Every Friday night freshly waxed classics motor up to the oldest surviving Bob's Big Boy in the world. It doesn't matter whether you drive a '36 Ford coupe, a '69 Chevelle or an '05 300C, so long as it's American you're welcome to stake out a parking spot at this Toluca Lake, California, landmark, enjoy a hand-prepared burger and chat up aging boomers about cubic inches and four-barrel carbs.
If there's any crowd GM needs to impress with the 2006 Chevy HHR, which stands for Heritage High Roof, it's the one at Bob's. GM says the little wagon's styling is a tribute to the '49 Suburban, and these people still know what a '49 Suburban looks like. We circle the lot, waiting for a reaction.
We don't have to wait long.
"So is it rear-wheel drive?" asks a bearded man in his 50s guarding a lovingly restored Bel Air.
"Nope, front-wheel drive. It shares a platform with Chevrolet's Cobalt."
"Does it have a V8?" his buddy chimes in.
"No, it has a 2.4-liter inline four."
We've bored them. They dismiss it as "Chevy's PT Cruiser" before we can even mention our test car's iPod hookup, Pioneer sound system and side curtain airbags.
We're not surprised. After five minutes in the HHR you realize this isn't a car for the hard-core, despite its classic lines. Instead, GM designed the HHR for the latte drinkers gathered at the Starbucks next door to Bob's. They wouldn't know a '49 Suburban if it ran them over, but they reacted favorably to our HHR's mix of classic-car styling, everyday practicality, mainstream mechanicals and $21,035 sticker price.
Retro Look, Stale Performance
Base LS and midlevel 1LT models get a 2.2-liter four-cylinder rated at 143 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Optional on the 1LT and standard on well-equipped 2LT models like our test car is a 2.4-liter motor that puts out 172 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque.
Even with the 2.4, the HHR doesn't have much spunk down low. Acceleration is more spirited once the engine revs up, though plenty of noise accompanies these efforts.
A five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic transmission are available, but over 90 percent of HHR buyers are expected to choose the automatic. The shifts in our automatic test car were well timed in relaxed driving, but the four-speed didn't like to hold gears during more aggressive driving. Fuel economy ratings are acceptable for a small wagon — 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway with the automatic and 22/30 with the manual. Our test car averaged just 20 mpg, though.
The manual transmission has long throws between gears but does a commendable job of wringing out the power. Chevrolet claims an 8.4-second 0-to-60-mph time for manual-shift 2.4s and 8.7 with the automatic. However, our tester took 9.5 seconds to reach 60 mph and a full 17 to get through the quarter-mile.
This isn't as slow as a base-engine PT Cruiser, but it's hardly a dramatic arrival for a latecomer to the tall wagon scene. Chrysler now offers 180-hp and 220-hp turbocharged engines on the PT, either of which gives it a nice kick.
Pleasant Ride, Sloppy Handling
The HHR isn't fast, but it is quiet. Chevrolet credits extensive use of high-strength steel in the chassis, close attention to seals and insulation, and countless hours of wind-tunnel testing. Most manufacturers do this stuff, but the HHR is uncommonly serene for its class.
It's comfortable, too, as the suspension competently filters out bumps and ruts despite its unsophisticated design: struts in front, a semi-independent torsion beam in back.
Unfortunately, engineers weren't able to work the same magic with the wagon's handling. LS and 1LT models have softer suspension settings and wear 16-inch wheels with 215/55R16 Firestone Affinity tires. 2LT models like ours get a firmer setup with thicker stabilizer bars, monotube shocks and 17-inch wheels with 215/50R17 Firestone Firehawks.
We expected the 3,200-pound Chevy HHR to have a mildly sporty feel in the corners, but it doesn't. Sling it into a turn and there's some encouragement at first, as those big 17-inch tires bite down. Then, the suspension keels over and you realize you're a damn fool trying to drive this wagon fast. In fact, it only ran our slalom at 58.4 mph, which is full-size SUV territory.
The electric steering is tuned to match. It's much too light and numb for enthusiastic cornering, but its weighting is fine for maneuvering around town.
Low handling limits are forgivable on a budget vehicle, but poor braking is not. Our tester came with antilock brakes, but rear discs are not available on any HHR. And forget about newer technology like Electronic Brakeforce Distribution.
The HHR's best stopping distance from 60 mph was 135 feet. Not a very good number, but there was minimal fade between runs at the test track. The brake pedal provides minimal feedback, and ABS noise and vibration are excessive, even for this class.
But the HHR has a bigger problem: It doesn't stop straight. This was disconcerting at the track. It was downright scary during a real emergency stop on the freeway. And it crosses the limits of what is acceptable on a 2006 vehicle.
Gets Better Inside
Chrome interior detailing is basically a requirement these days, and Chevy designers went about it in a tasteful manner. The gauges are actually beautiful, with the metal-edged tach set slightly ahead of the speedometer. The climate and stereo controls are also pleasing to behold and ergonomically sound with large dials and a scrolling radio station display for XM surfers.
Seat comfort varies depending on whether you select cloth or leather upholstery. The cloth seats are merely passable, but the leather chairs have extra contouring and cushioning which makes them much more comfortable.
Driver and passengers sit tall and visibility is excellent in all directions. Yet despite the HHR's delivery truck shape, its cabin doesn't feel as roomy as the PT's. One large-framed passenger complained that his shoulders were pinched, although average-size adults were content in the front and the back. A family of four with two car seats certified the HHR kid-friendly.
