Chevy HHR proves viable in a narrow segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz was not happy during the Los Angeles Auto Show last January because some writers had called the Chevrolet HHR a Chrysler PT Cruiser clone.

That’s akin to waving a red cape in front of a raging bull.

One journalist had the audacity to write that the HHR had come to the party three years late. That set Lutz off, and he defended GM’s new product in some strong language. He said that it could stand on its own, and there was room for more than one heritage-style front-wheel drive vehicle on the U.S. market.

The HHR, which takes its styling cues from a 1949 Suburban, was introduced at the L.A. show and reached Chevy dealer showrooms in dribs starting in June. September was HHR’s highlight month with 8602 sales. Sales for November showed a drop off to 6920. So it seems that HHR is going through some ups and downs.

After spending a week with an HHR, which stands for — go figure — Heritage High Roof, we agree with the vice chairman. This new Chevy has its own unique charm, great utility, decent gas mileage and affordable price. And we agree that the PT Cruiser and the HHR can live side-by-side in the utility wagon segment offering much the same in unique styling and spaciousness not found in many vehicles this size.

But while the HHR will certainly find its own customers, it apparently won’t be as an equal — at least at the outset.

General Motors had revised its annual sales goal downward to about 60,000 a year from a lofty 140,000. This seems a reasonable number, but it’s probably too low. If HHR levels off at about 6700 per month its full year sales should be about 80,000. So far, year-to-date through November, more than 123,500 PT Cruisers left dealerships. That’s about 19-percent ahead of last year.

If these figures hold true, the heritage market will expand to about 172,000 units this year and will probably reach 215,000 in full-year 2006.

There are similarities and differences in the two vehicles, but there’s a reason that the general styling theme of both the Cruiser and the HHR is comparable. They were both designed under the direction of Bryan Nesbitt, who once worked for Chrysler, and has since gone to General Motors.

The Cruiser makes a more stylish statement than the HHR, but the HHR has a more muscular stance with bulging fenders and an assertive retrospective front end. As the Cruiser, the HHR is striking and attention getting which is a good thing.

But then who remembers what a 1949 Suburban looks like (aside from us old guys)?

From the reaction at work and in the neighborhood, we conclude that a lot of people will give the HHR more than just a cursory glance. Most of the comments were positive. Even if people don’t actually associate it with a 1949 truck, it resembles something out of the far-distant past.

What’s so great about both the Chevy and the Chrysler is that they bring head-turning good looks along with outstanding usefulness in a small and maneuverable package. And in these days when bigger usually translates into frequent and costly trips to the gas pumps, smaller is definitely better. And best of all they don’t look like every other crossover utility vehicle.

The HHR stretches out only 176 inches on a 103.5-inch wheelbase, about the size of a compact car. But the Chevy has 55.6 cubic feet of cargo space with the second-row seats folded and 63 cubic feet with the seats removed. That’s the equivalent of a small sport utility vehicle such as a Ford Escape or a Jeep Liberty, but at a lower price and with considerably better gas mileage.

Note that the HHR is not offered with an all-wheel drive option, something found on all sport utilities.

The HHR with the base 2.2-liter 143-horsepower 4-cylinder engine or the 2.4-liter 172 horsepower engine get identical gas mileage of 22 city, 30 highway with the manual and 23/30 with the 4-speed automatic on unleaded regular.

Forget the smaller engine. Pay the $650 stand alone option price, or opt for the $1,800 preferred equipment package, which includes the bigger engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, antilock brakes, sport-tuned suspension and upgraded stereo. But to be truthful we would give up a mile-per-gallon for a little more oomph even on the bigger engine. It’s adequate, but…

The HHR has a good feel in stop-and-go traffic with very useable low-end torque. And the wagon is capable of adequately reaching highway speeds while merging or passing. For comparison purposes, the HHR has been measured at 9 seconds in a 0-to-60 run, rather relaxed by today’s standards.

If you’re not as picky as we, and you desire to keep your HHR near the base price of $16,990, the smaller engine should get the job done mated to the standard 5-speed manual.

The HHR is maneuverable in parking lot situations, capable of squeezing into tight spaces not available to the likes of the Explorers, TrailBlazers and Grand Cherokees of the world.

The driving position is good with the driver sitting up high. Visibility is good in all directions even with what seems a smallish windshield. Exceptional head room and decent rear-seat legroom give the HHR the feeling of spaciousness for four adults. One of its best attributes.

Our optional sport-tuned suspension offered an acceptable ride and provided a decent level of control through the twists and turns of a rural blacktop.

The dashboard is good looking, exhibiting nice fit and finish and a satisfactory level of quality in the materials. If you’re not real fussy the rest of the interior’s materials are okay and probably long lasting if not attractive. A receptacle on the dashboard will accommodate iPods, the newest wonder of the music world.

We wonder about the placement of the window switches in the center console behind the shifter, however.

Storage space is one of the HHR’s selling points. The rear seats fold flat with a hard plastic load floor and the front passenger seatback can be folded forward to allow for the hauling of an eight-foot ladder with the tailgate closed.

The HHR is definitely a good buy with loads of standard equipment for17-grand. Standard stuff includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, stereo with CD player, cruise control, a rear wiper and defroster and driver information center.

Our test vehicle came with more than $5,000 in options including automatic transmission and the bigger engine for a bottom line of $22,625.

The HHR has the stuff that should make it a solid player in the utility wagon segment including attractive gas mileage and outstanding versatility.