- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Chevrolet designers didn’t want the 2006 HHR to look like a small station wagon or a crossover car/sport utility vehicle.

They needed an eye-catching exterior to dress up the versatile cargo- and people-hauling interior of this new five-door model.

The solution: Retro styling reminiscent of the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban panel wagon that fits neatly over the HHR’s modern-car underpinnings and four-cylinder engines.

With a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $15,990, the five-passenger HHR ranks as the second-lowest-priced, mainstream, retro-styled model on the market.

The lowest-priced is the 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $14,850. It’s $15,850 with air conditioning, which is standard on the HHR.

Another competing, retro-styled small vehicle is the Volkswagen New Beetle, which starts at $17,185 for a 2005 model that includes air conditioning.

All base prices are for models with manual transmissions.

HHR hardly rolls easily off the tongue. It’s an abbreviation for a combination of words that Chevy officials figured would help describe this new vehicle.

The first “H” is for heritage, denoting this vehicle harkens back to an old Chevrolet, said Deb Lund, line executive at parent company General Motors Corp.

“HR” refers to “high roof” and is the code name used by Chevrolet officials decades ago for the tall panel wagons they were working on at the time, she added.

Still, consumers should expect the HHR to be old-style only in its outer looks.

The interior includes comfortably firm seats that sit a bit higher above the pavement than they would in a regular car, a modern air-conditioning and ventilation system, even optional XM satellite radio, remote start and an audio integrator for easy use with an Apple IPod.

Note, though, that some safety features, such as side curtain air bags, are options on all HHRs, and antilock brakes and traction control are optional on all but the top-level version.

What’s most surprising, perhaps, is the ride and handling of the HHR, particularly with the sport-tuned suspension in the test vehicle.

Despite the styling link to the old Chevrolet Suburban, the HHR uses the underlying front-wheel-drive platform of the Chevrolet Cobalt small coupe and sedan — not a truck or SUV platform.

The platform has modern-day rigidity for a well-put-together feeling.

With a front MacPherson strut suspension and a rear torsion beam, the HHR moves with composure on twisty roads. During the test drive, there was no unstable, wallowy feeling.

I especially liked the fact that I didn’t notice any tippiness that sometimes comes with tall vehicles, even though the HHR stands more than 5.4 feet tall.

The HHR’s power-assisted, variable-speed rack-and-pinion steering is electric.

Brakes worked well in the test HHR. They stopped the vehicle solidly, without being grabby.

With 17-inch tires, the HHR subtly transmitted many road vibrations to passengers. The ride felt firm but not jarring.

There was wind noise that emanated from the side mirror and side windshield areas starting at about 45 mph.

Still, I wished for a bit more engine power.

The base HHR has a 143-horsepower, 2.2-liter, Ecotec four-cylinder engine. Torque in the base HHR is 150 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

But I wondered why someone would want this engine because the uplevel four-cylinder has the same fuel economy rating of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.

And this uplevel has more power. Specifically, the 2.4-liter, Ecotec four-cylinder produces 172 horsepower and 162 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm of torque.

While this is competent power, there’s still droning from this engine in city traffic, and it doesn’t provide a big punch during spirited driving, even when mated to a five-speed manual.

There’s also an optional four-speed automatic transmission available for $1,000, and I found an HHR with automatic can feel sluggish getting up to speed on hills and on the highway when it’s carrying four adults and their luggage.

Both the other main competitors — the PT Cruiser and New Beetle — offer some zip with turbocharged engines.

Then again, on the plus side, the HHR’s fuel economy is higher than any version of PT Cruiser.

A key attraction to the HHR is the interior room that, generally, is on par with the PT Cruiser. I could sit comfortably in the HHR back seat, with the front seats partially back on their tracks.

There was ample headroom and legroom, and back-seat windows opened all the way.

The HHR’s versatility comes from the split rear seats that can be folded, extending the plastic-covered rear cargo area.

In fact, the seatback of the HHR’s front passenger seat can fold down, too, for a maximum 63.1 cubic feet of cargo space.

Be aware that the HHR isn’t a big tow vehicle. Maximum towing capacity is 1,000 pounds, which is 500 pounds less than the towing capacity of the Pontiac Vibe, which is a small wagon with four-cylinder engines.

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