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MARK PHELAN: New Chevy HHR hits home run

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MARK PHELAN: New Chevy HHR hits home run

August 25, 2005



The 2006 Chevrolet HHR is what the future used to look like, an artist's rendering that blends memory and imagination.

From its optional chrome roof rack to the sculpted metal housings for its round afterburner taillights, the HHR reminds me of 1940s and '50s drawings of spaceships and cars of the future.

Some skeptics have already dismissed the throwback look of the HHR as Chevy's belated answer to Chrysler's retro-styled PT Cruiser, but the compact wagon is more than that.

Both cars use their brands' heritage effectively, but while the HHR -- which stands for Heritage High Roof -- borrows key styling cues from models such as the 1949 Chevy Suburban, it's not just a slavish exercise in playing the oldies.

The HHR has been on the auto-show circuit as a concept for a while, and it just went on sale with remarkably little fanfare for a car that signals a seismic shift in how America's best-selling brand thinks of small cars.

It took a generation, but Chevrolet might have finally figured out that small cars deserve as much thought and attention as big ones. The HHR's interior space and road presence give it the feel of a larger car, but the wagon is actually about 4 inches shorter than the Chevrolet Cobalt compact.

That's one of the keys to attracting young buyers to showrooms, and Chevrolet executives think the HHR's looks, price and features give them an answer to youth magnets like the Honda Element and Scion xB.

The compact station wagon is full of safety features, thoughtful little touches that make it clear Chevy has stopped dismissing anything smaller than an Impala as econoboxes.

That's not to say the HHR isn't economical. Base prices start at $15,425 and the very well equipped model I tested cost $21,425. All prices exclude destination charges.

In addition, the 172-horsepower HHR LT got a very good 26.2 m.p.g. over 279 miles of mixed city and highway driving, meaning it should be inexpensive to own as well as to buy.

While I like the HHR's looks and frugality, the little wagon's carefully thought-out interior impressed me most.

The list begins with a high seating position that provides an unusually commanding view of traffic for a small vehicle.

While the HHR hopes to win over young folks who didn't even notice earlier small Chevys, the easy-entry seats and wide-opening doors should also make it attractive to older buyers and people with limited mobility.

The interior also features a simple and attractive instrument panel. The chrome-rimmed gauges featured lighted pointers, and the raised tachometer overlaps the speedometer slightly, adding an unusual feeling of depth to the instrument panel.

The HHR also has a standard driver information center, which provides a variety of data including trip odometers, fuel economy and average speed. Other standard equipment on even the base model includes power locks and mirrors, air conditioning, and a CD stereo with a jack for iPods and other auxiliary inputs.

The climate and audio controls are all large and logically arranged.

Antilock brakes and curtain air bags are optional on the base model, an unfortunate omission for a car that aims to appeal to young people and parents shopping for their kids' first car.

While I'd like to see those features standard, the two of them add only $795 to the car's price. I suspect the vast majority of buyers will get them both.

The interior's many useful features include an extremely well-designed storage compartment in the dashboard and a handy little iPod-size cubby below the audio controls.

The cupholders are rather poorly placed, very low and farther aft in the center console than feels natural.

Back-seat legroom is good, however, and the rear cargo compartment is extremely useful, with a standard cargo net and a multi-position shelf that provides two levels of storage and a cover to keep your gear out of view.

Drivers over 6 feet tall may find headroom somewhat limited in HHRs with the optional power sunroof, however.

The interior materials are generally good. The inside of the doors have a bit more hard plastic than I'd like, but they are impressed with a grained surface that makes them palatable in a low-priced car.

The HHR shares its basic structure and major systems with the Chevrolet Cobalt, and they all perform very well. The brakes are firm and progressive; the steering is responsive and provides good feedback.

I tested an HHR with the optional 172-horsepower 2.4-liter engine. Acceleration was fine, although I found myself working the manual Getrag gearbox a lot to get the performance I wanted. Thanks to its variable valve timing, the 2.4-liter has the same EPA fuel economy rating as the base 2.2-liter 140-horsepower engine.

The larger engine is a $650 option, and I'd call that money well spent.

The HHR I tested was one of the first saleable models to roll out of the factory, but I didn't find any loose parts, squeaks or rattles.

The HHR was quiet and comfortable on surface streets and highways.

With its looks, thoughtful features and affordability, the HHR should be what the future of Chevrolet looks like.

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I just saw my first one on the street about an hour ago, which I was anticipating because I really couldn't get a handle on it's size from pics. It's smaller than it appears in photos, but not as small as the PT. Looked very good driving by, and the wife said 'I could drive that!'. Now I'm curious about the cargo room...

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I've started seeing HHRs on the road now here in socal....and I'll have to admit....I was skeptical at first, but I'm a fan now! However, that car just BEGS for the Cobalt SS Supercharged powertrain...... I think it's a great product.....! PT Cruiser-copier or not....

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I drove one (with the wife)....all I can see...very cool! B) easy to drive, and I love the standard remote start... :)

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They do look really good. I haven't been in one, but my dad has and he really liked it. Then again, he liked the Aveo 5-door, which honestly makes more sense for him, but it isn't as cool looking as the HHR.

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I didnt like it in concept but now that I have seen it in person it looks good. It should be a very useful vehicle for its target people. And get good fuel mileage while looking cool.

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They do look really good.  I haven't been in one, but my dad has and he really liked it.  Then again, he liked the Aveo 5-door, which honestly makes more sense for him, but it isn't as cool looking as the HHR.


Heck, he could get the LS ans still be quite happy...and get the close to the same milage...

Plastics or not, I liked the inside...lots of places to hide stuff...

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