addition, the ideal SSR customers were “image-conscious, upscale, and opinion leaders.” In short, they were also the sorts of people who bought Audi TTs. However, Chevrolet completely failed to realize why fashion-forward early adopters rarely gravitated towards anything based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer.
See, fashion-seekers gravitate towards craftsmanship and sophistication in addition to style, and the SSR had neither of those two things. It had an exceptionally plasticky interior, poor handling and a Budweiser image, yet was priced for platinum. As Car And Driver put it, “there are a number of roadsters out there that offer better all-around performance at the same price.” What was that figure? Try $41,995 in 2003. For reference, a 2003 Porsche Boxster had an MSRP of $43,365, a 2003 BMW Z4 3.0i had an MSRP of $40,945, a 2003 Audi TT Roadster Quattro had an MSRP of $39,660, and a 2003 Chevrolet Corvette had an MSRP of $43,895. If you were already walking into a Chevrolet dealership, why wouldn’t you spend the extra $1,900 and get a ‘vette? Likewise, if you were style-conscious, why not drink the Chris Bangle Kool-Aid and go with a Z4?
Well, maybe you needed the extra utility of a pickup truck. Indeed, with a bed length of 4.1 feet and a standard plastic bedliner, the SSR seemed like it could plausibly be a stylish way to haul DIY supplies back from Home Depot. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll find some glaring compromises. For one, the SSR’s bed was only 14 inches deep from rail to floor. Even though the hard tonneau cover was removable, that’s not a brilliant figure. Here’s an even worse one: Minimum bed width clocked in at 39.8 inches. Ouch. It certainly didn’t help that many SSRs were also equipped with carpeted beds, a truly perplexing decision. Oh, and with a towing capacity of 2,500 pounds, the SSR is officially less practical than many SUVs.
It’s pretty safe and easy to call the Chevrolet SSR a miss. It wasn’t a great roadster, it wasn’t a great pickup truck, and it went out of fashion quicker than lip fillers. Was it novel? Sure, but in the slow-paced, tight-margin world of new cars, trading on trends is an easy way to end up on the back foot. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company as bull-headed as GM, the SSR wasn’t the firm’s last crack at a retro car, and each successive attempt had better success. The Chevrolet HHR was a copy of the Chrysler PT Cruiser’s homework cheap enough to sell in volume, and the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro was genuinely both desirable and competitive. However, even in that last, best-case scenario, sales success didn’t continue for another generation. Nostalgia is fleeting, to the point where a trip down its rose-tinted hallways typically only works once.
(Photo credits: Chevrolet)
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