By on November 21, 2008

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 Since then, grace has been replaced by grunt.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.

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39 Comments on “Comparo: Chevrolet HHR SS vs. Dodge Caliber SRT-4...”


  • avatar
    Lokki

    I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the HHR.

    The PT Cruiser’s appeal was in its retro-styling good looks first, price second, and practicality third.

    The HHR ain’t got no good looks. There’s no coolness factor at all. It doesn’t have the space inside of a minivan, and has no more than utility than a small SUV. So, why buy one? Sure you can stuff a turbo under the hood, but if performance is your point, then the point aims at something else.

    Why did Chevy select a retro from a dowdy era?
    If they’d done a 30′s grill and sculpted the fenders towards that decade, it would have been much better looking.

    As for the Chrysler, the description above of how the styling was done seems pretty accurate to me. Add the reputation for Chrysler quality to the equation, and it adds up to rental car to me.

  • avatar

    The awfulness of the Dodge’s driving position cannot be overstated. I’ve driven a lot of cars, and cannot remember another with a driving position nearly as bad.

    Chevrolet really got the powertrain and chassis right with the Cobalt and, it seems, the HHR SS. And the HHR has a better interior than the Cobalt. Shame about the exterior though. If the retro look isn’t your thing–and it’s not mine–then the exterior is a deal-killer.

    Reliability for the garden variety HHR and Caliber has been about average, maybe a touch better, in TrueDelta’s Vehicle Reliability Survey. Not enough of the SS or SRT4 signed up yet to report separate results for them.

    http://www.truedelta.com/latest_results.php

  • avatar

    Very nice review!

    The Caliber would lose on ugliness alone. It makes me nostalgic for the Neon the way Bush2 made me nostalgic for Nixon.

  • avatar
    Orian

    I’ve always liked the PT and the HHR’s looks – it’s a pity that GM gets one out the door this good right before they go under. Then again perhaps I can find one in a year or two for a song that way.

  • avatar
    Matthew Danda

    I saw an HHR SS on the road, and I thought it looked like a mid-90s Pontiac product–lots of bolted on plastic bits to make it look fast.

  • avatar
    retro1949

    I’ve been the owner of an HHR SS for about six months. It basically does everything well and a few things exceptionally well (performance and utility). If one considers buying this vehicle, then one MUST love the looks and the retro theme. Otherwise, there are better choices (obviously not the SRT4). Apart from the ground clearances issue (spoilers, running boards), it should be quite acceptable in winter driving with front wheel drive, traction control, limited slip, and stability control. Definitely a more suitable and practical choice for a mid life crisis than a Pontiac Soltice or Mini.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    I never really like the word “Comparo”
    I mean we don’t even speak Spanish might as well just saw Compare or Comparison.

    The cars are not bad at all. They look so cool and fast. Comparo to Dodge Neon or Cobalt.

  • avatar
    romanjetfighter

    That bit about the nasty toenails was hilarious.

    :)

    Is the Matrix XRS considered a contender at all? You mention the VW and the Mazda but forget the Toyota!

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    @retro1949

    Would you mind sharing what you paid for it? More/less/equal than sticker?

  • avatar

    Both of these things are just butt fugly.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    SpeedJebus

    Maybe 1st generation Matrix XRS, not so much the current. Still have my ’03 XRS 6 speed.. and man that thing serves up high revving fun. :)

    Pity about the shifter.

  • avatar
    toxicroach

    It’s interesting that almost every car has a significant number of people who think its beautiful or horrendous.

    The HHR is a pleasing little station wagon on steroids to hide its true nature. I think its pleasing.

    The Vette does nothing for me, I think the Mazda RX-8 is way hotter than a Mustang. On the other hand I liked the Cheavy Beat even though it made me throw up in mouth a little.

    To each his own I guess, but what is it for you that makes a car cross over from bland to ugly or bland to beautiful?

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Please. Enough with the reviewers showing their linguistic chops by wasting words waxing about the whips in alliteration.

    Oops. It might be contagious.

    Seriously, guys. You’ve done the alliteration thing to death.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    These two cars always end up in these esperanto-sounding ‘comparos’ with each other, like they’re the only two that exist in that segment. I don’t understand why the other similar cars aren’t invited. Maybe they don’t understand esperanto.

