As if to add obscurity to curiosity, HHR stands for Heritage High Roof. The roof of the Chevrolet HHR two-wheel-drive SUV is high, and its heritage dates to the 1949 GMC Suburban panel delivery truck. The HHR is on a smaller scale, but there are no bones about its retro styling.
We found the HHR to be fun to drive. It isn't a sports car, but it's nimble and we were pleased with its acceleration. The HHR feels more responsive than its horsepower, torque, and transmission ratio numbers suggest. Plus it gets decent fuel economy. The interior wasn't as functional as we'd have liked, however, and the base cloth fabric left us wishing we'd ordered the optional leather.
Chevrolet HHR LS ($15,990); 1LT ($16,990); 2LT ($18,790)
Actually, that flared description seems to apply only to the rear; the front fenders simply hang out there over the tires, as they should to be truly retro, and they are nicely rounded, at least to their outside edges, where they are flattened. This is the current look, whose origins are unclear, but may trace to the Mitsubishi Endeavor, whose flattened and edged flares were designed purely to be noticed.
Speaking of the current look, the tail lamps are two round red vertical bulbs on each side. The big grille is chrome, every inch of it, and looks almost exactly like the '49 Suburban grille. The headlights, however, are modern glittering wedges, containing one big beam and the turn signal.
The front and rear bumpers are molded plastic, unlike the steel in the body. Technically, they may be part of the fascia, but because they take the conspicuous shape of bumpers, they are more like square lumps extending from the extremities of the vehicle.
The glass runs neatly uninterrupted all around the vehicle, with five rectangular windows from B-pillar around the rear to B-pillar. There's something about the simple shape of these windows that gives the HHR a low-rider look, although the roof itself is relatively high, as the name declares. Our test HHR was fitted with chrome roof rails, which we suggest saving $150 by not buying them. Roof rails are almost useless without crossbars, and we think this vehicle would look more appropriate with a functional black after-market rack anyhow.
The HHR was designed by the same man who designed the PT Cruiser; he left Chrysler for GM shortly afterward. We received quite a few comments on the HHR's looks, all of them favorable, some thinking it was the new PT Cruiser, and others simply asking what it was. Wow, that looks terrific, just terrific, said one fellow. We asked what he liked about the styling. Well, I've got a '23 dump truck, he replied, which I wish I could drive on the street because it looks so cool. I like this because I could drive it on the street. One assumes that GM expects the market for the HHR to be extend beyond such arcane tastes.
Actually, the HHR will be appreciated by people who have the soul of a '50s California surfer.
We couldn't find a comfortable seating position; the problem seemed to lie in the contour of the seatback. And unless the seat was in its lowest position, our head hit the headliner (5'10 driver). Speaking of headroom, there isn't a lot of it, in spite of the high roof.
There are slim folding armrests for each front seat; the driver's armrest sloped a few degrees below horizontal on our test unit, apparently because of a broken stop, and was therefore unusable.
The automatic transmission shift lever, with a big chrome knob, sometimes got stuck in park, and had to be jiggled to engage reverse or drive.
There's no significant storage in any console between the seats, two cupholders and one slot is all. The door pockets are small. There's a useful flip-up compartment on top of the dash, however, and there's a small glovebox.
In the rear, there's one cupholder and small door pockets. The back of the front passenger seat has a tight storage net, but not the back of the driver's seat. GM saved a few cents here.
The windows are controlled on the console by four buttons located just forward of the gear lever. So if you park with the windows down, and want to lock the car, you have to reach down with two hands in front of the gear lever, and hold the buttons down two at a time (or reach with one hand, and hold the four buttons down consecutively, and wait). Even operating the driver's window, at toll booths for example, requires leaning forward and reaching down. Window switches should be on the driver's door.
The turn signal makes a loud, rapid, annoying click. The rearview mirror blocks a significant chunk of forward visibility out the smallish windshield.
The gauges and controls are, well, General Motors. Superfluous chrome rings and trim, and instruments designed to look cool, rather than to be easily readable.
One good thing (even if it is bright chrome) is the door handle, an ergonomically correct ring which actuates with a horizontal inward pull.
If the HHR misses on the little interior things, the cargo storage possibilities are excellent, although the total cargo area of 55.6 cubic feet is 8.4 less than in the PT Cruiser. The rear split 60/40 seat folds flat very easily, as does the front passenger seat; and since the 60-percent side of the rear seat is on the left, a long item like a ladder can be slipped in diagonally. Which is good, because without crossbars to the roof rails, it can't be carried above.
The rear cargo floor flips up to reveal a five-inch-deep tray, where you might hide a wallet, or many wallets, or a few short stacks of pancakes for a firemen's breakfast. The rear liftgate is one piece, and raises easily.
Not surprisingly, there isn't much legroom in the rear seat. Kids are always fine, as long as three of them can share one drink. We actually carried six 10-year-old boys on a soccer team for 60 miles in the HHR, and they were all happy. Even the two who squeezed into the way back.
Overall, interior-wise, the HHR isn't in the same league as the Honda Element.
Transmission ratios have a lot to do with this efficient delivery of power. Curiously, there's nothing in the ratios of the HHR four-speed automatic that indicate it should make this hill so easily, either. All we can say is that the pulling power of the HHR 2LT is excellent.
We suspect the five-speed Getrag manual transmission (same as in the PT Cruiser) would be a better bet for the HHR than the automatic, but we have no complaints with the four-speed automatic, which costs another $1000, and includes remote starting (think of climbing into a toasty car in your driveway on icy mornings). In fact, we liked the way the automatic, without a separate manual mode, could be easily manually downshifted anyhow, and how it held second gear going down that same steep, slow hill. Our only problem was with the sticky linkage, in getting out of Park.
Acceleration was equally impressive. Onto the freeway, foot on the floor, and the HHR 2LT really scoots, which makes it a lot of fun. The engine is also efficient; it gets the same EPA-rated 23 city and 30 highway miles per gallon (manual transmission) as the 2.2-liter with only 143 horsepower, although premium fuel is recommended (but not required). During one week in the 2LT, we averaged 23.4 miles per gallon, as indicated by the digital data on the dash. That included mostly around-town driving, plus about 120 freeway miles with a full load of passengers and the cruise control set at 70. The HHR got slightly better mileage at that freeway pace, than it did light-footed around town.
The engine is also quiet, thanks partly to special laminated steel in the firewall.
The 2LT has a sport-tuned suspension with 17-inch aluminum wheels, as well as anti-lock brakes. There is no harshness to the ride around town, or over freeway bumps for that matter. The suspension shows its limitations when driven like a sports car, but, after all, it's technically an SUV, with front-wheel drive. Mostly, it's especially nimble. Chevrolet boasts that some 2000 hours went into the calibration of the rack-and-pinion steering with power assist, to give it a just right feel, and we would say it feels just right, around town.
The brakes are 11.65-inch discs in front, 10-inch drums in rear, and have an easy feel. Brake force distribution, which electronically adjusts the braking so that the rear wheels don't lock up, is not available. It might be useful, given the 57/43 weight distribution of the HHR.
Despite its great little engine, and its SUV designation, the HHR has a limited application because it's only two-wheel drive, with a mere 55.6 cubic feet of cargo space. The fact that the seats can fold flat helps increase the utility. But in the end, it's all about styling. It's a PT Cruiser for people who want something different, and who like the classic looks of the 1949 Chevy panel delivery truck.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River Valley.