Retro wanes, but Chevrolet HHR keeps selling

Sunday, July 22, 2007
The 2007 Chevy HHR 2LT looks like a downsized 1949 Suburban. (Associated Press)

This isn't a good year for retro-styled cars. Sales of every retro model are down compared with last year, and many sales declines are in the double digits.

But even lower sales won't stop the Chevrolet HHR, which looks like a downsized 1949 Chevrolet Suburban, from recording its second-best sales year.

In fact, the 2007 HHR will easily outsell the Volkswagen New Beetle and Mini Cooper retro models and could narrow its sales gap with the Chrysler PT Cruiser this year significantly.

The five-passenger, five-door HHR is the newest of the retro cars -- it debuted in calendar 2005 -- and is larger and more accommodating than some competitors. But it's likely the government highway fuel economy rating of 30 miles per gallon is attracting attention these days.

A "recommended buy" listing by Consumer Reports magazine and across-the-board, five-out-of-five-stars ratings in federal government crash tests help make the HHR stand out, too.

Best of all, the 2007 HHR is affordable with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,595 for a base wagon with 143-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission.

This compares with the $15,530 starting retail price for a 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon with 150-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission and the $17,820 starting price for a 2007 VW New Beetle hatchback with 150-horsepower, five-cylinder engine and manual transmission.

Don't judge the HHR from pictures. Pictures -- and the old Suburban styling -- make the HHR look bigger than it is in reality. While it's true the HHR is nearly 14.7 feet long, or some 7 inches longer than the PT Cruiser, it's quite compact and is basically the same length as a 2007 Honda Civic sedan.

Indeed, the HHR uses the same front-wheel drive platform and many components, including engines and transmissions, that are in Chevy's subcompact sedan and coupe, the Cobalt.

But the packaging genius of the HHR -- for both passengers and cargo -- comes from the vehicle's tall roof.

The HHR is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, so passengers have a more upright seating position than they do in regular cars and sit up some above the pavement. The upright seating helps provide surprisingly generous legroom of more than 40 inches in the front seats and nearly 40 inches for back-seat occupants. This is akin to what passengers get in some larger sport utility vehicles.

Headroom of 39.6 inches for the HHR back seats is laudable, too. It's what you find in the back seat of Chevy's mid-size SUV, the TrailBlazer, for example.

And the HHR -- which stands for Heritage, as in old-style vehicle, with High Roof -- offers an SUV-like 63.1 cubic feet of cargo space, maximum, when rear seats are removed. Rear seats also fold down flat, along with the seatback of the front passenger seat, for flexible cargo storage.

The HHR isn't a plush or luxurious vehicle, though buyers can option up to leather-trimmed, heated front seats and premium sound system with Pioneer speakers.

With hard plastic trim on the interior sides of the doors, the dashboard and the cargo floor, the HHR comes across as strictly functional. For example, watch as you put items in and take them out from the back. The hard plastic cargo floor can scratch and be gouged.

And while air vents on the dashboard are attractive circles and instrument cluster gauges are surrounded by shiny silver-colored trim for a pleasant look, there's nary any retro feel to the inside of the HHR. The HHR radio faceplate and controls are a modern, clean design now included in virtually all vehicles made by Chevy's parent company, General Motors Corp.

I just wish that fewer road bumps would have come through to passengers in the test HHR with uplevel, 17-inch tires and that there hadn't been an intermittent rattle coming from the dashboard.

There are two HHR engines, and both are fuel-thrifty, four-cylinder Ecotec units from GM.

The base, 2.2-liter powerplant delivers 143 horses and 150 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm, while the uplevel engine has a larger, 2.4-liter displacement and generates a more competitive 172 horses and 162 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm.

The bigger engine, which was part of a $1,800 option package in the test HHR LT, gets the same government fuel economy ratings as the smaller, 2.2-liter four cylinder.

But like the base engine, the uplevel unit operated with a lot of noisy bluster when pressed to accelerate quickly and when on long, uphill, highway pavement.

I also never got anywhere near the posted, 2007 government fuel economy ratings of 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. With 60 percent of my driving on the highway, I wound up with a combined city/highway rating of just 22.6 mpg with automatic transmission.

The HHR highway fuel economy ratings will drop to 28 mpg when stricter, 2008 fuel economy calculations begin. City mileage ratings will range from 19 to 21 mpg.

Alas, the HHR lags other small vehicles in standard safety equipment.

Antilock brakes were on the tester as part of the $1,800 LT option package, and side curtain air bags were another $395 option.

But the 2007 HHR still performed admirably in the government crash tests.

There has been only one safety recall of the HHR, and it was for a few vehicles in the 2006 model year.

The vehicles were built with cloth seats but then reupholstered with aftermarket leather, which the federal government determined could interfere with proper operation of air bag sensors for the front passenger seats.

GM bought back the vehicles from owners, because no substitute seats were available at the time.

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