2009 Chevrolet HHR 1LT Review
By Roger Boylan
The Hill Country of Texas, which extends from the southernmost part of the Great Plains to nearly the Mexican border, is an ideal place to test drive a car. Not only is it a beautiful, windswept, rugged region–a kind of Texan Provence, down to the limestone crags and barren hillsides–it also has winding roads of such tortuous narrowness as to bring out the best, or worst, in a car’s handling, steering, and suspension; broad highways where a surreptitious scofflaw can easily hit 100 on a hot afternoon when the sheriff’s on his siesta; and rock-strewn trails tailor-made to shake up any 4-Wheel-Low system. A couple of times a year there are torrential downpours that would make Noah feel at home and that tax a vehicle’s windshield wipers and maneuverability to the limit. In the fleeting interstices of winter, there’s even the occasional ice storm to facilitate your sideways skid. All the Hill Country doesn’t have, or so rarely as to be almost never, is snow.
I happen to live on the edge of this wonderland, so it’s into the hills I go when I want to shake out the hidden flaws of a test vehicle–literally, because the Hill Country back roads are paved in rough asphalt that sets off little riots of rattling in poorly fitting panels. This last week I put a Chevrolet HHR (for Heritage High Roof) to the test. It was a ruthless decision, but over the first three days of my week-long test I’d found myself liking the little retrowagon a little too much. As a diehard PT Cruiser fan and owner, I was prepared to find fault with its newer, boxier rival, but instead I found myself having an absolute blast with the HHR, and I wasn’t even driving an upscale version.
Chevy lent me a silver 1LT model, with a smorgasbord of fripperies such as XM Satellite radio, 6-speaker sound system, remote start, and OnStar emergency communication system, as well as more fundamental necessities as 4-wheel ABS, traction control (now standard on all HHRs–good call, Chevy), 4-speed automatic with Intermediate and Low settings–essentially, tall 2nd and 3rd gears for long downhill grades–and rack-and-pinion steering with power assist. Missing were fog lamps, a moon roof, and express-up power windows, none of them vital to a good life, although I’d happily swap the remote start feature for fog lamps; pea-soupers roll in quite frequently around here in the muddy winter months. Missing, too, were decent cup holders. The ones in front are set far too low and interfere with the gear shifter and the parking brake, and there’s only one in back: Not a threat to the onward march of civilization, but it’s an odd oversight for a company otherwise renowned for pampering its cup holding clientele.
Let me go back to that steering, because it was the main reason I’d been enjoying the HHR so much. It’s light and maneuverable but not twitchy, yet precise to a sporting degree. The three-spoke wheel is well-padded and just the right size, about the same diameter as a Miata’s. That, combined with the comfortable but firm driver’s seat (which also boasts power lumbar support), can fool you momentarily into thinking you’re driving a sports, or sporty, car; but this the HHR is definitely not. It’s nimble enough, mostly thanks to the steering, but it’s really just a small utility wagon inspired by a large utility wagon, the 1949 Chevy Suburban, to which it bears an intentional resemblance–although there’s more than a hint of PT Cruiser in the front fascia, which Chevy has disingenuously denied (“PT what?” C’mon, guys).
Anyway, wagon or not, the HHR does drive well, even enjoyably, even with the low-grade 2.2-liter 4-cylinder 155-hp engine my 1LT model came with. This is the smallest of three possible engines in the series, the others being a 2.4-liter with 172 hp in the 2LT and a 2.4-liter turbocharged with 260 hp in the top-dog SS. (I fully intend to get hold of an example of the latter some day soon for a Hill Country run.) The engine drones when pushed hard but is otherwise restrained when going about its business, which includes scooting to 60 m.p.h. in about 9 sec. and fuel-sipping mileage of (EPA estimates) 22 in the city and 30 on the highway. I averaged 25. No complaints there, especially since it runs on regular and I never needed a refill over my entire week of stewardship.
Where the utility-wagon angle comes in is, of course, when you need to carry cargo. The car looks small from the outside, about Honda Civic size (but 7 in. longer than a PT Cruiser), with its low chassis and pill-box windows, but inside there’s about 60 cu. ft. of loading space with the split-back rear seats and the front passenger seat folded down: enough room for a ladder, or a set of fence posts, or ski boards, or a stuffed dolphin. I used the cargo bay for the weekend grocery run, and a week’s worth of groceries fit comfortably behind the rear seats. Headroom is adequate, although the High Roof turns out to be not so high for the taller driver; raise my pompadour another inch and I’d be scraping the headliner. However, legroom is more than adequate front and back, and, as previously mentioned, the seats, cloth-covered in my test vehicle, are firm and well-padded.
Overall, then, the HHR is fun to drive, economical, practical, comfortable, and good value for the money (starting price around $18K; $25K for the SS). So, what’s not to like? Well, its appearance, for some. My family members were unanimous: “Hideous!” That leering grille, that flat backside. But I demurred. The design grows on you, especially if you’ve seen the 1949 Suburban on which it’s based: hence the small windows and lowered stance. The rear window, as in the ’49er, is flush with the body, enhancing the squared-off effect; and, like its ancestor, the HHR has prominent, angular fender flares and a bold louvered grille. The jeweled headlights and twin-tail lamp design contribute to the overall “retro street-machine” look. My test vehicle was silver and had chromed wheels and chrome-tipped rear-view mirrors: very snazzy. All in all, a car of originality, even distinction.
No, I’m afraid the HHR’s Achilles heel was revealed during that make-or-break test drive down Hill Country roads, and it will come as no surprise to those who remember the loose-fitting GM vehicles of yore. The first few miles elicited a timid buzzing that I attributed first to my keychain, then to wind in the ventilation outlets, then, with increasing frustration, to the glove box lid; but after about ten more miles of coarse asphalt, as I drove into Wimberley amid a chamber symphony of buzzes and rattles, it was painfully obvious that the din originated somewhere in the vast plastic expanse of the dashboard. Mind you, once I was on the smoother federally paved surfaces of I-35, the buzzing went away completely, but I knew it would come back on any rough surface, and such rattles tend not to go away over the life of a car; quite the contrary. Also, another noise soon manifested itself, an occasional mysterious clunk from the left rear, as of a worn suspension bushing, although it may just have been an unsecured tire jack or some such. But such noises, to me, might well be deal breakers, in a car with only 4,000 miles on the odometer. It’s a real pity, because the HHR has so many virtues.
Maybe it was just that particular car. I’ll go on that assumption and give the HHR a thumbs-up: It’s a charmingly original, practical, and inexpensive vehicle that also happens to be fun to drive. But I firmly intend to track down an SS version and thrash it along the same stretch of road. Stay tuned, and we’ll play that one by ear.
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