All-new for 2006, the Chevrolet HHR blends traditional styling – in this case, cues from the 1949 Suburban – with a modern interior that permits a wide range of people- and cargo-hauling capability.

If you immediately think of the Chrysler PT Cruiser, you’re not alone; the same designer had a hand in both, and many of the PT’s characteristics are seen on the HHR, including upright, minivan-like seating, tall stance (HHR stands for “Heritage High Roof”), seats that fold to form a flat cargo floor, and a moveable rear tray that doubles as a cargo cover.

Based on the Chevrolet Cobalt platform, the HHR offers a choice of 2.2-litre or 2.4-litre four-cylinder engines, and begins with a five-speed manual that can be optioned up to a four-speed automatic. Unlike the PT Cruiser, air conditioning is standard on both HHR models.

The base LS model uses the 2.2-litre engine, and includes power windows, locks and mirrors, keyless remote, 60/40 folding rear seat, fold-flat front passenger seat, CD stereo with six speakers and front-mounted auxiliary jack for iPods or other audio sources, and 16-inch wheels.

The LT uses the 2.4-litre engine and adds a standard MP3 player, eight-way power seat with power lumbar, satin chrome exterior appearance package, anti-lock brakes, bright exhaust tip, leather-wrapped wheel and shifter, sport suspension and bright chrome exterior trim.

The HHR is a mixed bag: on the upside, it has one of the best interiors GM offers, its materials and fit-and-finish rivaling anything Toyota or Honda is offering in this class. It’s relatively inexpensive, with even the base model offering amenities like air and power accessories that are extra-cost on many of its rivals. The seats are comfortable, and there’s a great deal of room for storage, including several small-item cubbies up front.

But on the downside, the powertrain could be better. The 2.2-litre is woefully underpowered, and the 2.4-litre (the company recommends using premium fuel in it) isn’t always up to the task of moving the HHR’s bulk. It’s fine once you’re at cruising speed, but it’s a lot of noise and effort to get it there, and should you need more power for passing, you have to punch the throttle – a gentle touch doesn’t give you anything – which results in a noisy and not particularly effective downshift. Whatever you do, don’t pull out in front of anybody.

The heater dials are big, but their indicators are tiny lights, and in daylight it’s very difficult to see where they’re set; at night, the window switches (set very low in the centre console) are illuminated by a small, unshielded bulb in the ceiling, which is annoyingly distracting. The cargo tray is only marginally smaller than the hatch opening, and moving it around can be a fiddly operation. But even putting all that aside, one has to wonder: five years after Chrysler introduced its version, hasn’t everyone who wanted a PT Cruiser already bought one? The HHR will no doubt find a home with some hard-core GM fans, but it’s difficult to say where this little pseudo-SUV is really going to sell.

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