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.
In our mountain test, OnStar showed this phone icon on the radio display, but no turn-by-turn directions.
For our second test, we wanted to challenge the system, so we got on a small mountain road down the coast from San Francisco. We pulled over and pushed the OnStar button, this time requesting directions to CNET. The operator pinpointed our location, but told us we were in a low-bandwidth area, so he couldn't download directions to the car. Instead, he read the turn-by-turn directions aloud, then told us we could access a recording of those directions by pushing the phone button on the mirror and asking for the "virtual adviser".
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.
The blue OnStar button connects you with an OnStar operator, so you can ask for directions.
As we mentioned above, navigation is handled through OnStar, with the OnStar activation button located on the rearview mirror frame. Through OnStar, you can also get phone service, making calls by pushing the phone button on the rearview mirror. The drawback to this service is that your car will have its own phone number, separate from your cell phone or land line. Phone service is included in the OnStar Directions and Connections plan, but you have to purchase minutes for your calls separately.