If this were 1950, we would be pretty impressed by the Chevrolet HHR. Its body style, although lower down with narrower windows, would fit right in with the line of Chevy panel trucks. The automatic transmission would seem a bit luxurious, like something out of a Cadillac, and we would probably try to jam a 45 record into the thin slot below the radio display. The handling would feel in line with most other cars on the road.
But it is not 1950--the 2007 Chevrolet HHR's retro look borrows heavily from Chevy panel vans of that era, which makes it a polarizing car. Similar to the Honda Element or the Scion xB, you're either going to love it or hate it. We're not crazy about the HHR's style, although it's a pretty good take on a 1950s car. The hood and fenders are pretty obvious features hearkening back to the original, but even the tail lights copy those of the 1950s-era panel wagon.
The HHR clearly lacks driving excitement, opting instead for fuel economy with its four-cylinder engine. But that lack of excitement extends to the primitive transmission and the poor handling. For interior tech, the HHR gets a stereo that uses GM's ugly, but functional, interface for terrestrial and satellite radio tuning and MP3 CD track selection. As is common in GM cars, in-car phone functionality and navigation is left to OnStar.
Test the tech: Celestial navigation
As we feel the whole point of GPS navigation is not having to ask for directions, we haven't really given OnStar navigation a try. But we try to be thorough, so we decided to use the OnStar navigation service in the Chevrolet HHR. It definitely qualifies as a tech feature, and GM was kind enough to give us an operable OnStar account for our review period.
We used OnStar navigation twice: once in the middle of San Francisco and once out in the boondocks, on the coast near the town of Pescadero. In our city test, we pushed the OnStar button located on the rearview mirror frame and requested directions to a local address from the OnStar operator. The operator sent the directions to the car, and we were set. We started driving and the onboard OnStar system gave us route guidance by voice and through the radio display. The voice guidance wasn't the OnStar operator, but instead the same kind of voice guidance you get from a full GPS navigation system. We were impressed that the voice guidance could read out street names, and the radio display showed upcoming turns and their distance from the HHR.
After using OnStar navigation, we still prefer an in-dash GPS system. First, we wouldn't run into a low-bandwidth situation with an in-dash system. And if you are in an area with no cell phone coverage, you won't get any OnStar service, but an in-dash system would still work. Second, the map screen is useful if you want to explore an area, without any particular destination in mind. To use OnStar navigation, you need a vehicle equipped with OnStar and a subscription to OnStar's Directions and Connections package, which goes for $26.90 per month.
In the cabin
There are few cues inside the HHR to reflect its exterior retro styling, the most obvious being the rounded door latches and the oversize steering wheel. Everything else is modern. The placement of the power-window controls, just in front of the shifter, is a little odd but certainly not retro. The leather seats, a $750 option, were a nice interior touch.
Beyond OnStar, the only real tech feature in the HHR is the stereo. In our test car, this stereo featured an MP3-compatible single CD player, XM radio, and an auxiliary input. We don't particularly like the dot-matrix look of the blue lettering in the radio display, but it is very functional. GM makes use of the preset buttons along the bottom of the radio display to control all sorts of functions. For example, if you put in an MP3 CD, you can move back and forth through folders with two of the buttons. If you push the information button, the preset buttons let you select artist, album, or track display.
With our test car's 2LT Preferred Equipment package, we also got a Pioneer seven-speaker system. This system uses tweeters on the A pillars, a midrange speaker in each door, and a subwoofer in the cargo area. The audio quality from this system is above average, but not what we would consider superior. You can hear the instruments in a track fairly clearly, but the bass doesn't really stand out.
Under the hood
The HHR is by no means a powerhouse--it's designed as one of Chevy's more economical vehicles. As such, it has a 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine, which gets the car around reasonably well, but lacks enthusiasm. This engine is actually the bigger of the pair that is available on the HHR, with a 2.2-liter Ecotec as a base model (and don't ask us why Chevy would offer an upgrade of 0.2 liters). This bigger engine puts out 175 horsepower, while the smaller does 149 horsepower.
In our test car, we had a four-speed automatic transmission. A five-speed manual is available on the base model. In practice, we found the combination of the automatic and the engine produced an unpleasant whine when we floored the accelerator to get on a freeway. There wasn't a whole lot of oomph behind this powertrain, either, but it was fine for getting around town. A four-speed transmission has its limitations, too. In this case, the fourth gear has got a high enough ratio to hold the RPMs at 2,500 on the freeway, but that also means very noticeable shifting, as the gear ratios are all pretty far apart.
For fuel economy, the HHR gets 23mpg in the city and 30mpg on the highway under the EPA's old test. The new test gives it 21mpg city and 28mpg highway. During our mixed city and freeway driving, we managed to get it up to 24mpg, which shows the new EPA testing is more realistic. For emissions, the HHR meets California's minimum LEV II rating.
There are three trim levels available on the 2007 Chevrolet HHR, with the lowest being the LS, at a base price of $16,595. We had the LT 2LT model, which includes the bigger 2.4-liter engine and the premium audio system, basing at $19,395. For options, our test car also came with the automatic transmission ($1,000), power sunroof ($750), leather seats ($750), one year of OnStar's Safe and Sound plan ($695), side airbags ($395), 17-inch wheels ($395), and XM satellite radio with three months paid for ($199). Along with the $590 destination charge, the total comes out to $24,169.
Because of its strong retro styling, the HHR will either appeal to you or not. In keeping with the car's exterior style, it's a cruiser, not a sport driver. And you definitely don't want to drag race for pinks, or you won't have the car for long. As a tech car, its stereo has a functional, but ugly, interface, and decent audio, with OnStar handling navigation and hands-free calling. The interior configuration fits that of a small wagon, a segment that's become scattered, considering that other small wagons we've seen lately have been the Subaru Forester and Audi A3, all cars with very different purposes.