What you’re about to read is something the kids apparently call a “hot take.” I was a long time reader of this site and definitely know the Chevrolet HHR isn’t necessarily a popular car among readers. And so I’m going to try to defend this car’s — and to a smaller extent, the Chrysler PT Cruiser’s — existence. The Chevy HHR is not as bad of a car as you remember it being. In fact, I’d call it cool. Here we go!
I must admit that for the longest time I’ve actually admired quite a few of the cars to come out of the modern-retro period of cars from the late ’90s to the late ’00s. My list of favourites is full of forgotten weird cars. I’m currently on a search for a dirt-cheap New Beetle TDI, I adore the looks of the Plymouth Prowler, I would daily a Chevrolet SSR, and the Thunderbird? Underappreciated.
If for some reason I still have you onboard, you must absolutely be as mad as I and I’m here for it. Let’s continue!
Of all of these wonderful and too often forgotten cars is the Chevrolet HHR. Perhaps, I also forgot about this thing because I thought the HHR was just a lazy clone of the Chrysler PT Cruiser. But that’s not exactly true, though they are related. The two cars were actually designed by the same person, Bryan Nesbitt. HHR actually means “Heritage High Roof” and the design of the vehicle is reportedly supposed to be a throwback to the 1949 Suburban. So it’s not just a clone of the Chrysler PT Cruiser. I’d even argue it’s the better of the two.
The HHR popped into my life when my partner told me it was one of her attainable dream cars. If she could have any HHR, money no object? The SS Panel Van. She bought me a school bus for my birthday and so in response, I bought her an HHR. Yes, we give each other weird presents.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of riding in it and driving it for various road trips and you know what? I dig it.
The high seating position is nice and even better than a modern crossover. You simply slide in and slide out. For a person of limited mobility, this can make or break a vehicle. It’ll almost effortlessly cruise down the highway, provided you aren’t carrying an entire family with you. For a single person, the elderly, or a couple? This thing is pretty neat.
We’ve been using the HHR in the same way we used my old Ford Ranger and we’re surprised at just how much you can fit after folding the seats flat enough to essentially make a pickup bed. Sure enough, the EPA classifies the HHR as being a SUV.
The examples in my area have so far survived salty winters better than a comparable PT Cruiser. The HHR shares its GM Delta Platform with such cars as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, employing an independent front suspension and a torsion beam out back.
Engine choices were the same as you got in the Delta platform mates. The three flavours were 2.2-litre, 2.4-litre, naturally aspirated Ecotec, or the 2.0 turbo Ecotec, respectively. On the lower end of the spectrum, the 2.2-litre made 107kW and 68 kg-ft torque to 149 HP and 92Nm depending on the year. The 2.4-litre made 128kW and 99Nm torque to 131kW and 102Nm torque, again depending on the year. Of those two I would probably choose the 2.4-litre. You get more power while maintaining the same fuel economy of about 10.7-9.4L/100km combined with the lower power engine. These two engines transmit this power through either a 4-speed GM AT45 auto or a Getrag F23 5-speed manual to the front wheels.
The version it appears many HHR fans lust for is the 2.0-litre Ecotec LNF turbo found in the SS model. Again sharing the engine with the Cobalt SS, these HHRs put down some respectable power while still being a goofy retro-wagon. This engine put down 194kW and 160Nm torque while actually maintaining similar miles-per-gallon numbers of the previous engines. These SS variants come with a Saab-designed F35 5-speed manual. And even weirder, there is a rare Chevy HHR SS Panel Van variant. You know, for when you need to deliver flowers really fast.
So, as you’ve probably already been able to tell, not everything is sweet about the HHR. The less powerful engines don’t really net you better fuel economy. On top of this, the HHR is probably the worst tall-ish vehicle I’ve ever driven in terms of visibility.
The windows aren’t quite as bad as the Camaro, but they definitely hold their own for poor visibility. The shape of the windshield and the front windows lead to a really thick A-Pillar, which in turn makes a blindspot large enough for a sizable chunk of Hyundai to disappear into. Rear visibility is fine thanks to the big enough rear window, but you’ll find yourself struggling once again when you shoulder check before a lane change. Every pillar on this car is bigger than it seems like they should be.
The downsides don’t stop there. The interior is, unfortunately, very mid-’00s GM, which is to say “plastic fantastic.” The interior is made of hard plastics that go on for miles and don’t feel a whole lot different to the touch than a plastic tool from Harbour Freight. To the PT Cruiser’s credit, its facelift saw interior quality upgrades, an interior quality upgrade the HHR never got.
But despite the downsides, I still really like this thing and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The HHR in our combined fleet has the slower 2.2-litre and I’d describe it as “fine.” It doesn’t set the world on fire but we’ve been getting 30 mpg with it, so no complaints here. As a sweet bonus, we’ve found it remarkably easy to work on as well. Control arms? That’s like a 30-minute job total with the right tools. Plus, we can both say we own our attainable dream cars!
I know I probably won’t win many hearts over for these cars. However, I love the fact that cars like these even existed. In a world where every car in a given class looks pretty much the same, at least these are a change of pace. Looking past the looks, the HHR and PT Cruiser actually are decent cars that maybe don’t deserve all of the hate they have received.