Driving the Chevrolet HHR sent your humble author into a massive 1980s flashback; no drugs required. The Japanese car supply/demand imbalance during Paula Abdul’s Lakers Girl days meant any Japanese model could find a market regardless of merit. One of the least meritorious was the Isuzu I-Mark: a car so relentlessly nondescript that boredom was the primary safety hazard while driving one. Twenty years later, that particular strain of car flu, automobilis mediocritas, has mutated and infected the Chevrolet HHR, turning it into one of the dullest transportation appliances of the twenty-first century.
The boredom starts from fifty feet away. By taking a T-square to his GM-ified PT Cruiser, designer Bryan Nesbitt also stripped it of any drama. Yes, it’s unique. No, it’s not particularly interesting. The profile blends in against a sea of shell-backed pickup trucks and slammed small SUVs. Against the monotonous background of the shape, interesting details like the half-moon grille and the strong retro-inspired fenders get lost rather than stand out. The features that do stand out are the two enormous bumpers covered with a bizarre collection of protrusions and reflectors. These wipe out the last vestiges of design coherence.
It gets better (but not by much) once you climb inside the HHR. Front legroom is good, headroom is typically brick-on-wheels excellent, but rear legroom is disappointing. The usual suspects—GM’s hard and grainy plastics—cover most of the surfaces, but the design is pleasantly understated and the pieces seem to be solidly assembled. Finding a decent driving position is easy with the heated six-way power driver’s seat and tilt column, but the optional leather is definitely tanned for durability, not comfort.
The “Yes, but . . . ” theme continues throughout the interior. A good-sized glove box and several storage cubbies adorn the cabin, but the lids and mechanisms feel cheap. There are good cupholders between the seats, but the armrests violate their airspace. There is a clever 3-position rear cargo cover, but it feels like a Rubbermaid factory reject. Chevrolet thoughtfully provided a dead pedal, but it’s modeled on the Torquemada Achilles tendon rack.
At least GM got the driver’s interfaces mostly right. The gauges are clear, the controls are logically laid out (kudos for the steering wheel buttons), and the now-expected toys like a multi-function trip computer, iPod jack and USB interface are all present and accounted for.
The HHR 2LT comes with a 2.4-liter version of GM’s ubiquitous Ecotec engine, and E85 flex-fuel capability is standard for 2009. At 175 hp and 160 lb·ft of torque, it provides 17 ponies and 12 twists more than the base 2.2-liter engine. Coupled to GM’s 4T45 four-speed automatic, the HHR accelerates with noteworthy indifference (0-60 in about 8 seconds, according to the buff books). The aural accompaniment to forward motion is equally uninteresting, uninspiring and inoffensive.
Once up to speed, the HHR settles easily into its preferred mode of disinterested A to B cruising. Passing power is adequate, but will produce neither grins nor grimaces. Fuel economy is class-competitive, averaging about 24 mpg on California E10 gasoline and 22 mpg on E85 under similar conditions.
The 2LT package adds rear disc brakes, sport-tuned suspension, and 215/50R-17 tires (versus 215/55R-16 on the base model). The upgrades significantly improve on the HHR’s wallowy ride, poor braking and excessive body roll. Once again, adequacy is the watchword of the day. The ride is reasonably taut without being uncomfortable or noisy. Tracking on the interstate is OK except on highly grooved pavement, and the brakes perform as asked without drama or inspiration.
Throw the HHR into a corner with the accurate but uncommunicative steering, and it responds with adequate turn-in. Cornering limits are high enough that only major hoonage will cause trouble, and any excessive speed is scrubbed off with safe, fun-nullifying understeer. Given that enthusiasts will gravitate to the higher-strung SS model, the 2LT’s ride and handling will give most owners no complaints.
What will produce complaints (and possibly soiled underwear) are the blind spots created by the HHR’s thicket of pillars, headrests, and undersized tinted windows. Changing lanes, especially to the right, is a triumph of faith over knowledge, as is backing out of a parking space. A rear-view camera (not offered) or proximity sensors (ditto) would be welcome. On the other hand, that would eliminate the only bit of excitement the HHR offers.
The HHR is a revealing example of GM’s product development woes. It’s a me-too design that lacks the style of the PT Cruiser, the dog-crate-on-wheels utility of the Honda Element, or the funky spirit of the first-generation Scion xB. It’s a perfectly adequate vehicle, but adequacy should be a starting point, not a destination. The HHR’s unusual styling will attract some customers, but its lack of any standout qualities will create neither brand equity nor many repeat customers.