When Chrysler launched a production version of their PT Cruiser model, back in 1999, it was an instant success. For a couple of years, it was “the” must-have automotive fashion statement with demand outstripping supply. That this car sold well over a million examples in its 11 year production life, and received only the most minor of styling changes (confined to new bumpers) speaks volumes to the sales appeal of “retro”. Chevrolet were very much at pains to deny that their HHR, which made its production debut at the 2005 Los Angeles Auto Show , was a “me too” rival to the big selling Chrysler, but no-one really believed them. Styling of the HHR is credited to a certain Bryan Nesbitt, who was also responsible for the PT Cruiser. Based on GM’s Delta platform which underpins the recently superceded Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5, as well as the last generation Astra, the HHR is a practical family vehicle with unashamedly retro styling. HHR stands for “Heritage High Roof” and the design is supposed to be a reminder of the much larger Suburban of the late 1940s., The HHR has now been on sale for over 5 years, selling just under 100,000 units a year and has also barely changed during its production life.
The test car was fitted with the least powerful of the three engines that were available in 2009 model year HHRs, GM’s 4 cylinder .2. 2 Ecotec unit. It develops 155 bhp, which is an increase of 6 on the unit that was fitted in prior years. LT models are optionally available with a slightly more powerful 2.4 litre unit and the top of the range was the SS model with a 2.0 litre turbo which produced 250 bhp. Although I have the feeling that the sports oriented HHR could have been quite fun, clearly too few customers agreed with me, and the model had a short life and has been discontinued. The 2.2 and 2.4 litre engines have been adapted so that they can run on a mixture of regular gasoline and E85 Ethanol-blended fuel, and the cars sport the “Flexfuel” labelling as a consequence. Although the base engine is not that potent, the HHR has a surprisingly decent level of performance. Of course it is not fast, but on the hills of the Canyon roads above Los Angeles, it was certainly not embarrassed. It is a refined unit, which just gets on with the job in hand with no fuss, not much noise, and, of course, not really any fun. But a car like this is never going to be a huge giggle, That is what the SS version was for. None of this was much of a surprise, as I had experienced the same engine in the related Pontiac G5 earlier in the year. Unlike that car, this one did not sound like it was on on its last legs at start up. HHR LS models are fitted as standard with a five speed manual gearbox, but as this was a rental car, it did of course come with the optional four speed automatic transmission. This is an old style unit, with four speeds, and no clever electronic trickery, or choice of sport model, but it got the job done.
The same could be said for the handling and steering. In many ways, the HHR was better in this regard than the twice as costly Cadillac that I had been driving the day previously, though there is not a lot of feel to the steering in this car either. At least it does not roll so much and the car was easier to keep to the line you intended on the corners. The steering wheel itself is a rather nasty plastic moulding which was not very nice to hold. On its standard 16″ wheels, the HHR rode quite well on the varied surfaces of the roads around Los Angeles, and it cruised quite comfortably on the freeway. Thankfully, it was also much easier to see out of than the Cadillac. With lots of glass, and relatively upright pillars, the view out in all directions was good and it was easy to manoeuvre the car in tight parking spaces without the need for costly parking sensors to beep senselessly at you all the time. I found no issues with the brakes, though the pull-up lever handbrake, mounted between the seats was set a little far back, and was quite awkward to set and release. I only had the car for one day, and squeezed in just 5 gallons at the end of the 125 miles in which I drove it, making a fuel consumption of 25 mpg (US), which was pretty reasonable considering the amount of photography-related stop/start driving and the ups and downs of the canyon roads to which the Chevrolet was subjected.
Unlike the PT Cruiser, which carries its retro styling theme to the interior, the HHR looks rather more contemporary from the inside. This is a relatively cheap car, and here is where this fact is most obvious. The plastic mouldings, although well assembled and fitting well with each other are hard and feel a bit cheap by today’s ever improving standards. The dashboard is quite simple with a cowl covering the main dials, of which the speedometer is the central instrument,, with a smaller rev counter nestled into the lower right hand quadrant, and smaller gauges on either side for fuel level and temperature. The graphics on the dials are clear and easy to read, but those for the odometer and ambient temperature readout, in green, look like the sort of digital display of about 15 years ago. The centre of the dash contains the same GM audio system that you will find in many of their other lower priced cars and the air conditioning system, which was welcome and well able to cope with a day when it topped 100 degrees outside. Two column stalks control most other functions. It is all very simple and easy to use, but mostly created from the GM parts bin, with little of the Chrysler’s design statement in evidence.
One consequence of the boxy styling is that there plenty of room inside the HHR, especially given its relatively compact external dimensions. Headroom is in particularly plentiful supply, and thanks to a rear seat that is set fairly upright, there is also good legroom for rear passengers. There is ample space in the boot, which is a nice regular shape. There is a hard plastic cover which can be stowed in the boot floor, or positioned at about half height, to cover items placed lower down from prying eyes and as it is a fairly sturdy moulding, on which lighter items could be placed. More space can be created by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests onto the seat cushions creating a long and flat load area. There are a number of tie-down loops in the luggage area. Oddment space in the cabin is a bit less plentiful, with small door pockets, a moderate glove box, and a rather shallow lidded cubby on the top of the dash. There are nets in the back of the front seats.
When this car was new (the test car was registered in November 2008 and had done 45,000 miles), the LS model HHR retailed for less than $18,000, which means that you get a lot of practicality for not a lot of money. In LS spec, what you do not get is a lot of luxury, but all the basic are there. There is a perfectly acceptable audio unit and there is air conditioning to make life more pleasant for the occupants, and you get remote central locking. Beyond that, you need the creative talents of a marketing department to list standard features that would impress anyone. This is entry level motoring, and none the worse for that. given the price tag.
With the demise this autumn of the PT Cruiser, the HHR’s most direct rival, it looks like the Chevrolet will have the market for retro styled affordable cars all to itself. The question is, for how much longer. Rumours suggest that 2011 will be the last model year for the HHR, and that it will not be directly replaced. Maybe that is sensible, as the market for cars like this may well be limited and finite, waiting for someone to come up with a different something different, as they surely will. However, if you need a capable, practical car of this size, either to buy or as a rental vehicle, you could do worse than take the keys of a throwback to a 1949 Suburban, the Chevrolet HHR.