We found the Chevy 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.
The Chevrolet HHR was launched as a new model in 2006, and it remains relatively unchanged for 2007 with the exception of slightly more powerful engines and a few additional new color choices. New exterior color options for 2007 include Imperial Blue Metallic and Golden Teal Metallic; a new interior color option is Ebony.
The HHR is built on the platform of the Chevy Cobalt compact and incorporates its best features: engine, transmission and suspension. The HHR is meant to compete against the Chrysler PT Cruiser, as well as the Honda Element. It also serves as an alternative to a Jeep Liberty or Ford Escape.
The Panel Van LT features smooth, windowless side panels and rear cargo doors with no handles. The rear cargo doors open via an instrument panel button.
Chevrolet HHR LS ($16,595); 1LT ($17,595); 2LT ($19,395)); Panel LT ($18,005)
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.
The tail lights 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, and we suggest not getting them. Roof rails are almost useless without crossbars. If you're planning to strap stuff to the roof, we think this vehicle would look more appropriate with a functional black aftermarket rack.
The Panel Van features smooth, windowless sides that give a cleaner, more retro, more hot rod look than the standard models. It features shaved rear door handles. The lack of windows adds security for valuables inside. This design also lends itself to wraps and customization.
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-foot, 10-inch driver). Speaking of headroom, there isn't a lot of it, in spite of the high roof.
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, as well as 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.
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 standard GM issue. 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, at least 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, a nice feature. The rear cargo floor flips up to reveal a five-inch-deep tray useful for storage. The rear liftgate is one piece, and raises easily.
Legroom is lacking 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. Adults wouldn't be as happy in the HHR's back seats.
The Panel Van has a rubberized floor that should be good for delivery or business or hobby uses. Rearward visibility is poor, however.
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. The automatic includes remote starting, and climbing into a toasty car on icy mornings after starting it from a warm house during morning coffee is a nice luxury. We liked the way the automatic could be easily manually downshifted, even though it doesn't feature a separate manual mode. And we liked how it held second gear going down that same steep, slow hill.
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 2.4-liter engine is quiet, thanks partly to special laminated steel in the firewall.
The 2.4-liter engine is efficient, also. It gets the same EPA-rated 22/27 mpg City/Highway (with manual transmission) as the standard 149 hp, 2.2-liter engine. Premium fuel is recommended but not required for the 2.4-liter. 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 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 HHR is nimble, though the suspension shows its limitations when driven like a sports car. Chevrolet said it put a lot of time into the calibration of the rack-and-pinion steering with power assist, 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. Electronic brake-force distribution, which electronically adjusts the braking so that the rear wheels don't lock up, is not available.
The Chevy HHR is an SUV that celebrates the classic looks of the 1949 Chevy panel delivery truck. It's available with a great little engine, the 2.4-liter Ecotec. It's front-wheel drive, so it's not ideal for winter weather or going off the pavement, and it offers 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River Valley.