Choosing a new car with good fuel economy and a decent price doesn't mean you have to drive a boring econobox that feels like a sardine can.
There are several compact wagon-style vehicles on the market now that offer great styling and comfortable cabins - along with fuel-sipping engines that squeeze the most out of a gallon of gasoline.
Among these is the cool-looking Chevrolet HHR (2010 base price $18,720 plus $720 freight), a compact crossover with 1940s-era styling that General Motors rolled out three years ago in answer to the similarly designed Chrysler PT Cruiser.
It was designed primarily by Bryan Nesbitt, who also led the team that created the PT Cruiser when he worked for Chrysler. HHR stands for "Heritage High Roof," and the design is heavily based on that of the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban.
Built on the same architecture as the Chevy Cobalt compact sedan and coupe, the HHR has a roomy interior and decent fuel economy: as high as 22 miles per gallon city/32 highway for the base model, and 22/30 for our test vehicle, the midlevel 1LT model ($19,720) with the optional four-speed automatic transmission ($1,000).
Also available is the turbocharged HHR Super Sport or SS model ($26,255), which was introduced for 2008. It remains in the lineup for 2010, but GM has said it will be discontinued along with other Super Sport models as the company moves forward under new federal fuel-economy mandates.
This version, with lots more power than the normally aspirated HHR models, offers fuel economy of up to 21 city/29 highway - still much better than that of most midsize and larger crossovers.
It's meant for those who want more excitement in a vehicle than what the base model can provide. Using a turbo version of the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine found in a number of other GM vehicles, the HHR SS offers 260 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque when connected to the standard five-speed manual gearbox, or 235 horsepower and 223 foot-pounds of torque when connected to the four-speed automatic transmission.
GM said it had no automatic transmission that would both fit in the HHR and be capable of handling the torque of the higher-output engine, so the automatic model had to be de-tuned to the lower horsepower.
The base and 1LT models come with a normally aspirated 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 155 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque, while the 2LT model ($21,420) gets a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 174 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque (the same engine offered in the midsize Malibu sedan, among other GM products).
Among compact crossover utility vehicles, the HHR SS isn't as powerful as the V-6 version of the Toyota RAV4, which boasts 269 horsepower even with its automatic transmission. But the HHR does have slightly better highway fuel economy that the Toyota.
Paying the extra money for the SS model isn't necessary to get a nice HHR, though. Even the base model has adequate power for most people's needs. But the SS does offer a large measure of additional fun, and you still get the HHR's cool retro styling.
The manual-transmission SS model can go from zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, and has more power than the base Chevy Corvette had before 1992. Besides the engine, performance improvements include a sport-tuned suspension with heavier stabilizer bars, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and tighter, more-responsive steering.
SS models also have special badging, unique front upper and lower grilles, painted black with body-color trim; revised fascias; 18-inch polished wheels with Michelin 225/45-18 all-season tires; new rocker panels that are extended and more curved than those on the regular HHR; and a rear spoiler.
Also included are a unique new instrument cluster, a performance driver's seatback, and the option of a no-charge upgrade to a full performance-style driver's seat.
While the speedometer reads only up to 140 mph, the manual-transmission model can go slightly faster than 150 mph, GM said. The automatic version is electronically governed to a top speed of 130.
There are three driver-selectable modes for the electronic handling and stability control system - off, normal and competitive. The manual gearbox comes with a special "no-lift shift" feature that lets the driver depress the clutch and shift into higher gears without letting up on the accelerator. This feature was designed to allow the car to maintain its momentum through shifting.
Also in the HHR lineup is the panel-truck model, which has no rear windows or seats. It's designed for small-business use, such as for deliveries or light hauling. It's also popular with some enthusiasts. Base prices for 2010 range from $19,030-$21,730.
Passenger versions of the HHR have enough room for up to five people, and there is 25.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second seat. That's much more than even most large sedans.
Our test model, the 2009 HHR 1LT ($18,930 plus $660 freight), included such standard equipment as a touring suspension; speed-sensitive power steering; 16-inch wheels with all-season tires; intermittent front wipers, along with rear wiper; air conditioning, with an air-filtration system; AM/FM/compact-disc stereo with XM satellite radio; reclining cloth front bucket seats, with eight-way power adjuster for the driver's side; fold-down front passenger seat (for extra cargo capacity); 60/40 split-folding cloth rear bench seat; tilt steering wheel; power windows/mirrors/door locks, with remote; cargo net; and rear defroster.
Safety features include anti-lock front disc/rear drum brakes (four-wheel disc on SS models), electronic stability control, front and rear side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, and standard OnStar with a year of basic service.
Options on our tester, besides the automatic transmission, included a Bright Chrome Appearance Package ($995), color-keyed running boards ($445), and an ashtray and lighter ($40).
Leather seats are available for $950, and a sunroof is $750, but neither was included on our vehicle.
Total sticker price for our 2009 model 1LT, with options and freight, was $22,000. For 2010, this model with the same options is $22,400.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at 210-250-3236; email@example.com.
2009/2010 Chevrolet HHR
The package: Compact, five-door, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, five- or two-passenger sport utility wagon or panel truck.
Highlights: New for 2008 was the Super Sport or SS version of the retro-styled HHR compact crossover, which comes in passenger and panel-truck versions. It adds a large measure of fun with its turbocharged engine.
Negatives: Could get better highway fuel economy with the six-speed automatic transmission from the Chevy Malibu, but only a four-speed is offered.
Engine: 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder; 2.4-liter inline four; 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four.
Transmission: Five-speed manual standard; four-speed automatic (optional --$1,000).
Power/torque: 155 HP./152 foot-pounds (2.2-liter); 172 HP./167 foot-pounds (2.4-liter); 260 HP./260 foot-pounds (2.0-manual); 235 HP./223 foot-pounds (2.0-automatic).
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum, antilock optional; disc/disc, antilock standard, SS.
Side air bags: Front and rear side curtains optional.
Vehicle stability control: Standard on all models.
Length: 176.2 inches.
Cargo capacity: 25.2 cubic feet (57.7 with rear seat folded).
Curb weight: 3,155-3,353 pounds.
Fuel capacity/type: 16.2 gallons/unleaded regular (premium recommended but not required for SS model).
EPA fuel economy: 19-22 miles per gallon city/29-32 highway.
Major competitors: Chrysler PT Cruiser, Scion xB, Nissan Cube.
Base price range: $18,720-$26,255 plus $720 freight (2010 models).
Price as tested: $22,000 including freight and options (2009 1LT model with automatic; 2010 price: $22,400).
On the Road rating: 8.4 (of a possible 10).
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.