Metro Weekly

Better Late Than Never

2006 Chevrolet HHR

Just like with a boyfriend, it’s fair to say you don’t truly know a car until you’ve spent time with it on vacation. If, after a couple thousand miles, you’re still willing to take it for a ride it must be doing something right.

I spent a long, long time with GM’s new entry into the affordable-retro-urban-hip category, the 2006 Chevy HHR. How long? About 1,800 miles of Christmas holiday driving with my partner to visit just about every Bugg relative in Kentucky and Indiana, traversing mountains and plains on highways both bone dry and slicked with snow.

Overall, I have to say it wasn’t a bad dating experience, but I’d think twice before committing to marriage. And the HHR wasn’t bad, either.

Ba dum bum!

Kidding aside, the HHR was a pretty solid driving experience for such a plainly odd car. While automotive design certainly has its share of copycat work, the HHR stands out as being one of the most nakedly obvious attempts to take on a specific competitor (or, depending on your perspective, to shamelessly rip-off another design). Anyone who looks at the HHR instantly knows that it’s taking on Chrysler’s successful retro-wagon, the PT Cruiser.

Given that the aging Chrysler is beginning to answer the question, “When does a design stop being retro and start being simply old?”, the HHR could pretty much pass for a second-generation PT Cruiser.

And there’s the rub. Chrysler’s retro people mover has been on the market for years, and Chevy’s jump into the pool makes you wonder what took them so long. Will it be a case of “too little, too late” or “better late than never.”

Overall, I’d say the latter. I’m still ambivalent about the exterior design — it certainly looks better in real life than it does in photos, but it feels a bit forced. It does, however, feel fresher than the PT Cruiser, particularly up front with the grille and headlights.

Most of my middle-America relatives liked it far more than I did, which may bode well for Chevy’s fortunes. But while most appreciated the looks, one said that he’d never buy one with just a four-cylinder engine under the hood.

This was Kentucky after all.

But you really don’t need any extra cylinders. My test model sported the optional 2.4-liter engine, which likely helped make my travels over the mountains more tolerable. Believe me, I spent my college years driving an old four-cylinder Toyota over many mountains, and it wasn’t pretty. Four-cylinders are much different and better beasts these days. What Chevy could actually use is an automatic transmission other than the current four-speed the HHR is stuck with. Do yourself a favor and stick with the standard five-speed manual.

Inside the HHR, you’ll notice that the cabin is fairly roomy, particularly over the head. The dashboard and interior plastics are a tad on the cheap side, but nothing too bad for a car that starts out well under $20K. And, to be honest, I actually preferred the HHR’s interior to some larger and more expensive models I’ve driven lately. It’s not luxurious, but you get more than you might expect for the money.

2006 Chevrolet HHR
MSRP: $16,425 ($21,900 as tested)
MPG: 23 city/30 highway
Highlights: Familiar retro styling is attention grabbing, and the storage space is stellar.
Lowlights: That familiar retro styling may not stand the test of time.

A nice touch is the standard auxiliary input for the stereo that allows you to plug in your iPod, a godsend for a nine-hour drive. It’s not full iPod integration (you’ll have to hitch a ride in a Scion or something for that) but it’s at least an acknowledgment that our personal music habits have changed.

Of course, one of the big selling points of the PT Cruiser, aside from the retro design, was the copious and configurable storage space in the rear. The HHR more than competes, with folding seats and a few nifty touches (hidden compartments, a plastic panel that covers the storage area while supporting yet more stuff) that can easily handle the luggage of an average American family.

It can even handle the luggage of the two gay men on Christmas vacation, so you know there’s a lot of room to play with.

Solid but not spectacular, the HHR is worth a look if you’re looking for an urban/suburban runner with a lot of room and just enough style to turn a few heads.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.