The Sacramento Bee's view

At a time when pinning labels on motor vehicles has become increasingly difficult, the 2006 Chevrolet HHR takes the cake.

Many auto reviewers have branded it a wagon. The window sticker on the tested HHR LT calls it a “sedan,” yet Chevrolet’s own Web site lists it under “trucks.” Numerous automotive publications call it a squat sport-utility vehicle.

The most cynical observers have labeled the HHR a knockoff of the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Ooh, nasty!

As for Chevy, it already has cast its votes for both truck and sedan: The HHR “fuses elements of the 1949 Chevy Suburban – the original utility vehicle – and the SSR roadster.”

OK. Sure. I’ll buy it.

But would you? That’s going to depend on your tastes.

If retro styling in a comparatively small wagon/SUV crossover package gets your heart fluttering, the HHR is a test drive waiting to happen.

Other considerations: The HHR is small in price and horsepower.

The HHR LS starts at less than $15,500; the tested LT goes for a mere $16,000 and change. The tester had a nothing-fancy, 2.2-liter in-line 4 rated at 143 horsepower. That means you need a pretty heavy foot to deposit tire rubber on the streets.

So there you have it – an affordable retro wagon with the DNA of a SUV and a four-banger engine.

Well, actually, there’s a little more to the HHR than that.

Take that 143 horsepower, for example. In my week with the HHR, the dual-overhead-cam engine felt much stronger than that. If someone had asked me to guess the horsepower rating on feel alone, I would have pegged it at around 165.

Handling also was a surprise. The HHR is constructed on the same small-car base as the Chevrolet Cobalt. Structural rigidity is solid, which explains the HHR’s comparatively smooth glide through high-speed corners. You wait for the vehicle’s weight to lean over to one side in a sharp turn; it happens, but at about 20 mph more than you might initially guess.

The HHR’s late-1940s-with-modern-touches exterior skin is cool, and yes, it does bring Chrysler’s PT Cruiser to mind.

However, the HHR – enough suspense, HHR stands for “heritage high roof,” a shout out to that original 1949 Chevrolet Suburban – has a little more size. It’s 7 inches longer than Chrysler’s popular PT and higher and wider than the Cruiser by 2 inches. With the rear seat out of harm’s way, the HHR’s cargo-carrying capacity is an admirable 63.1 cubic feet.

Does the HHR shape up as a likely machine to be dressed up in aftermarket goodies, a la the PT Cruiser? Yes, absolutely. I saw a gleaming, two-tone HHR at this month’s Los Angeles Auto Show that was absolutely stunning.

So young motorists who don’t want to plunk down three years of pay on a car should be attracted to the HHR; that includes youngsters who wouldn’t know a ’49 Suburban from a foot-driven sewing machine.

What might buyers not like?

An absence of standard anti-lock brakes, for one. What an odd omission from a vehicle that is otherwise liberally equipped with standard interior amenities (including iPod hookups).

And while the HHR’s exterior snaps heads around, the interior is comparatively uninspiring. That’s not necessarily surprising; Chevy had to save money somewhere if it was going to keep the HHR in the $16,000 ballpark.

Be advised that Chevy left plenty of room to dress it up. The tester was obscenely gussied up in nearly $6,000 worth of options. That included a remote-start feature for the automatic transmission – a tap on the key fob triggers the engine on the locked vehicle.

Remote-start is great for warming up the HHR on cold days and startling neighbors walking their dogs in front of your house, but if you have no trouble operating a stick shift, it’s a $1,000 extra you can probably live without.

Thankfully, the HHR’s discount-looking interior does not apply to the seats, which are comfortable. And the area surrounding the seats is remarkably roomy for a vehicle two feet short of 200 inches in length.

Overall, the HHR shapes up as a nice entry for General Motors Corp., a company in need of alluring new products. And it gives GM an attractive alternative to some of the sizable SUVs the automaker is pushing despite increasing public pessimism over the big brutes.

With its enticing looks, affordable price and pleasing cargo-carrying options, the HHR is likely to appeal to buyers both young and old.

– – –


Make/model: 2006 Chevrolet HHR LT

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, front-drive, wagon/sport-utility vehicle crossover.

Base price: $16,425 (as tested, $22,280)

Engine: 2.2-liter in-line 4 with 143 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 150 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city; 30 mpg highway.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic with overdrive.

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion with speed-sensitive feature.

Brakes: Power discs on front; drum-type on rear.6 Suspension: Independent, strut-type on front; semi-independent, torsion beam on rear (stabilizer bars front and rear).

Fuel tank: 16.2 gallons. Passenger volume: 97.4 cubic feet.

Cargo volume: 63.1 cubic feet (with rear seat removed)

Curb weight: 3,155 pounds

Track: 58.7 inches on front and rear

Ground clearance: 6.3 inches

Height: 65.2 inches

Length: 176.2 inches

Wheelbase: 103.5 inches

Width: 69.2 inches

Tires: P215/55R16 all-season radials

Assembly point: Ramos Arizpe, Mexico

About the writer:

The Bee’s Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or

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