- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

For most people, buying an automobile or truck is an emotional decision. Monthly payments and family considerations aside, hardly anybody would buy a vehicle he or she didn’t like.

The emotional quotient usually has to do with the way the car looks, how the person feels riding high in that big SUV or truck, or even the tactile sensations that come through while carving curves or listening to engine sounds.

But for a small cadre of consumers, what gets the juices flowing is practicality: a low purchase price, good fuel economy, flexible seating and better-than-average cargo-carrying capability. Folks like this often gravitate toward station wagons or minivans, never mind the stigma sometimes attached.

It’s a fairly safe bet that a decent number of these sensible people will be attracted to the 2006 Chevrolet HHR, a new retro-styled vehicle that oozes practicality, not to mention a funky and endearing personality.

The HHR is basically a station-wagon version of the Cobalt, Chevrolet’s entry-level compact sedan and coupe. But it gets its character from an old design. The styling mimics that of the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban, and the HHR name appropriately stands for “heritage high roof.”

From the front, there’s no mistaking the HHR for anything else on the road. There’s a bulbous hood and an imposing five-bar grille punctuated by Chevy’s bow-tie emblem. Real fenders jut out of the HHR’s flanks, and there are even vestigial running boards.

The back is distinctive as well, but because of the shape of the taillights, the HHR could be confused with the Dodge Durango or Jeep Liberty.

At 5 feet, 5 inches, the HHR is tall, but not too tall. The driver and passengers sit on chair-height seats — with armrests in front — and there’s an abundance of headroom for everybody. But because this is a car and not an SUV, it’s low enough to the pavement so there’s no problem getting in and out, even for older folks.

There’s comfort for four, although the front bucket seats are flat, with little lateral support. In back, even the center seat has enough room for an adult, although his or her feet must straddle a hump that is topped by a single cup holder.

There’s a handsome instrument cluster, with chrome bezels surrounding the gauges, and most of the controls are easy to find and use. The only exception is the power-window buttons, which are awkwardly located down on the console, forward of the shift lever.

Air-conditioning vents are of the infinitely adjustable variety and there’s an extra storage compartment on top of the dash. Overall, the interior design has a look of thoughtfulness and quality, although there were minor lapses on the fit of some panels.

Because of the retro styling, the HHR inevitably is compared with the popular Chrysler PT Cruiser, which has styling that mimics the 1937 Ford. Statistically, they’re quite close, although the HHR is 7 inches longer. Both have the passenger space of a midsize sedan, with the PT Cruiser getting an edge at 101 cubic feet versus the HHR’s 97 cubic feet.

But the HHR has more cargo space: 24 cubic feet behind the back seat, compared with the PT Cruiser’s 19 cubic feet. Both cars have a useful cargo floor that works as a movable shelf to accommodate different-sized items.

In the upper position on the HHR, the shelf doubles as a cargo cover to hide whatever is stashed below. The cover also can be flipped over to expose hooks for a cargo net. Like the PT Cruiser, the HHR’s front passenger seatback and rear seatbacks can be folded flat to carry long items such as stepladders.

There are two versions: the LS, which has a starting price of $15,990, and the LT, which opens at $16,990. Both use a 143-horsepower, 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that drives the front wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission.

For $1,800 additional, you can order the test car: an LT with a 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine, a sport-tuned suspension system, antilock brakes, 17-inch wheels, an upgraded audio system and leather wrappings on the steering wheel and shift knob.

Interestingly, the more powerful engine gets better fuel economy than its smaller mate: 23 miles to the gallon city and 30 on the highway versus 22 and 27.

The test car also had the automatic transmission with remote starting, side-curtain air bags, polished alloy wheels, XM satellite radio, a six-disc CD changer and luggage roof rails, which brought the bottom-line sticker price to $21,900.

With the more powerful engine, the HHR has plenty of oomph for getting off the line, merging onto freeways and passing on two-lane roads. Despite its tall profile, the taut suspension system helps to provide superb emergency handling. Jerk the steering wheel for a quick lane change and the HHR heels over only slightly and recovers immediately.

So there’s plenty of performance to go with the HHR’s post-World War II looks, low price, fuel economy and commodious interior. If practicality is what stirs your emotion, the HHR awaits.

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