- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

Chevrolet has introduced a version of its retro-styled compact HHR utility wagon that can now go to the beach without fear of the Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo or Mazda3 Wagon kicking sand in its grille.

Tagged the HHR SS, this $22,995 wagon retains all of the versatility of the less potent HHR versions, yet has 260 stampeding ponies under its hood. Incredible utility and fire-breathing acceleration forge an uncommon combination in the compact segment. With a top speed of 150 miles per hour, this is a car errand-bound enthusiasts can get behind. In the performance ballpark with Dodge’s Caliber SRT4, the HHR SS is no wannabe.

Loosely based on the 1949 Suburban, the HHR’s styling is macho in a Mighty Mouse sort of way. Thanks to its tidy exterior dimensions and lackluster powerplants, it wasn’t taken seriously as anything but a small, practical wagon for frugal-minded drivers. Its brawny lines notwithstanding, it didn’t pack much of a punch. With many of its mechanicals borrowed from the Cobalt, it handled like a small family sedan, too. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and evidently the public agrees because Chevrolet has sold a passel of them. Enthusiasts, however, were forced to shop elsewhere. This is no longer the case.

Until the SS was released, the top-performing engine in the HHR arsenal was a 175-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Although providing decent acceleration, it wasn’t a smile maker. Chevrolet’s performance gurus rose to the task of creating an HHR that would make enthusiasts grin, if not giggle like school girls on their way to prom.

They began with the direct-injected turbocharged 2-liter Ecotec four borrowed from the Saturn Sky Red Line and Pontiac Solstice GXP. Output varies according to the transmission of choice, but with the five-speed manual it duplicates those roadsters’ 260 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of peak torque. Not bad for a vehicle with versatility leading off its mission list.

The SS folks didn’t stop there. Tinkering with the manual transmission, they moved the shift lever forward (power window buttons have been relocated to the door panel) and shortened the throws.

Although the Cobalt supplied the basic suspension architecture, the roll bars and shocks are exclusive to the HHR SS.

The springs are firmer as well. Overall, the suspension has been tightened for improved control and enhanced cornering.

The largest wheel previously available was 17 inches. The SS gets 18-inch alloys. The steering has been recalibrated for quicker response.

Known as torque steer, front-wheel-drive cars with lots of power tend to pull one way or the other under hard acceleration. The HHR SS does a superb job of managing torque steer with virtually uncompromised straight-line advances. The bottom line is that the SS is remarkably athletic and composed.

The manual version is certainly the more fun. To protect the four-speed automatic (a $1,000 option that includes remote start), the horsepower is trimmed to 235. This doesn’t eliminate the fun, but does slow things down a bit.

By Chevrolet’s count with the manual the SS sprints to 60 miles per hour from a standstill in just over six seconds.

The automatic requires another second to achieve the same.

Of course with the automatic you don’t have to worry with shifting in stop-and-go traffic. Additionally, the manual isn’t the smoothest-shifting transmission out there. Its notchiness dampens some of its appeal.

When equipped with the manual as the test HHR SS was, fuel economy is an Environmental Protection Agency-rated 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

Safety features include four-wheel anti-lock brakes with traction control and electronic stability control. A tire pressure monitoring system is included in the base sticker.

The only airbags that are standard are the dual frontal airbags. Side-impact airbags aren’t available, but for $395 you can add side curtain airbags. GM’s OnStar emergency communications system is also standard and comes with a one-year subscription.

HHR is an acronym for Heritage High Roof. That’s not an idle boast. Featuring scads of headroom, the HHR also has plenty of front and rear legroom.

Set up to seat five, it has just over 25 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seat in place. Folding down the split 60/40 backseat reveals 63 cubic feet of carrying capacity.

The front passenger seat also folds flat to accommodate longer items. The four doors open wide for easy access to all seating positions.

All manner of storage bins and cubbies abound. The instrument panel is neatly arranged. Easy-to-decipher knobs control the air conditioning and heating.

Located above them on the center stack are the controls for the audio system. The standard version has six speakers, a CD player and an auxiliary input for personal listening devices. Popping for an extra $295 gets you a seven-speaker Pioneer-enhanced system.

Power accessories are standard, as are the leather-covered sport seats, remote keyless entry and eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat.

Not some cobbled-together gimmick, the HHR SS is a serious performer that actually earns its SS designation. Fun to drive and about as practical as a small wagon can be, it is more proof that Chevrolet is back on track.

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