Chevy’s Super Sport sensation — Now I know how John Milner felt.

For those of you drawing a blank, John Milner was the hero in George Lucas’s 1973 ode to ’60s cruising culture, American Graffiti. Milner, played by Paul LeMat, cruised the darkened streets of Fresno, California, in a lemon yellow 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe defending his title of King of the Strip. The climax of the movie, you may recall, is when Milner wins a drag race against an evil-looking ’55 Chevy Bel Air, driven by some unknown actor named Harrison Ford.

Cruising the streets in a 2004 Chevy SSR, I was channeling John Milner in a big way. This high-horsepower retro rod is a head turner, to say the least. But you can’t misbehave when you’re behind the wheel of an SSR, because no matter where you go, you’re definitely the center of attention. Horns honk, other drivers gawk and their passengers point and wave as the SSR rolls by. People flag you down in parking lots and gather around it at service stations to ask questions about it. Kids on school buses jam the windows to peer down at you as you rumble past, headers roaring and the wind in your hair. Had Milner lived (you’ll recall he gets killed in a collision with a drunk driver after the movie ends) he would have heartily approved of the SSR.

General Motors is doing a lot of things right these days. One of them is infusing some fun into cars and trucks, and the SSR is a direct result of that philosophy. Orders to put it into production came from the top: GM’s president and CEO personally ordered Chevy to build this retro cruiser after it debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in 2000. And Chevy did just that, making only four styling changes to the truck’s exterior in the process. Equipment World first previewed the SSR way back in our March 2000 issue. At the time, it was a concept vehicle touting an Internet connection and constantly updated weather information among its high-tech features. In the end, Chevy engineers went more for muscle and style over Buck Rogers gee-whiz technology. And the end result is infinitely satisfying for anyone with a love of classic American muscle cars. The front end and flare fenders are lifted straight off ’40s and ’50s vintage 3100 Series Chevy pickups. The rear end conjures up a ’30s street rod look with a dash of Auburn boat-tail panache. The two-seat cockpit feels like you’re riding in an antique Jag with the top down and a deuce coupe when it’s up. Interior appointments are a satisfying blend of ’60s muscle car memorabilia (right down to the chrome, golf-tee door locks, just like the ones on my Dad’s ’69 Bel Air) and an Art Deco fusion of chrome-appointed controls, dials and switches. And (with apologies to the Beach Boys) when you hear those head pipes roar, you can’t help but get a big grin on your face.

The result is a vehicle unlike anything you’ve ever driven – or seen – before. But before I give you my review of the SSR, we need to get a few things out of the way. Let’s start with the most common questions I’ve been asked since GM loaned me one earlier this week:

· What’s it called, and why? Well, like I said, it’s called the Chevrolet SSR. That stands for Super Sport Roadster, which is a pretty apt description of this vehicle.

· Is it a truck? Kind of. Chevy is being pretty coy on exactly what the SSR is, preferring to call it a “roadster.” But as a highly trained and eminently qualified trucks editor, I’m going to call the SSR the El Camino’s steroid-ridden, rock-n-roll-driven, Child From Hell. And that’s close enough to a truck for me.

· Is this a production vehicle? Yep. Chevy’s going to make about 3,000 in 2004, and around 14,000 next year. Next year’s version will be even more powerful, and feature 50 different accessories to allow buyers to customize their SSR.

· What does this thing cost? The sticker on my loaner was around $46,000. But a buddy who works at our local Chevy dealership tells me they’re selling them for about $10,000 above the sticker price right now because they’re in such high demand.

· Where’s the roof? Stowed behind the cockpit. Chevy touts the SSR as the world’s first power-retractable hardtop convertible. A simple push of a button raises and lowers the roof in under a minute. It’s a pretty nifty trick.

· Is it fast? Very. All 2004 models feature a small block 350-horsepower Vortec 5300 V-8 under the hood. The engine is built from aluminum alloy to save weight and features polymer-coated pistons to reduce cold scuffing and engine noise. The engine is mated with a Hydra-Matic 4160E electronically controlled, four-speed, rear-wheel-drive automatic transmission. Step on the gas pedal and you’ll get an immediate throaty roar from the finely tuned exhaust pipes and head-rushing acceleration to boot.

I guess it’s not hard to tell that I’m a fan of the SSR. Granted, I can’t sit here with a straight face and tell you there’s anything approaching practicality about the SSR. You’re never going to drive it your jobsite – unless you just happen to be cruising by on a sunny weekend. There’s not much room for cargo in its tiny, waterproofed pickup bed. You’re not going to take this puppy hunting and throw a dead deer in the back. Family outings are impossible if you have more than two people in your brood. And let’s be honest – the SSR is not going to win the Sierra Club’s Greenest Vehicle 2004 award. This thing goes through a tank of gas like the 101st Airborne goes through a Fedayeen roadblock.

At the end of the day, all those practical reasons really don’t matter. Because the SSR is all about fun. This little truck captures the spirit of the bygone ’60s in a way that other recent retro offerings have not. It handles exceptionally well at all road speeds, thanks in large part to is body-on-frame construction, which Chevy says is essentially an upper steel unibody mounted onto the frame. Fully hydroformed steel rails give this boxed frame strength and stiffness while the upper unibody helps support the structure for the retractable-roof system. A total of seven cross-members (most cars have either four or six) boost structural strength for a noticeably smooth ride, precise steering and reduced noise and vibration.

In short, the SSR is a blast to drive. It’s handling is incredible. Looking at it, you’d swear it’s too light in the back to handle all the horsepower being churned out by the Vortec engine under the hood. But this little truck stays stuck to the blacktop, thanks in large part to the big 20-inch Goodyear radials it’s rolling on. The cockpit is small, but comfortable. You don’t so much climb into this truck as put it on. And once you’re belted in, the SSR pretty much becomes an extension of your body. The handling, acceleration and cockpit layout are that good.