By on March 9, 2021

Today’s Rare Ride is the rarest version of Chevrolet’s retro-styled economy car of the 2000s, and you might never have had the pleasure of seeing one in person.

Presenting the HHR SS Panel, in which you shift your own gears.

To discuss HHR, we must first make a brief visit to Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. The PT Cruiser debuted in 2001 with retro-modern looks and a cutesy personality and was immediately popular domestically. General Motors was envious of the PT Cruiser’s sales success, but luckily for them, they’d hired its designer, Bryan Nesbitt, in 2001. A short while later, GM said “Make us a PT Cruiser too!”

And so the Chevrolet HHR debuted for the 2006 model year. Based on the same platform as the compact Cobalt, the HHR had many of the same retro characteristics and personality of the PT Cruiser. Initially, only the four-door hatchback was available, but for 2007 the Panel version joined the ranks and brought back a term long-forgotten by most: the sedan delivery. Your author has also heard it called a panel van or panel wagon. Engines available on the HHR were all of I4 configuration and from GM’s Ecotec family. A 2.0-liter turbocharged engine was the most powerful, joined by naturally aspirated 2.2- and 2.4-liter mills. Transmissions on offer were the oft-selected four-speed automatic, or a five-speed manual provided by GM or Getrag.

The Panel did not have rear seats but instead featured cargo management compartments. It did not have side airbags, and the rear cargo area was plastic instead of carpeted. Rear side doors were covered by a large plastic panel outside and were only openable remotely via dash-mounted buttons.

Initially, all Panels were LT, but trims extended to LS, and 2LT in 2008. Standard HHR trims extended to a new SS turbocharged version for the 2008 model year. The 2.0-liter engine in the SS produced 260 horses if equipped with the five-speed manual, but was turned down to 235 if an automatic was selected. GM extended the SS further in 2009 with the SS Panel. All examples used the 2.0-liter engine and forced the five-speed manual transmission upon eager race van customers.

SS versions used a different performance suspension to standard HHRs and were visually distinguished by a sportier front fascia, ground effects along the sides, a rear spoiler, and a boost gauge in the a-pillar. Wheels were also unique to the SS. The HHR SS Panel was sold for only one year, as it was canceled after 2009 along with the regular SS. The group responsible for the SS’ design, GM Performance Division, was shut down in 2010 as GM went through its bankruptcy. HHR lived on through 2011 before it was canceled without replacement.

Today’s HHR SS Panel has traveled 146,000 miles in its 12 years of life. In excellent condition, it asks an optimistic $9,950 in Seattle.

[Images: GM]

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49 Comments on “Rare Rides: A 2009 Chevrolet HHR SS Panel, Desirability Guaranteed...”


  • avatar
    sirwired

    I had to suffer with a (not so special) HHR as a rental for a whole month while the wife’s car was in the shop after a deer hit, and it was not a good vehicle. The external looks were fine, and I suppose it drove okay, but it suffered from the usual GM half-assery on the interior, which was painfully-awful, not just cheap.

  • avatar
    kcflyer

    loved the looks of these things, still do, but would never want one. I got one as a rental and didn’t even make it out of the airport before I took it back and asked for any other vehicle. The reason? Worst visibility of any vehicle I have ever driven, and that includes the new Camaro. Absolutely terrible.

  • avatar
    kcflyer

    I should have said it was the normal window version. I can only imagine that the panel version is even worse.

    • 0 avatar
      celica0774

      My “normal window” rental seemed really cramped inside- high beltline, maybe “fat” interior panels, and you’re right, poor visibility.

      The panel van must be atrocious, like driving a tiny hearse.

      What kills the HHRs? I don’t see them on the road. Typically there’s a common engine or transmission failure that kills off an entire generation of a car model.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I thought they were basically Cobalts mechanically so they should at least be fairly robust if a little cheap. It probably just doesn’t take a particularly expensive issue to send it to the crusher though given how little they are worth. They are also mostly now with owners that likely do little to no maintenance on them.

  • avatar
    TheEndlessEnigma

    We looked at the HHR once when shopping vehicles for my wife. The exterior looks were good, we sat in it and closed the doors. Didn’t even need to test drive it, it was such an awful penalty box inside; visibility was horrendous, fit and finish was laughable, the materials were a sea of colorless gray mediocrity.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    What’s not to like about the HHR? A smallish wagon (our favourite type of vehicle), based on a proven (Ok existing) platform and drivetrain. With ‘trucklet’ good looks. Should be a sales, and review winner and a profit centre. Whoops. GM somehow missed the boat again.

