GM product guru Bob Lutz was at once on the defensive and the offensive, again, at January's Los Angeles Auto Show. The press was on his case, again. Some were scoffing at GM's just-unveiled Chevy HHR ("Heritage High Roof") as a Chrysler PT Cruiser clone.
"I read a news story today that is the height of stupidity," Lutz fumed at the assembled reporters. "GM's reply to the PT Cruiser, but it comes to the party at least three years late." Then he predicted: "Read my lips, the HHR will be sensationally successful."
Here's my take. First, the critics were right. The HHR is indeed a copy (not "clone") of the PT Cruiser concept, and it arrives five years after the 2001 PT reached production in July, 2000. Second, Lutz was right -there's no reason it should not be a slam-dunk success.
The PT concept, first unveiled as the Plymouth Pronto at the January, 1997 Detroit Auto Show, was dead-nuts brilliant. It combined cool retro styling (reminiscent of '40s Ford trucks) with terrific utility on a small-car platform with reasonable performance, good fuel economy and a very affordable price. "How can it miss?" we all asked. And it didn't.
Not by accident, too, its flat floor and removable rear seats make it a "truck" for CAFE purposes. That means every PT sold enables the sale of at least one big, heavy, high-profit, low-fuel-economy truck without blowing Chrysler's CAFE compliance. Brilliant. So why shouldn't GM (or anyone else) create something like it? Has the demand for such a cool, practical, affordable vehicle been soaked up by the PT and (stretching the concept to modern rolling cubes) Honda's Element and Toyota/Scion's xB? I think not.
HHR vs. PT
Why did it take so long? Would you do it on your aged previous-generation small-car (Cavalier) platform? It had to await availability of the new Delta (Cobalt/Ion) architecture and engineering resources. It would be, in essence, the third Cobalt body style. Why do a conventional small wagon when you can do a fresh take on the brilliant PT concept?
Compared to the PT - which gets a modest exterior facelift and a nice new interior for 2006 - the HHR is some seven inches longer, two inches wider and two inches taller on a half-inch longer wheelbase. The base 2.2-liter model is roughly 80 pounds heavier and $1140 more expensive than the Chrysler. Except for the PT's somewhat more generous rear cabin room, interior dimensions are close, and total cargo capacity with the rear seats removed is near identical.
Why choose one over the other? Styling. The HHR is more truck-like (inspired by Chevy's SSR and '49 Suburban), the PT Cruiser more car-like in appearance.
Then there's utility. The HHR's added length, height and squared-off rear roof provide more cargo room behind the rear seat. There's a dash-top storage box with a flip-up cover and three covered bins behind the rear seat. The rear load floor is a two-way shelf with hooks for flexible storage, and the right-front seat folds flat to accommodate your eight-foot ladder.
The HHR's suspension and architecture benefit from being newer than the Chrysler's. The suspensions are similar but the HHR's Delta architecture is newer, structurally stiffer and quieter than PT's Neon-based platform. Both engines are DOHC, 16-valve, electronically fuel-injected fours with twin balance shafts-but GM's aluminum-block, electronic throttle control Ecotec is smoother and quieter. In standard 143-hp 2.2-liter trim, it's slightly less powerful yet (Chevy says) slightly quicker 0-60 vs. the standard PT, and you'll have to opt for Chrysler's 180-hp turbocharged 2.4-liter four to beat the HHR's available 172-hp 2.4-liter normally aspirated four. The HHR also wins in fuel economy and has a 16.2-gallon fuel tank vs. the PT's 15-gallon tank.
Inside its tall, airy cabin, there's nothing in common with platform-mates Cobalt and Ion save the new-design radio. The seats supported us nicely, the three-spoke wheel felt substantial and properly sized, and materials on the dash and doors looked good - not soft, but textured and well put together.
We loved the bright-ringed, precision-look gauges, the well-designed steering wheel buttons and the radio's 24 to 36 mix-and-match AM/FM/XM presets.