    I want to have a combination of the two, the capability of the HHR SS with the (generally) modern styling of the SRT-4. I personally am so over the whole retro styling fad. Possibly only VW could have gotten away with the idea of the New Beetle, but really, did everyone else have to jump in too?

    I want a new car. These days if you got enough cash, you can get almost any old car restified completely to your tastes. Why should the new car companies issue old cars?

    I’ll agree that VW had a legitimate sentimental claim to the Beetle’s shape. It doesn’t make it an particularly efficient modern car, but that’s OK. And, that Chrysler had an exceptionally good idea of hiding the fact that the PT Cruiser was a Neon station wagon. And, again, emotionally, Ford could issue new 1967 Mustangs.

    But really, the Toyota FJ Cruiser? The new Camaro? Do we have to beat every semi-good idea to death?

    I want a NEW Camaro. I want a NEW FJ Cruiser. (No, not really. I don’t care much for SUV’s) I don’t want an old car. I can get plenty of those…

  • avatar
    carguy

    I’ve driven both the basic version of the HHR and Caliber and found the HHR to be a vastly superior car. Sure it isn’t perfect but the Caliber is so awful in every respect that is nearly ruptures the fabric of the automotive space-time continuum. From the dreadful interior, rubber-band transmission and a ride that manages to float and crash all at the same time; it really is the new Chevy Cavalier of small cars.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    This review sets a new standard for cutting prose.
    Dennis Farina not Pininfarina! Ha ha!

    “whether Joe’s been hauling putty or laying pipe.” Somehow this seems hopelessly obscene to me.

    I sat in a rental HHR and couldn’t believe how vertical the windshield was. Like an old VW bug.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Ever since the Plymouth Roadrunner became such a phenomenal sales hit, the domestic industry has been referring to these cheap, speedy wheels as ‘kid cars’. They have been continually trying to repeat the same working formula for the past 40 years, unfortunately, without much success.

    Ironically, as the manufacturer of the original version back in 1968, Chrysler’s current attempt, the SRT-4, can be summarized with the single phrase “You can’t polish a turd”. The basic Caliber makes it such a loser from the onset that no amount of mechanical testosterone injection can help it.

    While the HHR SS isn’t quite as bad (particularly when ordered with the quarter panel window block-off panels), it misses the elusive target, as well.

  • avatar
    retro1949

    To Detroit-Iron
    I’m located in Newfoundland, Canada, so of course our prices are about 25% higher than U.S. I got a $900 discount on the sunroof/upgraded stereo package and about a $1000 discount in addition. The kicker, however, was the 0% 72 month financing. There were no SS’s in my province so I travelled to Nova Scotia to purchase mine and drive it back. Final price was $28,800 plus tax.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Does the HHR still come with that abominable Saab-parts-bin shifter that the Ion RL and Cobalt SS were afflicted with?

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Thanks retro. That sounds pretty good.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Another great comparison test. Thanks.

  • avatar
    cleek

    The HHR SS still looks like something a group of hotrodding circus clowns would be seen in as they squeal out of the rental car lot.

    That said, thanks for another good read. Keep the reviews coming.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    All this, and no mention of just how wrong the dash texture is on the HHR?

    for shame.

  • avatar

    I think there should be a new law that forces manufacturers to put LSDs on any vehicle with more than 200 hp. I’m still astonished that top tier 911s make do with open diffs. My father’s G35 was well-nigh uncontrollable in wet weather without the LSD option. Between that and uncontrollable front-drive arm-wrenching scuttlebugs pitching people into lampposts, I think we have a good case for binding legislation.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Amen to the complaints about florid writing. Please, let’s hike the ratio of facts to filigree.

    What the heck are backlit flute holders?

  • avatar
    iNeon

    50–

    A flute is a champagne glass; the Caliber has lighted cupholders.

    He’s trying to be ironic in that depreciating kind of way. Think low-rent Frasier Crane.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    excellent and funny writing, thanks. as for these two cars, ive never cared for either.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I always thought the HHR would look better if they didn’t have curvy fenders with a flattened edge built in. Ought to keep the whole curve all the way round.

    I just don’t know what to think of them. I could live with the looks of either if they drove well and promised to last.