    My B-I-L has a large dog and carries most of his bands equipment to their weekend gigs. His HHR is eminently suitable for these duties, as least in regards to cargo space and ‘frugality’.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    In 20 years the owner will be very sad at Barret Jackson/Mecum

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I think the PT Cruiser came off better and is probably an all around better car. I just took my 92 year old mom’s 2001 PT Cruiser in for service. 44K miles on it and still runs and looks new, but what a horrible little car, she loves though

  • avatar
    redapple

    Had a PT cruiser in 2006 ish ?
    Was OK. Good visibility.
    Airport Rental.
    Tons of space for crap.

    Always assumed a HHR was similar. Guess not.

    • 0 avatar
      Keith_93

      We all have different rental car memories. The rental PT Cruiser I got stuck with was a horrible car. The HHR rental experience was really OK, I actually liked the HHR. Much better driving experience than the PT. Fold the rear seats down and a huge (and totally flat) cargo area.

  • avatar
    MoDo

    The other day I was thinking of what I’d drive today if I was 20 again and looking for a car. I went online and searched for cars between $2000 and $3000. More than a few of these HHR’s came up and none of them had the high mileage all the similarly priced imports had. I would have still went with the import though lol. But these are a good deal now if you need a cheap wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick_515

      A clean Mazda 3 for me, probably. Golf/Jetta as well. They are not exactly reliable, but Golf/Jettas have always been the highway car choice for me, among smaller cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        The 2.5-liter I5 (which was VW’s volume engine for its small cars through 2014 or so) is pretty robust, if not exactly thrifty on fuel. Ditto for the 2.slow. Every other issue is well-documented, and frankly those cars don’t meet the definition of German over-engineering (they are too expensive).

        I’d say a Mk.5- or Mk.6-based product with either of those engines is a safe bet, certainly more so than one of these GM Delta-platform bombs.

        The MAZDA3 is also a great suggestion, as long as there’s no rust. The Volvo S40 used many of the same mechanicals and is somewhat more upscale.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    “Today’s HHR SS Panel has traveled 146,000 miles in its 12 years of life. In excellent condition, it asks an optimistic $9,950 in Seattle.”

    Can we please put the seller in jail with the other criminals?

    I say $1295-1995 tops

    A specific option for the “panel” version isn’t listed, just “SS”. I suppose the manual listed here in NC is the “panel” trim? $2200 with 108K.

    MY09 CHEVROLET HHR 4D SUV 2.0L SS

    10/21/20 $2,600 80,889 2.1 4GT/A Red Lease Midwest Minneapolis
    8/18/20 $4,800 101,983 2.4 4GT/A Blue Lease Northeast Baltimore-Washington
    2/8/21 $2,200 108,010 2.2 4GT/5 Gray Lease Southeast North Carolina
    7/17/20 $5,600 108,944 3.0 4GT/A Silver Regular Southwest Dallas
    11/18/20 $6,000* 112,613 4.3 4GT/A Black Regular Northeast New Jersey
    1/4/21 $1,300 124,935 1.3 4GT/A Black Regular Southwest Texas Hobby
    1/20/21 $3,200 128,251 3.3 4GT/A Red Regular Southwest San Antonio

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      But its rare… and red!

      I think the seller is confusing rarity with desirability. My understanding is very few of the panel configurations were sold.

      Doug reviewed one of these – the rear doors are still there and functional despite not having any exterior handles. The key FOB will open them, or they can be opened using some buttons on the dash. This is a quirky vehicle with what I assume is a specific fan base. It does check an odd combination of boxes: mini, retro, turbo, manual and van.

      Mini also sold a Clubman in this configuration so if the GM version turns you off you can get an even more unreliable version.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        This would make a fun (and deductible) ride for someone whose business involves delivery, sales, or trades. Otherwise its maybe for a deep collector because of its rarity. That’s the only market for this IMO and the seller -who needs to be charged with something- is looking for the deep collector. Too high of miles for those folks, IMO. Much of that car is likely tired, who wants to spend *way way way* too much and then do all the recon? Who wants to sit in this POS $12-15 when its worth $2500?

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      $3000 Max, and thats with good fresh tires on and up to date maintenance.

      @28D: To answer your question from another post, I don’t own the Volvo anymore, probably won’t buy another either, panthers have spoiled me.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Ryoku, the Panther Man!

