Chevy Plays the Retro Card: The 2006 Chevy HHR

Chevrolet, and indeed all of GM, is visibly working hard lately to produce vehicles that are actually competitive and desirable–and with good reason; even GMAC and OnStar don’t make enough cash to support the General producing cars at a loss. Perhaps the most whimsical of the apple-pie-American brand’s new ventures (if not the most original) is the Heritage High Roof, or HHR.


Based on the new Cobalt small-car platform, the HHR is significantly smaller than the 1949 Suburban from which much of its design language was pilfered. It’s also a heck of a lot more modern; check those smooth alloys. Still, the retro theme here is so obvious it’s like an actual slap in the face. That’s not such a bad thing, though–previous ventures have shown the niche market’s affinity for such things.

Of course, media mavens and public pundits have knocked the HHR black and blue over the car’s similarity to the Chrysler PT Cruiser, now in its fifth year. And the truth is, it is darn similar–we suspect the least car-savvy folks out there won’t even be able to tell the difference, or care. Essentially, they’re both retro-styled ‘vanlets’ based on an economy car, with good roominess (especially up high), lots of cargo versatility, and hip/funky/gen-X-appropriate ad campaigns.

Speaking of that interior, we were surprised to find that the inside of the HHR is actually about as retro as the Cobalt-sourced running gear–which is to say not at all. The only real nod to the “good old days” is the 5-speed’s chromed cue-ball shifter (unfortunately marred by a lack of heft and authentic feel; if it’s not actually plastic it’s a darn good imitation). In the main, though, we found the accoutrements to be surprisingly upscale; the optional leather seats, for instance, were about as supple as the suspension proved to be in a couple of rounds on the track… more on that later. The chrome-(plastic-?) ringed gauges were another classy touch. Automatic models get a standard remote-start function added to the keyless entry, too. And also of note, GM’s switchgear this year is finally up to par with the rest of the industry, and as an ’06 model, even the lowly HHR gets a dose of this tactile treasure.

Storage and cargo capacity are major themes here. From the dashtop cubby to the removable shelf with grocery-bag hooks underneath and cargo net in back, you can pack a lot in this diminutive machine. There’s also room for four friends to sit comfortably, or you can configure the folding seats to carry larger loads. It all makes for a surprising little vehicle that can carry a whole lot.

We spent time behind the LT-trim HHR’s leather-wrapped, multifunction steering wheel in a number of settings. All in all, we found it to be reasonably competent in accomplishing the likely missions any owner would undertake. The LT models were both equipped with the uplevel 2.4-liter, 170-horse four-banger, which moves the baby box smartly–although without the performance edge the PT Cruiser GT’s 215-horse turbo offers. It’s got a distinctive exhaust note, though, best described as growly (or just plain loud, if you push it hard). Still, it’s quick enough on the street, although it’s worth noting that the base model’s 140-horse 2.2-L four also actually gives up 10 to the base PT’s motor.


In the five-speed manual car we drove, the shifter was surprisingly precise, although we’d hesitate to call it a “short-throw unit” (unlike GM’s product planners, who made it part of the sport option package). We tend to abhor automatics in economy cars like this–they wreak havoc on acceleration numbers as well as gas mileage–and the HHR’s 4-speed slushbox is no exception to this.

Under the Cobalt is a competent front strut/rear torsion beam with coil springs suspension setup, which was tweaked with heftier spring rates and shock valving (part of a sport suspension package) in the tested HHR. Honestly, the upgrades don’t entirely compensate for this body style’s increased weight (over a Cobalt) and higher center of gravity. On just a couple laps around Pocono International Raceway’s road course, the HHR brought to mind more the ‘rocker-panel-scrapers’ of the ’50s than any modern sports machine. Grip was plentiful, however, and the car never did actually lose it. Even if you’re particularly impervious to motion sickness, we don’t recommend racing this puppy, but that’s not the point here anyway. The HHR showed decent street credentials, with a soft ride and plenty of oomph for everyday driving.

It will be interesting to see if Chevy works to have the HHR classified as a truck, as Chrysler did with the PT (until this year, when the decision was finally made to tap into the high-volume small-car market by touting it as such). GM’s public relations flaks bristle if you even mention the DCX twin to their newest baby, but how could we ignore this part of the story? The designers didn’t do too much to differentiate it; and unless the marketers can find a way to separate the two in the market, the ripoff factor will still be part of the HHR’s buzz. Which is too bad. When it comes right down to it, there’s very little that’s original about this car/truck/thing. But what’s original about the Chevy Impala, much-anticipated Ford Fusion, Mercedes E350, or even the wildly successful new Mustang? We’re not sure it matters so much if a concept is original–what does matter is the HHR is a well-put-together machine, with visual flair and a practical, useful layout.

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