  • avatar
    shaker

    As far as the HHR goes, any driver over 6 feet tall will find themselves stopping well back from traffic signals – the “chop top” lowers the windshield enough to block vision.

  • avatar
    N8iveVA

    other than the overly large front end, i actually like the looks of the HHR, and i hear it’s a hoot to drive, but i just can’t get over sitting in it with the upright dash and miniature tach. The Dodge is just rediculous looking IMO.

  • avatar
    campocaceres

    subtle references to both old and new, great use of simile, alliteration was a wee-bit overused (though paragraph 5 was well-done). i have to admit i really couldn’t care less about either of these 2 vehicles, but i was very much entertained by this article. i really enjoyed it, thanks.

    also seconding another’s comment about the hhr dash texture- photo’s look good, but i didn’t like it in the flesh on the rental car i drove. the interior still felt cheap, though it is definitely an improvement over the cobalt and others.

    also am i the only one who absolutely abhors plasti-chrome found on this and other vehicles? not exactly sure what it is about it, but it’s about as hot wheels as it gets imo. first ran into that on a rental mustang and it was just a constant eye-sore for me.

  • avatar
    Silvermink

    Usually the really flowerily-worded articles just make me roll my eyes, but this one was almost poetic.

    Interesting comparison, too. The Caliber, visually, has always struck me as trying way too hard.

  • avatar
    Rix

    I own a WRX hatch so I see the point of these cars. If you can only have one car, want to take some weekend trips and don’t have more than one kid, and don’t want to hate the drive, these are good fits. FWD rather than AWD makes sense for cost, weight and mileage reasons. Could have been winners, but probably won’t be due to market conditions.

  • avatar
    Dr. No

    I think GM got the HHR SS right in the styling department, although it’s a shame it came to market so late after the PT Cruiser, an ugly riff on the retro theme. I wouldn’t buy one, but its quality stands above the PT Barnum version.

    Now we have the Camaro arriving a one to two years after Ford and Chrysler capture the Baby Boomer hankering for pony cars. Is it any surprise GM is in dire straits?

  • avatar
    vento97

    In 1976, Volkswagen introduced the world to the Rabbit GTi.

    Correction:

    In 1976, Volkswagen introduced the world to the Golf GTI.

    The Rabbit GTI was introduced to the North American Market in 1982.

  • avatar
    Matthew Neundorf

    Vento97;

    You are correct, the GTi dropped in NorAm in ’82, but it was “introduced to the world” (via Europe) in ’76

  • avatar
    jstnspin82

    I don’t get this segement very well. With the introduction of the PT Cruiser, it was cool, it was retro but its gone to far. The scions, the HHR, and even the Nitro. They are all ugly and look out of this world. They don’t appeal to me, while they appeal to some. The whole retro movement of cars is going to go down sometime. You can’t just keep making cars look like old ones and not make new ones. The Caliber looks nice though, not retro by any means, looks classy and good lines. It seems Chrysler is the only American auto maker that has appeal in design these days.

  • avatar
    michael3442

    I don’t understand the constant negativity about the Caliber and am glad to hear the above poster’s positive comments. I’ve rented the Caliber twice and thought it was great. The interior was roomy, the seats were very supportive from the sides and under the thigh, and the upright seating position is superb. The sightlines were very good, the dash gauges were well protected from the sun and glare, great headroom.

    I drove it from S.F. down to L.A. on the coastal highway and then up and down the very winding canyon roads outside of Malibu. On those roads I pressed it very hard and found it exceptionally tractable and predictable; it felt like a slot car. I would not hesitate for a minute to take it on a road trip across country it’s so extremely comfortable; btw I’m 6’1″. The exterior styling is decent and eons better than the lame HHR.

    I reserved a HHR to rent and after sitting in it and finding it uncomfortable and very difficult to see out of, went back and exchanged it for the 2nd Caliber. The HHR’s sightlines are much compromised by the low roofline that folds down over the sides of the car and cuts off any ability to glance upward above the strict horizontal. It felt enclosing. The seats were pedestrian and the fit of the interior was no better than slightly under average. The exterior looks piggish and a very poor attempt to be retro.

    Sorry to HHR owners, but rent a Caliber and see what I mean.

    Miata/Altima/Pathfinder owner

  • avatar
    Lbart

    Actually I saw it on a TV show. You can polish a “TURD”.


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