Machine Design

Chevrolet HHR

Most everyone who saw the HHR was quick to remark," Oh, it's like a PT Cruiser."

Well, yes and no. The vehicles are similar in that they are retro, but with the same logic you could say they're both like a Lexus because they're it's quiet and comfortable.

I admit that HHR's styling is distinctive, although not in the Corvette's knock-your-socks-off category. It's supposed to be reminiscent of the 1949 Chevy Suburban. That's a problem because I can't recall what that vehicle looked like. But most people figure out the styling cues that are modern and a hint at yesteryear.

But don't worry about that marketing gimmickry. Just get in. There you'll find a thoroughly modern layout and a vehicle that's fun to drive and useful.

The HHR (heritage high roof) is a small yet spacious station wagon (or maybe a mini SUV) with 63 cu ft of storage when the back seats are down. Even though the car is compact, the electric seat and high roof let drivers raise the seat higher than in most other cars, thereby making entries and exits easier. The interior is fitted with appropriate cup holders, CD slots, and pockets. Our LT model came with heated leather seats, a welcome feature on cold Midwest mornings.

Rear seats are split 60/40, so one side can be folded down for large loads while still carrying a rear passenger. Need more space? Pull up the floor panel behind the rear seat and slide it into holders to make it an elevated surface for light loads. Doing so also reveals shallow partitions in the floor that keep groceries from sliding around.

Chevy builds the HHR on the framework of its Cobalt and with a 2.2 or 2.4 liter fourcylinder engine. The 2.4 has four valves/cylinder and variable-valve timing, letting it pump out 171 hp. Even when mated to the fourspeed automatic, the car earns a respectable EPA rating of 23/30 mpg. The car has plenty of guts for fast takeoffs.

The engine runs so smoothly that at several stops my wife asked if it was still running. Usually a little vibration in the steering wheel tells, but not here. Credit for smooth running goes to counterrotating balance shafts and by directly mounting accessories. A two-layer acoustic engine cover is tuned to reduce noise. An automatic tensioned maintains optimal tension on the timing chain, also reducing noise. And pistons have a polymer coating and skirt design that reduces noise during cold starts.

The touring suspension combines a smooth, controlled ride, even over bumps, with little lean in fast corners. QuietSteel panels also contribute to the quiet ride.

In retrospect, the little things in the car are most pleasing. For instance, the floor partitions that keep groceries in place, and sideview mirrors larger than most. And when it's time to get out, the large, round door handles are easier to grab with the whole hand, rather than just looping a finger or two around a little lever. But the seat heaters are the most recent got-to-have feature, especially north of the Mason-Dixon line. The base vehicle lists at $16,425. Ours, with $4,800 in options (automatic transmission, 2.4-liter engine, and side air bags among others), came in at $22,280.

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