By Andrew Ganz
Monday, May 4th, 2009 @ 3:32 pm
 
When Chevrolet dropped off a 2009 HHR LT for Leftlane's evaluation, it sat in my driveway for 24 hours before I even meandered outside to look at it. But a week and 500 miles later, as the General's agents come to fetch it, I find myself strangely attracted to this retro-ish PT Cruiser knock-off built on the terminally dull Cobalt's platform - even though my list of complaints exceeds my list of compliments.

In sporty SS guise, the HHR (Heritage High Roof) is the closest thing to a Cobalt SS hot hatch you'll find from the Detroit automaker. Yet where the SS makes mincemeat out of its Cobalt LS and LT mundane siblings, the low-performance HHR LT we tested emerged surprisingly as an immensely likable, rugged, unique little runabout.

What is it?
When it was launched for 2006, critics were quick to point out that it was GM's nearly identical, slow reaction to the still hot selling Chrysler PT Cruiser (which had been in showrooms since late 2000).

Why did it take GM so long to follow Chrysler's innovative, retro-style mini-wagon to market? Well, it took a while to hire the PT Cruiser's designer from Auburn Hills and get his GM business cards printed.

Really, GM initially hired Bryan Nesbitt away from Chrysler to head up the automaker's European Design Center, but the accomplished designer has left an impressive mark on GM. Credit him for the Buick Enclave, Pontiac Solstice and Pontiac G6 Coupe - good lookers, the whole bunch.

The HHR is a five-passenger tall-wagon styled to look like the postwar Chevrolet Suburban, a hot rodder favorite today. That vintage ride lent its bulbous body to create a fully modern front-wheel-drive compact wagon available in passenger and small business-friendly cargo versions.

What's it up against?
Naturally, the PT Cruiser is the HHR's biggest competitor. But with the PT riding off into the sunset later this year, the HHR will stand alone among retro-wagons.

Shoppers seeking compact haul-ability could look at the Mazda Mazda3, Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, Nissan Cube, Kia Soul and Scion xB, each of which fears retro like Swine Flu.

Any breakthroughs?
For 2009, the HHR's base 2.2-liter engine gained variable valve timing and the ability to run on E85. Though power is only up 6 horsepower to 155, the typical VVT benefits of a broader torque and power spectrum apply here.

The HHR apparently didn't merit GM's excellent six-speed automatic/2.4-liter four-cylinder that combination we enjoyed recently in the Malibu. Instead, it gets an antiquated four-speed automatic option in place of the standard five-speed manual.

Don't forget that the HHR, in both passenger and Panel-wagon models, can be ordered as an HHR SS, with the 2.0-liter, 260-horsepower turbo four that powered the same-platform Cobalt SS around Germany's famed Nürburgring faster than a Porsche Cayman S, Jaguar XKR or Audi S5.

An HHR SS would not have sat in this writer's driveway for three days before venturing beyond the neighborhood.

How does it look?
If you're old enough to remember an era when Suburbans weren't squared-off, a glance at the HHR might bring back memories of delivery vehicles and train depot hacks. In reality, the neo-'Burban is much, much smaller, measuring about 176 inches in overall length.

Looking more like a cartoon vehicle from a Disney film - Cars and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? come to mind - the HHR's proportions would have been considered absurdly outlandish had the Volkswagen New Beetle and the aforementioned PT Cruiser not paved the way. In our subjective opinion, the HHR's proportions are a little awkward when viewed from the side, but the bulging fenders, low roof and pronounced snout will speak to your inner hot-rodder, even if you know that the hood covers a modest four-cylinder.

Our tester featured optional chrome trim and wheels as well as a set of useless running boards, but those add-ons are as close as a factory-built HHR gets to the overtly tacky PT Cruiser. Subtle, it is not, but it straddles the line between goofy and creative, leaning one way or the other depending on your personal opinion.

