Friday, January 02, 2009

Rental Bliss: 2007 Chevy HHR LS

Chevy says HHR stands for Heritage High Roof and is a throwback to the Nomad or car-based Suburban. I say there are two succinct ways of describing the HHR: "Chevy's clone of the PT Cruiser" or "a Cobalt wagon".

The HHR's exterior styling is all over the place. Here's what I think happened. Some committee or focus group came up with three distinct design themes: "clone a PT Cruiser," "resurrect the Nomad," and "Cobalt-sized Tahoe." Then an executive told a junior designer: give me something that's all three of those at once or you're fired. The result is a Frankenstein, and it's ugly.

The interior treatments are decent for an economy car. Most of the pieces are standard, utilitarian, inoffensive GM parts. There are a few nice touches that give the interior a touch of personality. Like the 09 Malibu it has a two-tone dash reminiscent of a Tri-Five Chevy. Also like the new Malibu, there are Chevy emblems embossed all over the place. The gauges use a handsome retro font and chromed needles. The doorpulls are large chrome circles, which is a little gimmicky but adds some character.

Interior ergonomics are good; the controls are laid out conveniently and visibility is excellent. The HHR uses an upright seating position as you'd find in a CUV, which adds substantial legroom and makes the rear seats servicable for adults. Chevy chose to finish the cargo area in hard plastic, which looks chintzier than carpet but is substantially more durable and easier to clean.

The HHR shares the Delta platform and 2.2L Ecotec I4 with the Cobalt, and drives much the same, which in this case is a compliment. Both cars' dynamics are tuned appropriately for their role as family cars. The suspension stays smooth on the highway or over bumps, yet is firm enough to feel poised on the highway and contain body roll within reasonable limits. The electric power steering box is on the numb side, but not offensively so. Acceleration was always adequate, and the car logged respectable fuel economy. It's not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination, but it never made me gnash my teeth either. Like the Cobalt, the HHR is available with a Sport package that improves power and handling, and an all-out Super Sport (SS) trim.

I am an unabashed fan of wagons. They combine the handling and economy of a sedan with the space and utility of a CUV. The HHR is no exception. Underneath the ugly exterior is an all-around good car with no serious faults. It even has some semblence of personality, a scarce commodity among modern value-oriented cars. It's a pity it's hideous. This thing could be a home run with an exterior refresh.