The Chevrolet HHR is a car-based retro-wagon that celebrates its Chevy heritage with styling inspired by the iconic 1949 Suburban. HHR stands for Heritage High Roof, a reference to the early high-roofed Suburbans and panel wagons that inspired the design of the HHR.
Based on the same platform as the Chevrolet Cobalt, the HHR was first launched as a 2006 model. The HHR competes most closely with the Chrysler PT Cruiser, but also with Honda Element, Ford Escape, and Jeep Liberty.
For 2008, the HHR lineup gets a new, high-performance SS model.
We found the Chevy HHR 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 HHR Panel Van features smooth, windowless side panels and rear cargo doors with no handles. The rear cargo doors open via an instrument panel button. While it’s more Spartan inside and provides seating for only two, the Panel best exemplifies the early Suburban heritage.
The HHR SS is the most fun to drive, launching quickly off the line and offering sharp handling. On an autocross circuit, we found it handled like a sports car.
The HHR interior isn't as functional as we'd like, however. And the base cloth fabric left us wishing we'd ordered the optional leather.
The Chevrolet HHR 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 2008 Chevy HHR comes in three distinctively different configurations: HHR, HHR Panel, and the new HHR SS. It comes in several trim levels, including the base LS and two LT grades. The standard engine is a 2.2-liter four cylinder, while a 2.4-liter engine is optional. Each comes with a five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic. The SS comes with a high-performance 2.0-liter turbocharged engine.
The LS ($16,515) comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, power windows and locks, and a substantial level of standard features and equipment. The LT ($17,175) adds an MP3 player with a jack for an iPod, eight ways to adjust the driver's seat, and satin chrome trim.
The 2LT package ($2,395) adds the 2.4-liter Ecotec engine, anti-lock brakes, traction control, fog lights, a 260-watt Pioneer sound system with seven speakers, 17-inch aluminum wheels, sport-tuned suspension and bright chrome trim.
The HHR Panel 2LT ($20,850) comes with the Satin Chrome exterior package, sports suspension, 17-inch painted aluminum wheels. The Pioneer sound system is optional. The base HHR Panel LS ($16,820) is equipped similarly to the five-passenger LS.
Safety features include optional front and rear side-curtain airbags ($395). ABS comes standard on the 2LT, and is optional for the LS and 1LT ($400). Stabilitrak electronic stability control is now standard across the entire HHR model range.
We like the retrospective styling treatment served up by the HHR across the model range. The closest comparison to the Chevy HHR is the Chrysler PT Cruiser. They don't look anything alike, but both are four-cylinder wagons on the retro side of the design equation. Both fill a respective need in their individual camps.
The rounded nose of the HHR is not unlike Chevy's SSR, which also reflects the brand's truck heritage. The HHR's fenders are well defined with flat side wheel well openings contrasting favorably with the vehicle's many curved, contemporary sculpted surfaces. Front and rear bumpers and fog lamps are integrated into seamless fascia, with integrated running boards offering another nostalgic touch. The flush glass all around, including the windshield is a nice touch, as are the headlights surrounded by body panels in old school fashion. The tail light treatment consists of two round vertically stacked lenses on each side. The large, prominent grille is chrome, (except on the SS model), and appears much like that of the 1949 Suburban.
Front and rear bumpers are molded from composite material, integrated as part of their respective fascia. The Chevy HHR offers a more traditional look than other vehicles in its competitive set. It provides lots of room and functionality without being boxy. When viewed from a distance, the HHR looks larger than it really is. Examined closely, it's compact. And you have to sit down into it upon entry and rise out of it when exiting.
The HHR Panel features steel inserts in place of side windows and cargo doors in place of conventional rear doors. The cargo doors open wide enabling cargo access from both sides of the vehicle, as well as from the rear lift gate. The cargo doors are smooth and don’t have external handles; they are opened via a dashboard release button or the remote keyless entry fob. The large, continuous area created by the windowless cargo doors and rear panels is ideal for business logos, advertising or personalization. Side visibility is obviously limited due to the solid sides without windows; one must rely primarily on mirrors for backing maneuvers. The smooth, windowless sides on the Panel give it a cleaner, retro, more hot rod look than the standard models. The lack of windows adds security for contents inside.
The HHR SS sits 6 mm lower than it stable mates, but sports extended front and rear fascias that give it the appearance of riding much lower. The new front fascia features an air-dam design with integrated fog lights, and the chrome surround grille comes with mesh-style upper and lower grille inserts. The new rear fascia provides a cutout for single bright exhaust tip. New rocker moldings resemble accentuated running boards. Out back, a rear spoiler is mounted above rear glass. Body-color door handles, mirror caps and rear license plate surround, along with SS badging on the front doors and rear lift gate further differentiate the SS from its stable mates.
Inside, the Chevy HHR provides for the most part, comfortable and functional surroundings. Included are durable, easy-to-clean cargo surfaces, a front passenger seat that folds flat for more cargo space, a 60/40 split/fold-flat second-row seat, and a multi-position cargo package tray in the rear that provides cargo security. Finding a comfortable seating position may require some effort, the problem seems to be with the contour of the seatback. Speaking of headroom, there isn't a lot of it, in spite of the high roof. Unless the seat was is in its lowest position, you mind find your head brushes the headliner and the windshield header is low for taller drivers. Also, the door lock button is positioned so that it interferes in driving and resting one's left arm on the window sill, a traditional and nostalgic pose.