And on the inside?
Keep your hands to yourself and you might be pleased, especially when you figure a top-end HHR struggles to exceed $26,000. The low-sheen plastic that dominates the vaguely dual-cowl dashboard features an upscale grain and the small gauges are sufficiently retro. Appearance-wise, only the GM parts-bin steering wheel disappoints; a more retro-style wheel would have been appropriate here.

Reach those hands out, however, and things start to fall apart.

There's not a single soft-touch surface to be found in the HHR, especially its shiny-plastic door panels. The door armrests, an essential tactile element in a car interior, are entirely unforgiving, though at least Chevy moved the window controls away from the center console to where they belong on the door.

Chair-like front seats - with individual fold-down armrests and a decently sporty cloth trim - give the HHR a van-like seating position that conflicts with its low roof line. Though head room did not suffer in our non-sunroof model, the short, upright windshield meant that we craned our necks to read every stop light.

Like up front, the back seat is narrow but roomy enough, given the minuscule exterior dimensions. On the bright side, the cargo area is surprisingly large and it features a useful storage bin under the floor.

But does it go?
Fans of muscle cars and Italian exotics will scoff at the HHR's 155 horspower and 150 lb-ft. of torque, but those content with a perfectly acceptable and balanced power-to-weight ratio won't complain.

Aside from the GM Daewoo-built and designed Aveo/G3, no U.S. GM product features a lower-output engine than the 2.2-liter inline-four Ecotec, with variable valve timing for 2009, under the hood of our test HHR. Though it excelled in not one area, be it performance, torque, smoothness or even efficiency, it moseyed along like that likable, albeit B-average student who made friends with most and enemies of few.

Teamed to the optional four-speed automatic, our test car was not equipped the way a performance-minded enthusiast would choose. At the least, a true enthusiast would forgo the $1,000 transmission for the standard five-speed manual (or you'd save up for the turbocharged 260-horse SS). The General, however, has earned a well-deserved reputation for making solid, predictable and smooth automatic transmissions and the four-cog unit here delivered in all respects.

Get used to shifts at 3,500 to 4,000 rpm and limited reserve power in regular driving and you'll find the HHR is hardly underpowered except in highway passing. In fact, with its solid platform and composed suspension, we found it was a downright hoot to drive in congested urban areas where extra power is wasted. The suspension doesn't seem like much on paper - MacPherson struts up front and a semi-independent torsion beam out back - but it delivers the smooth, refined ride that we didn't quite find in the more sophisticated Malibu.

Though a little buzzy at the upper end, the four banger emits a nice, raspy growl in around-town driving. GM's much-hyped Buick quiet tuning was applied to the HHR to great effect; it is commendably quiet on the highway.

All this added up to a tossable, balanced cruiser that, though it didn't relish the twisties, reminded us of the surprising refinement offered by GM's Delta platform, which also underpins the Cobalt and the Saturn/Opel/Vauxhall Astra.

For what it's worth, we saw about 24 mpg in mixed driving.

Why you would buy it:
You are seeking an expressive, roomy little runabout with more personality than a typical compact car.

Why you wouldn't:
Your generation has been Twittered that the Kia Soul is the currently-preferred small wagon. Follow the crowd!

Leftlane's bottom line
The HHR's appeal is difficult to put to words; dowdy looks, middling performance and iffy interior accommodations are supposed to add up to mediocrity, but conventional math just doesn't work here. The All-American (assembled in Mexico) HHR is everything the PT Cruiser never was, and then some, but its appeal will always be limited, even with high-performance SS and panel wagon variants. Volumes more interesting and enjoyable than an equivalent Cobalt, add it to our list of respect-worthy cars, even in the seemingly uninspired 2.2-liter, four-speed spec we sampled.

2009 Chevrolet HHR LT base price, $18,930. As tested, $22,000.
Four-speed automatic, $1,000; Chrome Appearance Package, $925; Running boards, $445; Smoker's package, $40; Destination, $660.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.