        On a similar FoMoCo subject the other day I wandered onto a lot who had a Lincoln Mark VII parked in the back. Turns out its an ’84 [!] on consignment with 41K [?!?] original miles but isn’t in restored condition. I also found out on a quick jaunt the AOD is DOA, won’t shift into overdrive and when in reverse it shudders so hard I thought the car was going to fall apart. Owner wants all kinda money, but dealer implied it could be less. My tranny shop quoted me $1500 at minimum to put in a new AOD. Tempting… if I had the room.

        • 0 avatar
          Ryoku75

          Can’t help but notice some BMW in the roof of those when I look them up. The sweet spot for anything AOD based are the 4R70 transmissions. 4R75s, at least in non truck applications, break early and often.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    DUDE take me back to 1992! this would be great vehicle for an IASCA sound off. I
    can already see a wall of 18inch subs behind the driver and a full wall of Precision power or Rockford Fosgate amps. Maybe an Oakley sticker for the windshield.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I hate to admit I like it. Never cared for the HHR, but the panel van is kinda neat. Wouldn’t want to DD it though.

  • avatar
    Jimf

    i concur with sirwired…the interior on these cars was very poor quality…would be an embarassment to entry level econoboxes.

  • avatar
    wolfwagen

    Had the 4Dr wagon version once as a rental for a week while in IL. Wasn’t horrible but I do recall it was a little buzzy. I also worked for a company that had these as service vehicles. Couldn’t carry anything too big, but it was enough for the tech, their tools, and assorted parts. We phased them out and went to Transit Connects

  • avatar
    ajla

    I’m a PT Cruiser apologist and I can defend the Patriot in certain trims but those feelings don’t extend to the HHR.

    I guess the SS version might be good for a lark. But the Mazdaspeed3 seems much better and if esoteric is your thing then go with an SRt Caliber.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick_515

      ajla, last month i came across a single owner, manual transmission PT Cruiser. It was spotless, it had a hurst shifter and cold air intake (i have no answers). it was so cheap… I just bought it before my wife could really realize what was going on. It’s a sparkling electric blue color, and instead of putting hubcaps that the seller offered, I had the rims cleaned, primed, and painted canary yellow. Lo and behold, the rear seats are designed to be hauled out in mere seconds, so I let a single one in the back, and took out the double turning into a little van area for the dog. Went into the lift for inspection today…. no rust. Shares driveway space with much newer German metal, confusing the hell out of the neighbors. Big dog rides in the back head out the window, standing. The amount of smiles and thumbs up we get is insane. I can say with zero hesitation that I LOVE the thing… biggest surprise of my automotive life. Even the mechanic burst out when I said it’s a lifestyle vehicle for me and doggie :)

      • 0 avatar
        MoDo

        Should have got a GT cruiser, they are dirt cheap now too

        • 0 avatar
          Nick_515

          No! I wanted a slow ride to enjoy the Finger Lakes with my wife and dog. (We already have a 3 liter engine BMW). Have driven it 600 miles already, it’s got ok torque, and it even has cruise control despite the stick shift. And it’s lighter with the rear seat delete.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Never drove an SS, but the regular models had awful visibility as others have mentioned and unlike its Cobalt sibling you have to poke around in the back to access the battery. The “vintage” styling really gets in the wayon this one.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Many modern cars have batteries in the back, including the 2016 Cruze Premier I briefly owned. I wouldn’t say it’s much of a detriment. If anything, it keeps the battery out of the hot engine bay, prolonging its life. It also helps nominally with weight distribution, as FWD cars like these tend to have more weight in the front.

      The really stupid one was my 2015 Grand Cherokee Overland, which had the battery under the passenger seat. If the battery died, you either had to use a square drive somewhere on the seat track to move the power seat enough to access it, or jump the car so that you could move the power seat.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Car-based panel vans like this are very common in Europe, but always with tiny diesel fours and 70 mph top speeds, never with 260-hp turbos. What a weird little thing for Seattle’s lower tier of used car dealers to cough up.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    The PT Cruiser has been on top of enough “Worst Car Ever” lists to make it fact. This is worse than the PT. I’ve drove or rode in both.

    • 0 avatar
      MoDo

      According to who? Just because one blog says that and 400 copy cay blogs follow doesnt mean anything. Dropped at a Russian airport people would pay extra to drive an HHR or a PT over some weird car they’d never heard of.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        Nobody important of course. But name any used cars that should be higher up on any ‘worst’ list that you’re likely to stumble upon, popular enough.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          That’s mostly just from lazy writing because normies remember the PT Cruiser while they’ve already forgotten Avengers, Calibers, Sebrings, Aveos, Nitros, Aspens, Windstars, Freestars, Uplanders, Rendezvous, Smarts, and Tribecas.

