In 1976, Volkswagen introduced the world to the Rabbit GTi. The German pocket rocket defined a whole new class for entry-level lead foots. The DNA was simple; a lightweight, nimble chassis coupled with a high-revving fuel efficient motor, a couple of doors and a lift-gate at the back. The hot-hatch was born. Since then, grace has been replaced by grunt. Two hundred horsepower is the starting line. The Mazdaspeed 3, new GTi, and MINI Cooper S lead the way from across the ponds. Stateside, the Dodge Caliber SRT-4 and Chevrolet HHR SS bring more mass and muscle to the party. They may be a two-door stretch to the original definition, but hot and hatched they are. So are either of the latter two worth your money?
On paper both whips offer equal measures of performance potential and utilitarian appeal. Both are motivated by force fed four-pots spinning the front wheels. Each has five doors, seating for four and a German tranny. In the flesh though, the sums of those parts aren’t even close.
Sitting on a 19” set of five-star hoops, hood agape and all hunkered down, the Dodge Caliber SRT-4 is about as subtle as a herpes outbreak. And boy is she a looker! At just the right angle, in just the right light the Dodge Caliber SRT-4 could be confused with any of Cambiano’s coach-built dream cars. Of course that lighting is none, and the angle is from behind a wall. Think Denis Farina, not Pininfarina.
I’m almost certain that during design instead of clay modelers, Kimbo Slice got the nod and went to work with only his fists. The SRT team simply lumped discarded wads back on, dug out some scoops and threw it back in the easy bake. The result: an overly hormonal bumpy box of pubescent perturbation.
In comparison, the HHR SS is deserving of that plastic bowtie it brandishes. When Bob Lutz poached Chrysler’s PT Cruiser producer (Brian Nesbitt), he went back to the well and drew-up another mass market milk-wagon. It’s far from sexy, but the prevalent proboscis of this panelesque-van has panache. Follow the Heritage High Roof’s lines back and a gangsta greenhouse awaits. Add a set of fender linked running boards and Tommy-gun toting rum runners would be right at home.
Aside from some faux chicken wire up front and bright red Brembo binders behind eighteens, the SS (Super Sleeper?) walks as softly as its stable mates, with nary a hint of its big stick. Quite simply the HHR SS is something old, something new, something borrowed, and my tester was blue.
Open the door of the bad ass Dodge and you’re greeted by a plethora of plastic polymers that are as pleasing to the touch as freshly clipped toenails. While the leather-lined seating boasts bolsters befitting a Viper, trying to find that sweet spot is an exercise in futility. No amount of adjustment in seating or steering wheel will combine to give drivers comfortable command. The sightlines make this wee beast seem huge and steal confidence blind. That said, the unconventional shifter position is spot-on.
The SRT-4’s analog info-tunnels pit the tach center stage, flanked by a 180mph speedo and a double duty fuel and temperature display. A tiny boost gauge sits under the amplitudinous A-pillar, where an air vent should be. Following Dodge’s Playskool design theme, the center stack houses a basic ICE unit and spinning HVAC knobs.
Things begin to spill “outside of the box” on the passenger side where a three-tiered glovebox-fridge-cubby thing eats passenger’s knees under braking. Just don’t leave your Veuve in there overnight, as the chiller is fed by the A/C. No worries, though, as the fold-flat rear quarters can easily house the bar fridge your dorm room needs plus party favors. Better yet; convince some co-eds to head back to the party. Provided they’re under 6’ 2” head and legroom won’t be a deal breaker. They even get fancy backlit flute holders.
On the flipside, what the HHR SS lacks in luminescent thingamajigs it makes up for in simple sublime design. Colour keyed accents; actual component integration and a not-so-Lego look to the plastics create a working class hero. Plasti-chrome rimmed gauges and vents yield some elegance to a mainly utilitarian design. Enthusiasts will frown at the tiny tach’s placement, but giggle at the A-pillar boost gauge. Much like the Dodge, the seating position is Viagra-rific, affording a commanding view of the road ahead. Pedal placement is heel-toe friendly but suffers due to the delivery truck topography.