Cubby storage is limited. There's a handy flip-up compartment on top of the dash and a small glovebox. The rear provides one cupholder and small door pockets. The front-passenger seatback offers a tight storage net.
Side windows are controlled on the console by buttons located just ahead of the gear shift lever, making them inconvenient to operate with ease; positioning them on the door would be much better.
Second-row passengers are afforded leg room, but not in large doses particularly behind taller drivers; kids will definitely be more comfortable.
The rear seat, split 60/40, 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 lift gate is one piece, and raises easily.
Solid rear quarter panels are available in place of the windows on all five-passenger models (via a window delete option).
The HHR Panel provides seating for two and a large, flat cargo floor, with tie-down points located strategically on the floor with available, floor mats that allow for easier movement of cargo. The HHR Panel features a flat load floor featuring a rubberized floor that provides utility and functionality for commercial or lifestyle activities.
The HHR Panel cargo area features a standard auxiliary power outlet, as well as a 40-amp auxiliary power connector to provide service for a variety of specialty equipment needs. Two large, storage compartments, with a lockable option, are located forward under the cargo floor (in place of the rear seats in the passenger models). The compartments offer security for things such as computer equipment, flashlights, service manuals and other valuables.
The HHR SS features a special interior with SS-embroidered sport seats with inserts, a specific gauge cluster, an A-pillar-mounted turbo boost gauge and a new shifter arrangement. Three interior color combinations are available: Ebony, Light Gray and Victory Red. A special GM Performance Driver’s seat, providing added lateral support and spirited driving comfort is optional and we think it's a must.
The 2.4-liter Ecotec (an upgrade that comes as part of the 2LT package) is an impressive and versatile engine. It's an aluminum four-cylinder, with 16 valves, electronic fuel injection and variable valve timing, that delivers 175 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm. The torque peak figure at such high rpm suggests that the low-rpm pulling power might be weak, but quite to the contrary, it's not. We drive up a steep, slow hill every day, and the HHR plugged up the hill like a tractor, with no shifting-down or searching by the automatic transmission. This high-load, low-rpm driving is what many drivers demand.
Transmission ratios have a lot to do with the 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. All we can say is that the pulling power of the HHR 2LT is excellent.
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, making it a lot of fun. The 2.4-liter engine is quiet, thanks partly to specially laminated steel in the firewall.
The 2.4-liter engine is efficient. It gets an EPA-rated 22/28 mpg City/Highway with automatic transmission, 20/28 mpg with manual using Premium gas. 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 best fuel economy comes from the base 2.2-liter engine, which gets an EPA-rated 22/30 mpg City/Highway with an automatic, 21/30 mpg with the manual, all on Regular gas.
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.
Brakes are 11.65-inch discs up front, 10-inch drums aft, 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.
We also drove a Chevy HHR Panel 2LT with the Preferred Equipment Group and, as expected, found its performance mirrored that of the standard five-passenger models.
The HHR SS features a 260-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled Ecotec coupled to either an F23 5-speed Swedish manual or Hydra-Matic 4T45 4-speed automatic transmission. The SS rides on Michelin Pilot Sport performance rubber, mounted on forged, 18-inch polished alloy wheels, and the Nurburgring-tuned FE5 sport suspension delivered 0.86 g grip in testing (with manual transmission). The suspension includes specific stabilizer bars, spring rates and damper tuning, all of which were designed to complement the turbocharged powertrain.
A couple of unique features have been incorporated into the 2008 HHR SS to instill greater driving fun and excitement: Launch Assist and No Lift Shift. Pushing the Traction Control button once to turn it off, and pushing it a second time places the SS in Competition Mode, which automatically sets up in Launch Control when stopped and advances to Competition Mode following vehicle launch. This function defaults back to Traction Control each time the ignition is turned off. Launch Control behaves differently according to the transmission type: With the manual gearbox, the No Lift Shift comes onto play; simply floor the accelerator, release the clutch smoothly but quickly, depress the clutch again when it’s time to shift but without lifting off the throttle; this holds turbo boost pressure at roughly 1,500 psi, allowing one to speed shift without lifting off the accelerator. It's unnatural at first, but it works most effectively while the tires are howling. The operation is similar with the automatic transmission, but torque braking is employed instead: accomplished by holding the brake while flooring the accelerator. The engine revs to approximately 4100 rpm, then release the brake with the same rapid launch result. Both features assist in controlling wheel spin.
We drove a Sunburst Orange II Metallic SS with manual gearbox and Brembo brakes and a Tarnished Silver Metallic SS with an automatic transmission in and around Phoenix as well as on an autocross course and the road course at Firebird International Raceway.
The HHR SS handled everything thrown at it in superior fashion. It literally cooks of the line, stops on a dime, and handles as well as many sports cars, at a bargain price. The bottom line analysis? Go for the manual gearbox and Brembo brakes, and the GM Performance Seat.
All in all, the Chevy HHR is a pretty slick ride that lends itself to personalizing and customization regardless of the configuration chosen. It is a nostalgic hauler for people who want something different, and who appreciate the classic looks of the 1949 Chevy Suburban. It's available with three different Ecotec engines, depending upon the model. It's not designed for off-road driving or even serious winter weather, however. Its 55.6 cubic feet of cargo space doesn't lead the class, but the fact that the seats may be folded flat increases the utility. In the end, it's all about styling preferences. Obviously, the HHR Panel is a lot roomier with its lack of rear seats.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses reported on the HHR from the Columbia River Valley; Arv Voss test drove the HHR SS around Phoenix and at Firebird International Raceway, and test drove the HHR Panel in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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