          Back when we did such things the PT Cruiser never made the TTAC “Ten Worst Award” short list. It was certainly nothing amazing but it wasn’t nearly as terrible as people today want to paint it.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            You can call it lazy writing, but some of those were so bad that sales were marginal or they’re missing from the roads thanks to defective transmissions, prone to head gasket failure, etc, etc, so of course forgotten. Others aged out.

            The PT Cruiser is a tough one to forget. Too many were made and they stand out in a crowd.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I’m not inclined to want to own anything that was on that original Delta platform. Every one of those cars was under-engineered. That said, it’s cool in its own right that they even bothered offering something like this.

    Unfortunately, one of the results of GM’s bankruptcy is that the company steadfastly refuses to take risks or venture into any niche products that aren’t trucks or (these days) EVs. Even the Camaro doesn’t have a timeline beyond 2023, according to many sources.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I have to disagree with you Kyree concerning the Delta platform’s engineering. GM USA took the Delta platform Cobalt SS supercharged and turbocharged versions to the Nurburgring and set a few FWD records at that time. Even the 2.4 engined versions are nice daily drivers with a little more punch than the average econobox.

      I think that GM’s reluctance to take risks outside of anything that sells well is their determination to not go bankrupt again. Plus, there were a whole bunch of talking heads (Friedman, Neil, etc.) who said “Be more like Toyota!”, whatever that meant. I still tend to think of Toyota as Studebaker with much better sales than Studebaker could ever imagine. Very conventionally engineered cars (with the exception of the hybrid variants) with mostly stodgy styling. Until recently, but now the styling is uh, unusual.

      I live not too far away from one of the largest Chevy dealers in the USA, they had a whole row of these HHR SS panel wagons back in the day. I guess I should have ponied up for one, not realizing their rarity at the time. I see HHR SSs appear on used car lots from time to time, but I’m leery of past owner’s maintenance habits. Besides, I’d rather have a Cobalt SS supercharged if I’m totally honest. The HHR would be more usable, though.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Agree with geozinger – the 2.0T 4 SS Deltas were not under built.

        Interiors are complete and total crap.

        Paint is utterly too thin.

        The automatic versions pushed the auto to the limit but not a ticking time bomb like the LS4 powered W-bodies (as an example).

        The SS versions were overbraked, had a Saab derived manual as I understand it, launch control, no lift shift, and you could get Recaro seats from the factory (still surrounded in crap interior otherwise).

        260 HP out of the box and very little massaging required to get to 325 HP and keep the warranty. 500 HP was easily obtainable (although physics dictates on FWD…never mind…)

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Only 216 manual SS full panel vans made through the entire lifecycle of the HHR.

  • avatar
    jkk6

    Weird turning radius, blown tires from small potholes, etc.. enough to call the car uncomfortable and non-durable.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Ryoku, the Panther Man!

    On a similar FoMoCo subject the other day I wandered onto a lot who had a Lincoln Mark VII parked in the back. Turns out its an ’84 [!] on consignment with 41K [?!?] original miles but isn’t in restored condition. I also found out on a quick jaunt the AOD is DOA, won’t shift into overdrive and when in reverse it shudders so hard I thought the car was going to fall apart. Owner wants all kinda money, but dealer implied it could be less. My tranny shop quoted me $1500 at minimum to put in a new AOD. Tempting… if I had the room.

  • avatar
    miles solo

    I own a 2006 HHR 2LT. I bought it used in 2012 with 53,000 miles on it. It has now clocked 186,000 miles. It’s been one of the best cars I’ve ever owned. Handling for a front heavy front wheel drive is very good, after adding an aftermarket rear antisway bar. The 2.4 non-turbo pulls great. The automatic’s ratios are more like a 3-speed with a tall overdrive rather than a conventional 4-sp auto. It turns about 2550 at 70mph. I think people may have had unrealistic expectations for the car. It really is truck like, and that’s what I bought it for. Rental agencies still have many of them on the road – they hold up very well. All the above comments not withstanding – I’d buy one again in a heartbeat.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    These, like their Cobalt parent, were also among the vehicles that were killing their owners when their substandard ignitions switches wore out and spontaneously shut off the car in operation, disabling the steering, power brakes and airbags.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    A totally shameless, me too ripoff. And of a half baked turkey. At least Chrysler/Plymouth was putting out some unique crap. Plus GM was late to the show.

    Yet GM will stand around watching F-series and Ram eat their pickup truck lunch, not offering nearly the content, features, quality, options, choices, trim, packages, engines, models/specialties, or commercial/hotshot support. For decades.

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