Rear-seat room is good even for the long of leg, and (unlike in the Ion and Cobalt) there's substantial footroom under the front seats. Granted, this was a top-of-the-line 2LT, and it succeeded in looking more expensive than its modest price.
The base 2.2-liter Ecotec four is an eager performer in a small, lightweight car, and the new 2.4-liter provides a healthy step up, even when pulling through a four-speed automatic. It steps out smartly from rest and feels quicker than it is, powering past 60 mph in a tick under nine seconds. There was no manumatic to control our up- and downshifts, but GM has been slow to accommodate the few of us who love that feature.
Judging by this and the last few examples we've tried, GM has learned to tune its energy-efficient electric power (rack-and-pinion) steering for far better feel and feedback than earlier examples. We flogged our (FE3-equipped) HHR on our secret curvy test route, and it powered through turns sweetly and happily like the nicely balanced small car it is, not at all like the practical trucklet it sees in the mirror. Braking, too, was balanced and powerful despite cost-saving rear drums.
Basics and upgrades
Every HHR boasts standard A/C, a driver information center, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, 16-inch wheels and tires, privacy glass, cruise, a touchpad-activated rear liftgate and (with automatic trans) GM's remote engine start feature. The standard AM/FM/CD sound system has an auxiliary channel and a front-mounted jack for an iPod or other audio source. The LT models get standard MP3 capability, and a 260-watt Pioneer enhanced performance system with subwoofer, OnStar and XM Satellite Radio are available.
Beyond that, the HHR comes in three flavors: base LS and two levels of LT. Pretty much everything you don't see, except the five-lug hubs to accommodate five-lug (vs. the Cobalt's four-lug) wheels, is Cobalt. Everything you do see, including the attractive and surprisingly quiet interior, is unique to the HHR.
The $16,990 1LT adds an eight-way power driver's seat, cast aluminum wheels and satin chrome trim. The $18,790 2LT gets the more powerful 2.4-liter engine, 17-inch wheels, FE3 sport suspension, fog lamps, ABS, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, bright chrome trim and the high-end sound system. ABS is optional on 1LT and heated leather seats available on both LTs. For some reason, traction control comes with ABS but (like remote start) only with automatic. Our loaded 2LT test vehicle stickered at $22,875 with options including automatic trans ($1,000), leather ($750), power sunroof ($725), running boards ($445), high-polished wheels ($395), XM ($325), uplevel radio ($295) and roof rails ($150).
Yes, its like-it-or-not looks are classic-truck caricature, not unlike Chevy's slow-selling SSR factory street-rod pickup. But where SSR is a large, heavy $40K-plus two-seat cruiser, HHR (like PT) is a $20K-minus, small, easy-to-drive five-passengers-plus-stuff econohauler. As PT Cruiser fans, we enjoyed the HHR more than expected. And it did attract a lot of positive attention, even from our normally blasé neighbors.
Ironically, HHR replaces the ill-conceived Pontiac Aztek at GM's Ramos Arizpe, Mexico , plant. GM gets criticized when its innovation flops, and when it doesn't copy competitors' good ideas (300C, new Mustang) as well as when it does. But why shouldn't this fresh new take on the brilliant PT Cruiser work?
We're betting Lutz is right.
2006 Chevrolet HHR
Base Price: $15,990
Engine: 2.2-liter/2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder, 143/172 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 103.5 in
Length: 176.2 in
Width: 69.2 in
Height: 65.2 in
Curb Weight: 3155 lb (2.2L manual)
EPA (city/hwy): 22/30 2.2L manual; 23/30 automatic
Safety Features: Dual-stage front airbags with Passenger Sensing System, anti-lock brakes, pre-tensioning seatbelts, available head-curtain side-impact air bags, available OnStar
Major Standard Features: A/C, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise, 16-in. wheels and tires, driver information center, privacy glass, and (with automatic) remote engine start.
Warranty: Three years, 36,000 miles