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Chevy HHR SS delivers speed and handling, can also deliver a fridge

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Scott Burgess: Review

Speed speaks louder than labels

Chevy HHR SS delivers speed and handling, can also deliver a fridge

PHOENIX - Badges? Anyone can wear a stinking badge.

But toting tin doesn't make the man. Wyatt Earp and Roscoe Pico Coltrane both had a star pinned to their pocket, but one was a sniveling idiot, the other a legend.

Slap Chevy's once-holy Super Sport label on enough different cars (and trucks) and even that badge loses its luster. It tarnishes just a little more every time a VW GTI, MazdaSpeed3 or Dodge Sprinter blows past an SS poseur.

The badging misstep, General Motors executives readily admit, was created by clamoring dealers who thought the label was $$ not SS. They eagerly sold yesterday's hard-revving equity for a quick profit, not a quick car.

So how do you rebuild your reputation? A good start would be the Camaro SS, the performance version of a muscle car not slated to arrive at dealerships for another year.

Instead, Chevy chose the HHR, an SUV/car/retro-crossover thingy, to give the badge a Super Spark. It may not be my first choice, but surprisingly, the HHR SS was fast on the open desert roads, spirited on the track and an all-out hoot to rip around corners during my test drive in Phoenix.

It'll chew up rubber (albeit with its front tires) and leave a little smoke burning your nostrils if you use its launch control. And the turbo-charged four-cylinder engine boosts this funky looking retro wagon with more zip than Andiamo's delicious sauce.

Technically, the HHR SS is an SUV, which I think has more to do with CAFÉ regulations than anything else - after all, who wouldn't want a 30 mpg SUV in their fleet. It's built on the Chevy Cobalt's platform, but offers a lot more utility. In fact, the space inside the HHR is downright cavernous. With the rear seats folded flat, there is 63 cubic feet of space - enough to carry a medium sized fridge.

Stop, turn, go

Car or truck, the first reason anything gets an SS badge is because of what's under the hood. In fact, three elements are needed to warrant an SS label, according GM's Performance Division: Better brakes, superior handling and more power. GM calls it the "stop, turn, go" requirements.

The HHR SS may use a smaller engine than its sibling, but the intercooled turbo bolted to it makes all of the difference. The 2-liter DOHC direct injection four-cylinder with the turbo, lets the HHR SS blast off. Producing 260 horsepower with the five-speed manual transmission, the HHR SS is 111 horses more powerful than the standard 2.2-liter four-banger in the regular HHR.

The automatic transmission can only muster 235 horsepower due to durability concerns. So if you want the power, get the stick.

The engineers at GM Performance also added a few features, such as launch control and no-lift shifting, to help anyone wanting to cut a few tenths of a second off of their track time. The launch control allows the driver to floor the gas while the clutch is in. It keeps the car at 4,100 rpm until you release the clutch. The no-lift shifting lets the driver keep his foot on the gas during upshifts.

The owner's manual should put it like this: Keep it floored, push the clutch in, shift, release the clutch. Screech with delight like a little girl.

It takes some getting used to but works fine. Of course, just being proficient on any gear box can work almost as fast, especially with the new short-throw shifter that clicks through gears quickly. The launch and no-lift shift are neat features, but something I don't see people over-using. Most people will never notice they're there.

However, the suspension improvements will be admired every day.

The HHR SS has an FE5 sport suspension carefully crafted for this vehicle. The ride stiffens up when you press it on a track, but never beats you up on regular roads. It makes you feel agile through corners and graceful on the highway.

The electric power steering also helps make the ride clean and precise. The steering wheel has a smaller diameter and a rack-and-pinion gear in the mechanism makes steering 20 percent quicker than the regular HHR.

It also comes with bigger brakes, because if you're going to hit 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, you better have the ability to get back to zero faster. Four wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard, as is electronic stability control.

The biggest improvement for the HHR SS is that engineers eliminated the car's torque steer. Front-wheel drive vehicles try to drive into a ditch when you hit the gas hard. They pull you to one side because of the power, the driveshaft, the suspension, and how physics connects them all.

But GM's crafty folks figured out a way around Sir Isaac Newton's silly laws and eliminated it. While the vehicle still performs like a front-wheel drive car on the track, during fast acceleration, it never feels the need to pull to the side.

Aggressive front end helps looks

While performance always warms my heart, I'm not completely won over by the HHR SS.

First of all, it's ugly. It looks like the one Pinewood Derby entry by the Cub Scout whose father didn't build it. Yes, the HHR SS has a more aggressive front end and a cool spoiler, but improving its looks was easy. The HHR SS has some personality.

Sure the design harkens back to the good old days. The Heritage High Roof actually emulates the 1949 Suburban, another giant block of unfinished metal. My father was about to enter third grade when that Suburban came out, and I've never once heard him, or anyone else for that matter, say, "Oh, and when that '49 Suburban came out. I couldn't get enough of it. What a looker."

Obviously, some people like that look, the small windows and rounded edges, the tall roof and loads of storage inside. Chevy consistently sells 100,000 HHRs every year.

For good reason, the high roof makes the interior feel open and comfortable. The road and wind noise was minimal and the front bucket seats were very comfortable. The additional SS trim added to the car's interior looks - such as the ultra suede inserts, the new instrument gauge that hits 140 mph and other nice touches.

But some of the retro design cut into the vehicle's abilities, despite the outstanding work done by GM's Performance Division. Great suspension and all, the body still rolls into fast turns because the roof is so high. The small windows limit a driver's visibility, even if you move the seat up and forward - which I found vastly improved my lines of sight. Backing up is an adventure because you can't see what's behind you. Just go slow until you feel the bump.

The HHR is a vehicle that appeals to people because of its utility. Now, with the SS, it can haul a refrigerator and some ass at the same time. The HHR SS isn't your grandfather's Suburban, it's not even your friend's HHR. It's quicker and more fun than both.

So pin on that Super Sport badge Mr. HHR and wear it proudly. You may be a funky car/truck/retro-crossover thingy, but you still earned it.

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at 313-223-3217 or sburgess@detnews.com.

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