Verticality abounds in the HHR with a windshield that straight-up-now- tells-you that the original design was more about utility than sport. Emblazoned with about six yards of SS embroidery, the eight-way power performance seats keep you loose, locked and loaded for bouts in the twisty bits or snail-paced commuter carnage. Coupled with a complete lack of right arm relief, autocross enthusiasts’ hands won’t waver from 9 and 3 on the leather lined wheel. That is until you try to leave and realize the door handle is molded from three year old pasta. I’m still not sure I left it in one piece.
Over your shoulder, there’s more than enough room to schlep the kids across state lines for Thanksgiving at grandmas or transport Uncle Phil after three rounds of turkey. Lose the bipedal cargo for favor of supplies, and 55 cubic feet of space abounds for Joe the plumber to carry out house calls. A plastic flat-tastic cargo area makes clean-up a breeze, whether Joe’s been hauling putty or laying pipe.
Thankfully, the pennies saved on the Caliber SRT-4’s looks went into its locomotion. Recovery from the aesthetic affront afforded by the Dodge demands sensual dedication to driving, and so does that engine.
It’s a pity the SRT team ordered a bigger booster instead of a differential. Pin the throttle, find some form of dead pedal and the Caliber SRT-4 lurches forward like a three-headed hell hound. You’ll hit sixty in under six seconds; maybe. While the 285 turbonium fed horses and 260ft/lbs of torque are up to the task, you’ll be too busy fighting the reigns to care about metrics. On dry days, the fully spooled 2.4-liter engine produces such monumental torque steer that arms like Manfred Hoeberl’s are a prerequisite. On wet days, Depends.
Over at the General, the SS squadron went the wiser route. Their diff. makes all the diff. An optional limited-slip setup delegates the equal measures of power and torque (260) on tap and keeps things (slightly more) tame; no-lift upshifting takes care of the rest. That’s right, keep your foot forged to the firewall and curl the corners of your lips as the CPU takes care of launch control, and keeps the 2.0-liter mill in one piece as you run through five Getrag gears. It takes some psychological seasoning but NSFW-me is it fun! Torque steer isn’t gone, but it’s easy like a Sunday morning.
Cornering is just as calm. The HHR SS earned some street-cred by rounding the ring (Nordschleife) during development. It was eight minutes and forty-three seconds well spent. When tackling tight twisties with a head full of steam, it was easy to keep the milquetoast milk-truck balanced and poised. The linear-coiled independent McPherson’s up front and beefed up trailing twister out back keep the HHR planted.
The binders are a little wooden at first, but when the Brembos heat up, late braking beckons. Notch the right ratio with the short-throw shifter, twist the tiller and marvel at how flat this 3282lbs box sits. Around town touring suffers a little from the sport suspension’s stiffness, but not enough to spill your coffee.
The Caliber SRT-4’s maniacal mill may make full throttle getaways messy, but the big blower yields a bountiful midrange. Where the HHR SS felt slow down low, with little to no boost, the SRT-4 plows on. This low rev response comes in handy when trying to tame switchbacks. There’s no doubt Dodge’s Dr. Eng.’s worked much magic on an abhorrent chassis. Slammed as it is, the 3248lbs of heft still feels like it hovers 10’ above the hood scoop.
To get things right, you need to scrub the SRT’s speed before you, you know, try to turn in. In most furious front drivers you get off the throttle and the backend comes around, the same is true here, but aggression can kill. Brake too late or dip in too early and understeer abounds. Get it right and the reward is worth it, as the back end locks in and that midrange grunt pulls you out. Get it wrong and all you’ll get is a loud smoky mess. That and, whatever was in front of you will soon be a part of you. Learner permits need not apply.
The Chevrolet HHR SS is a serious contender. Maximum Bob’s boys delivered the goods with this fast and furious delivery God. Where the Dodge Caliber SRT-4 punishes and rewards, the Chevrolet HHR SS just obeys. The Dodge is ugly, dimwitted, overpowered and underdeveloped.
The Chevy looks better inside and out, is more comfortable and has performance and practicality by the short and curlies. If a true hot-hatch is how you roll, head over to Mazda and get the Mazdaspeed 3. You won’t be disappointed. If getting people and things to places fast is your game, the HHR does it better and faster than anything in its marketplace, including the Mazda.