The 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS does not want to kill you.
This cannot be said of all its competitors. We don't want to name names here, so let's just say that the HHR SS has really only one direct competitor, the Dodge Caliber SRT-4. This competitor acts like a drug-addled co-driver who grabs the steering wheel and saws wildly if you dare to use more than a feather's touch of throttle.
What the hell are we talking about? Why our old buddy torque steer, of course — that troublesome houseguest of powerful front-drive cars.
But the HHR SS badly wants to be your friend. And despite a few rough edges, it's a pretty genial companion.
Power to the (Less Old) People
With a turbocharged 2.0-liter pumping a healthy 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque into its bones, the 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS promised to be a fair amount more raucous than it turned out to be.
Certainly there are moments at full whack when the steering starts thinking about its independence. And you will feel some unwanted reticence through the little wagon's little steering wheel. But that's it.
It's a good thing, too, because the engineers at GM's Performance Division who tinkered with this PT Cruiser clone didn't intend for the HHR SS to be an all-out tuner car. They'll save that for the next Cobalt SS, which will also be powered by this same 2.0-liter turbo. In contrast, Chevrolet expects that the average HHR SS buyer will be in his 40s, pretty much like the buyers of the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
And unlike SRT-4 or the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 (another competitor, Chevy says), the HHR is available with an automatic transmission. In fact, the company says it expects 70 percent of SS buyers to opt for the slushbox instead of the Saab-supplied five-speed manual.
Once you combine all this with quasi-retro styling and a dramatically larger cargo hold than these competitors, you quickly realize the HHR SS is a pretty unique proposition. That its standard 18-inch wheels are available only in a glinting high polish must mean something as well.
The downside to the SS's relative docility is that it doesn't feel as fast as the 285-hp Caliber, which explodes with that characteristic turbo rush shortly before trying to steer you clear off the road. Chevrolet estimates that the 3,280-pound (with manual transmission) SS will get to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. If we can achieve this number when we strap our test gear to the car, it will only be a tenth of a second off the Caliber's pace. And, according to Chevy, the HHR SS will only be a couple of tenths behind the SRT-4 through the quarter-mile — 14.8 seconds vs. the 14.6 seconds we got from the Dodge.
The HHR SS's standard traction and stability control system has four settings: everything on (the default mode); traction control off; traction and stability control off; and competitive driving mode.
The competitive driving mode is accessed by two stabs at the traction control button on the center stack, and it backs off the threshold at which the stability control intervenes and also initiates a launch control program. At a stop with the clutch and gas pedals fully depressed, the engine revs to 4,100 rpm and holds steady. Release the clutch and the system allows some wheelspin, yet retards the engine spark to prevent overpowering the front tires. All you need to do to make speed is keep your right foot planted.
The system works pretty well, although it isn't foolproof. Dump the clutch too quickly and the engine bogs for a second. Ease off the pedal too gingerly and the cabin will fill with vaporized clutch lining. The system can't tell how grippy the pavement is either, so 4,100 rpm is the compromise because it covers as many situations as possible.
The SS also incorporates what racers call no-lift shift, as in don't lift off the gas while shifting. If you can retrain your right leg to stay planted, the system works smoothly. The turbo never gets a chance to rest, so there's no waiting for the power to come back on in your new, taller gear. Chevy reckons this system saves a bit of time on each shift — something on the order of a couple flaps of a hummingbird's wings, we imagine.
Driving Around Corners
Chevy makes a big deal of the HHR SS's somewhat unlikely pedigree as a veteran of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, noting that the trucklet holds the class record around the tortured north loop (8:43.52 minutes). The idea that there's really a defined class into which the HHR SS fits is, um, tenuous. But the SS's development on that most famous of test tracks does indicate Chevy's lofty goals.
We drove the HHR SS on one of the road courses at the compound of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Firebird International Raceway in Arizona and, well, the thing handles pretty nicely. This is still a tall front-driver that carries 59 percent of its weight over the front axle, so it's no Formula Ford. But given these caveats and the pedestrian nature of its strut-type front suspension and torsion-beam rear axle, the thing is really capable around the track. The development team added bigger antiroll bars front and rear and stiffer springs and shocks all around, and the SS is more willing to rotate into the corners than the vast majority of front-drive cars. It's also genuinely fun.
Driving around town or even on snaking mountain roads, the HHR feels handy enough and seems to ride well. But despite the bigger bars, the car still rolls a fair amount in corners. And the HHR's pseudo-SUV high seating position exaggerates this impression.
Steering and Other Matters of Significance
The HHR SS's steering ratio is 14.8:1, much quicker than the standard HHR and quicker than the SRT-4, too. And commanded through the smaller-than-standard steering wheel, the SS feels lively, although GM's electric-boosted unit still feels artificial and not entirely progressive.
The shift linkage for the five-speed manual transmission has also gotten a taste of the performance pie. Its throws are shorter than the standard unit and the shift lever has been moved forward and upward on the center console. It's not the slickest shifter, but the throws are very short and its synchros are up to quick shifting. The tachometer, which looks smaller than some Panerai wristwatches we've seen, is not easily read.
The SS's four-wheel disc brakes are pretty reasonable, but a Brembo brake package will be offered as an option sometime in the spring of 2008, which brings larger front rotors and calipers.
Living the Dream
Chevy has dressed up the inside a bit with two-tone interior trim, including a startling black-and-bright-red combination. The seats, while more supportive than the standard units, are no match for the sweet Recaros that were originally offered on the old Cobalt SS Supercharged. We want those back, bad.
There's no hiding the HHR's proletarian origins, especially in interior materials that are a little cheap-looking. Then there's the wind and the road noise. And could somebody please mount a grab handle into this thing?
We're not sure who is going to buy the 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. It's not likely to be us. We'd trade the Chevy's big cargo hold and cushier ride for the locked-down, precision feel and high-quality interior of the Mazdaspeed 3 any day.
At a starting price of $22,995 including destination, the SS is reasonably priced. Apparently Dodge thought that was a reasonable price for a turbocharged hot hatch, too, since the SRT-4 starts at exactly the same number of dollars. The Mazdaspeed 3 is cheaper by less than $100. Yet, somehow despite their similarities in price, power and configuration, these are three vastly different animals.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.