But some things are still off the mark. Rather than installing window buttons on both front doors, designers crammed a single hard-to-reach set behind the shifter. Some of the interior plastics still aren't up to snuff, either. The grain patterns generally match, but the panels still feel rough and cheap. And what's with the small cupholders in an American car?
One advantage Chevrolet's HHR has over its peers is a deeper cargo bay. The family's double stroller slid right in behind the rear seats with no wrestling. As in the PT, there's a large, adjustable parcel shelf so you can organize your load.
For larger jobs, the plastic-backed rear seats fold completely flat as in the Matrix/Vibe (no nifty adjustable cargo tracks, though). With 63 cubic feet, the HHR has as much total cargo capacity as the PT and, unlike in the Chrysler, you don't have to completely remove the rear seats.
As Classic as Starbucks
Skin-deep history doesn't sell like it used to. Today, you can be retro if you want, but you better have the performance to back it up. The HHR doesn't.
What the HHR does deliver is practical family transportation in a retro wrapper, but so does the PT Cruiser. And for a couple hundred dollars more, you can get a turbo PT with better acceleration, tighter handling and stronger brakes.
We'll take the Chrysler.
Road Test Editor Dan Kahn says:
Chevrolet appears to be taking a page from the Chrysler playbook. Develop a top-notch small-car platform, then introduce performance and retro versions to bolster sales. It has worked for the Neon/PT Cruiser over the last five years, but I'm not so sure how things will fare for the newest steeds in Chevy's stable.
Don't get me wrong; I think the Cobalt is a great little car. It offers sweet looks, a well-put-together interior and pleasant driving dynamics. What I don't understand is the HHR. When the PT Cruiser bowed it featured unique retro styling that set it apart from the pack. Five years later retro is the new black, and the HHR is just another wannabe. I wouldn't be quite so turned off by the car's looks if it was inspired by a '57 Bel Air or a mid-'60s Green Briar, but the first-generation Suburban is hideous.
The HHR offers a cool stereo, comfortable seats and decent performance for the money, but so does the Cobalt sedan, and I like the way that car looks a lot better.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says:
My days with the HHR were a bit of an emotional roller coaster. In only two days and only 200 miles I experienced doubt, hope, guilt, gloom, delight, confusion, satisfaction, frustration, exhaustion, hostility, disgust and just plain disappointment. I guess that makes the HHR the automotive equivalent of a date movie. The Million Dollar Baby of cars.
Let me explain.
Doubt: I've been down on the HHR from Day One. I dismissed it as a PT Cruiser copy with weak dynamics.
Hope: The silver preproduction example is delivered to our office, and I have to admit, it looks pretty good to me. The interior even looks nice. Maybe I've been too judgmental?
Guilt: See Doubt and Hope.
Gloom: The seat feels like a park bench with soft foam padding duct-taped to it. Steering is disconnected. Brake pedal is mushy.
Delight: It swallows my entire family with ease, something a Cadillac STS couldn't do yesterday.
Confusion: Why are the window switches down by my ankles and the cupholders blocked by the fold-down armrests?
Satisfaction: "That's one bad ride," says the valet.
Frustration: Engine is weak. Throttle response is dull.
Hostility: NO FUN TO DRIVE.
Disgust: Suspension is mushy and the steering wheel is like bus big. Terrible directional stability, it wanders around like all four tires are flat.
Disappointment: See Gloom, Confusion, Frustration, Hostility and Disgust.
Satisfaction: See Doubt
System Score: 9.0
Components: This Pioneer system offers seven speakers and a total of 260 watts. It's optional on LS and 1LT trims of the 2006 Chevy HHR and standard on 2LT models like our test car.
The speaker array consists of a small subwoofer in the cargo bay, a driver at the bottom of each door and tiny tweeters in the A-pillars.
The head unit contains a single, MP3-compatible CD player (an in-dash changer is optional on the 2LT) and a jack for Apple iPods, Dell Jukeboxes and Sony PSPs. This hookup alone gives the HHR a major advantage over its competitors.
Aside from the lack of a tuning knob, ergonomics are excellent with a large central volume knob, a tidy button layout and an easy-to-read display. This is one of the first head units we've seen that's designed around satellite radio, optional on all HHRs. The display makes it easy to scroll through your preset stations, rather than forcing you to remember than No. 1 is "Fred," No. 2 is "Chrome," and so on. You have up to 36 presets at your disposal and these can be any combination of AM, FM and XM stations.
The steering wheel controls are nice to have but are too similar in size and feel to allow no-look operation.
As on other GM vehicles, there are preset equalizer modes, but if you want to create a custom mode, the display shows you a little frequency graph as you tweak the bass, treble and mid settings. A little gimmicky maybe, but a nice touch nonetheless.
Performance: The HHR gives you lots of listening options, and thankfully, its sound quality is up to the task. Bass response has plenty of vigor for metal and hip-hop tracks and doesn't distort at anything close to a reasonable listening volume. Vocals are warm and bright, and the midrange is unexpectedly clear and complex for a car in this price range.
That said, we expect this system would sound even better had designers put more thought into speaker placement. The door speakers are all mounted at floor level — never the makings of a great soundstage.
Best Feature: iPod hookup, 36 presets of any combination AM/FM/XM stations.
Worst Feature: Less-than-optimal speaker placement.
Conclusion: Quality factory sound systems are increasingly important in this price range, thanks to cars like the Ford Focus, Scion xA and xB, and Mini Cooper. This Pioneer system is proof that GM understands this, as it sounds great and has virtually every feature a buyer could want. — Erin Riches