If you've spent time in a PT Cruiser you will feel right at home in the similarly sized Chevy HHR. From the raised seating position to the centrally located power-window switches, and the adjustable rear cargo shelf -- everything seems familiar.
Chrysler has had the retro-wagon market to itself for nearly six years, and has enjoyed good sales. Is there room for a competitor? After spending several hours in the new HHR, I'd say yes. Although very similar to the PT in concept, the HHR is different enough to have its own fan club. It's slightly longer, wider and taller than the Cruiser. And while GM hates to have its offering compared to the PT -- saying it came up with the styling cues with its 1940s-vintage trucks and more recently with the current Chevy SSR convertible pickup -- the comparison is inevitable. Park the PT and the HHR side-by-side and you'll see why. Both are low-slung, tall-roofed wagons with four doors and a hatchback that lifts to reveal a versatile load area with movable shelving and other nifty features. Both vehicles are based on front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder, economy-car platforms -- the PT Cruiser on the Neon and the HHR on the Chevy Cobalt.
Chevy offers a choice of two normally aspirated versions of GM's well-regarded Ecotec four cylinder engine in the HHR. The standard 2.2-liter produces 143 horsepower, while the optional 2.4-liter engine in my test vehicle uses variable valve timing to achieve 172 horsepower. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. My engine produced adequate power accompanied by a satisfying growl when pushed hard, and was willing and able to rev all the way to red line. The automatic transmission shifted smoothly and cleanly, contributing to the brisk performance of the 3,200-pound HHR. The suspension is tuned to the firm side, apparently to tame the HHR's rather tall height. I noticed a bit of body roll in tight corners, but the vehicle maintained its composure. The HHR is manufactured at Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.
Some noise gets through to the passenger compartment, but it is mostly from the tires singing on the pavement. There's also a bit of wind noise, which is surprising, because the four doors feel very rigid and seal like bank vault doors.
Fit and finish was impressive, and seems comparable to the best of the economy imports. And GM has done an excellent job of executing a stylish, user-friendly interior. Two-tone gray dash and door panels are textured, shaped and accented with chrome fittings. Buttons on the steering wheel handle the cruise control, sound system and air conditioning. Storage nooks and cup holders are everywhere.
HHR stands for High Heritage Roof, and besides offering retro styling, the design offers practicality. With its low-loading, bumper-level sill and a high-rise hatch door, loading cargo is a breeze. There was a surprising amount of room for stuff in the cargo area -- including three four-foot cypress trees and several potted mums that now grace our yard! The front passenger seatback and rear seats fold flat, so ladders, big screen TVs, even a 9-foot kayak fit inside. There's a fairly large under-floor storage area in the rear, plus a couple of smallish storage areas for hiding valuables. A handy little cubby on the dash top is provided for sunglasses, keys or a small GPS.
Flip the seats up and you can accommodate five adults, four comfortably. All four side doors open wide, and you simply step in like entering a minivan -- no climbing. I also noted that the rear passenger windows go all the way down -- a nice feature that is becoming rare on many vehicles.
Our test Chevy was a nicely equipped 2LT model with a base price of $16,425, and a MSRP of $24,765, including destination charge and dealer-installed options. Some notable items: running boards, $445; rear spoiler, $395; 6-CD changer, $295; XM satellite radio fee, $325; 17" forged and polished wheels, $295; power sunroof, $725; automatic transmission bundled with remote start, $1,000; leather seating, $750. Standard equipment included air conditioning, reclining front bucket seats, AM/FM/CD sound system, power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment, tilt steering wheel, remote entry, power windows and mirrors, and cruise control.
My test vehicle, with the big engine and automatic transmission, was rated for 23-mpg/city and 30/highway.
Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.