I would have thought this car would have been an answer to a question no one was asking: "Why can't I get a Chevrolet HHR without any side windows?"
But judging from the popularity of the HHR Panel van during the week I drove it, I might be wrong.
The Mexican-built wagon, based on the same platform as the Chevrolet Cobalt, has been hot since its introduction as a 2006 model. Chevrolet is ultrasensitive about suggestions that the HHR is just a late answer to the retro Chrysler PT Cruiser, insisting that the inspiration for the HHR is the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban. Which, incidentally, offered "panel" models with no side windows behind the front row.
When Chevrolet noticed that some aftermarket customizers were making regular HHRs into panel vans, the company got into the act. There are the obvious commercial possibilities -- a delivery vehicle for pizza parlors and florists, a hearse for pets and very short people, a replacement for the Geek Squad computer-repair crew's Volkswagen New Beetles -- but there are just as many opportunities for customizers, who love the HHR Panel's big metal canvas to paint on.
For us civilians to appreciate the HHR Panel, the appeal must go directly to the styling, because trying to back out of a parking space is a nightmare. With no right-seat passenger to help, the best solution I found: Hop out of the HHR, see if anything is coming, and back out quickly when the coast is clear. There is, at least, a rear window, and using that and the side mirrors -- the right mirror has a little wide-angle supplemental mirror attached -- anyone but Lindsay Lohan should have no problem driving it on the road.
The rear side doors look as if they should slide open, but they don't -- they open like a regular door. There are no exterior handles, so they must be opened by a long reach back to the interior door handles, or by a button on the dashboard. There is also no rear seat, replaced instead by a platform with storage bins. The cargo area is covered by a rubber mat.
The HHR Panel is offered in LS and LT trims. The LS has a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, and the LT -- that's what we tested -- has a 2.4-liter four-cylinder. With 175 horsepower, that engine, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, has plenty of power and still gets a decent 23 miles per gallon in the city, 30 mpg on the highway. Ride is very good, and handling is fine unless you really press the HHR Panel, and then the suspension begins to feel a bit soft, with a moderate degree of body roll. Still, it's fun to drive forward, just not much fun to back up.
The price isn't bad, unless you load it up with options. Base price of the LT is $18,005. With shipping and a lot of options that included leather upholstery, side curtain airbags, an automatic transmission (that's $1,000 you can save, if you don't mind shifting), Onstar, running boards, bigger 17-inch wheels and tires and an upgraded stereo, the bottom line was $24,049. That isn't bad for all that content, but it's no longer a bargain.
I genuinely like the styling of the HHR Panel, but it's really too small and lightweight to do much heavy-duty industrial transporting. The regular HHR, with the side windows and a back seat, suits me better.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5699.