It was an epiphany in the desert, a moment of clarity in Sedona. I finally get the SSR. Unfortunately, no one else seems to get the SSR. Sales haven't been so good, with nearly a year's worth of unsold '04 models gathering dust as the more powerful '05 models were introduced earlier this year. Candidly, I didn't get the SSR either, until my wife, Carrie, and I spent a week and 2,000 miles carving up the Southwest in one. We wanted something with a retractable roof to remind us that we weren't driving under the gray skies back home in Michigan, if only for a few days. We weren't necessarily looking for the SSR, but it found us, and by trip's end, we didn't want the relationship to end.
Our trip was loosely laid out, with evening stops planned in specific locales, but the daylight in between was scheduled for nothing more than where the road took us. Our launch pad was the Shady Dell in Bisbee, Arizona. It's an RV park that offers about a dozen '50s-era travel trailers as motel rooms. It's a complete retro-themed experience, with an on-site art deco diner and a tiki bar attached to an old school bus.
We headed out early the next day on a 500-mile drive to Vegas. The SSR absorbed the varied terrain, with its tugboat-like torque pulling us up long, steep grades like they were parking lot speed bumps. It was apparent that the SSR would tow an old, polished Airstream Globe Trotter or Safari without breaking a sweat, and look great doing so. About 400 miles toward Vegas, we rolled into Kingman, Arizona. Immortalized in the song Route 66, the town fell on hard times long ago when I-10 went in, cutting off the town from travelers who no longer needed the famed Mother Road. Recently, the emergence of Route 66 tourism, along with Arizona's explosive growth, has helped reinvigorate the tiny 'burg. New homes are sprouting up near the freeway, the same freeway that suffocated the town years ago. Arizona's growth is a hot topic in an already sweltering state. In the '20s, the territory's population was about 335,000; it's now more than 5.3 million, with more cold-climate retirees, laboring immigrants, and fleeing Californians coming every day.
To perpetuate our retro-accommodation theme, we booked into the 4 Queens, which fronts Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. It's one of the old-school casinos where you might have seen Sinatra boozing it up and mob cronies taking card counters out back for a work-over. Fremont Street has been transformed into a sanitary pedestrian park with a huge overhead canopy that spans several blocks and was home to our Vegas Nationals for two years until we outgrew its location.
After a couple of days at uncooperative slots, cheap buffet lunches, and expensive Bellagio dinners, we headed south on I-15 toward Los Angeles. Like the freeways in Arizona, the traffic around Vegas was slow, even beyond the metropolitan limits. It was nearly the California border before we could stretch the SSRs legs. And like the driving in Arizona, a mine shaft-deep reserve of torque made mincemeat of the Mojave Desert's long grades.
As we hustled along up one mountain grade, passing lumbering RVs and struggling four-bangers, we blew past a couple of guys in a blue Ferrari 456. The driver must not get overtaken too often, particularly by a freakin' Chevy, as the car and his ego quickly dropped down a gear. He pulled out of line to chase us up the mountain and, when the coast was clear, came roaring by at Looney Tunes velocity, ostensibly to put us in our place. We held our rapid, but consistent speed and it wasn't long before the next grade came up and little ol' us in the SSR kept motoring along in Sixth and passed the Ferrari again. This went on and on until the Ferrari finally peeled off in Barstow, California. We bid him arrivaderci and kept our aim on L.A.. The Ferrari driver's indignant response was the only instance where the SSR attracted anything but admiring glances, smiles, waves, or thumbs-up. Unlike most other "boutique" vehicles, there's not a pretentious nut or bolt to be found here. People who don't care for cars loved the SSR and no one looked at us as if we were wearing our checkbooks on our sleeves. Sure, it's made only for top-down cruising and stoplight peel-outs, but unlike, say, a Mercedes-Benz G-wagon rolling down Sunset Boulevard, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is.
While exiting a Circle-K in Orange County, California, we found an employee from the Toyota store next door pouring over the SSR. He thought it had a six-cylinder engine. "No," we said. "It's a six-litre engine, 390 hp, 405 lb-ft of torque, six-speed transmission..." He stared at the vehicle for a while and finally said with more than a hint of defensive jealousy, "You know, pound for pound, Toyota makes the best-built car you can buy." Maybe. But they don't have an SSR.
And so our experiences went. Interestingly, and this comes from years of experience with high-profile test vehicles, nobody asked how much it cost. They didn't care. It was just cool. It also turns out to be a nice, comfortable driver, marred only by cubic zilch for interior storage space. For its $43,000 sticker price (dealers are discounting them), it comes with comfy leather seats, a killer stereo, and loads of convenience features that we appreciated the more miles were added to the odometer. The clever retractable top is monkey-simple: You push a button on the center console and the two-piece top folds in on itself, storing behind the seats in about 30 seconds. It's slick, quick, and the reason there wasn't room to stow our Rand-McNally road atlas. And, as there was only a single cup holder, one of us was always holding his or her In-N-Out milkshake.
The SSR is based on General Motors' GMT 360 platform, which spawned the Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, and, now, the Saab 9-7X. It's a body-on-frame platform that gives the SSR an exceptionally solid feel, even with the top down. Its reflexes, however, cannot hide the truck underpinnings. It is heavy, turns slowly, and can feel ponderous, but the 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels mounted on Goodyear tires provide commendable grip and a surprisingly compliant ride.
There are surprising and whimsical details, too: The corner lamp lenses have little Chevy Bow Tie insignias molded in them and the "R" symbol for Reverse on the shift knob is engraved with the same sweeping font as the SSR's exterior badging. Our vehicle was also equipped with an available gauge package that includes an amperes meter, an outside temperature readout, and an engine torque meter that indicates the LS2's available twisting power with each flick of the throttle.
With all the attention our Aqua Blur (that would be dark metallic blue to you and me) SSR received, you'd have thought we were hanging out with the newest American Idol phenom, but the truth is, the SSR has been around since Ruben Studdard won the second contest in 2003. So while the SSR is a knockout in person, it is all but invisible on the market. You could blame the weak sales on the vehicle's lack of interior storage or thirsty V-8 or other tangibles, but those arguments fall short because the people we encountered had never seen an SSR before, so how could they have possibly developed opinions about its single cup holder?
A high sticker price, making it competitive with Corvettes, sapped a lot of initial momentum, while the '04 model's anemic 5.3L engine sapped some notable sales. Nonetheless, the current iteration has the necessary muscle, and dealers are now motivated to move these truck drop-tops. Whatever the reason, the collective unconscious of today's enthusiast buyers seems elsewhere. That's a shame for a vehicle that, just a few years ago, most people would have sacrificed juniors's college fund for. I, however, have seen the light and this has been my testimony.