2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel. Click image to enlarge


Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Back in the day, a car wasn’t always just a car. If you needed a work vehicle, but didn’t want to move up to a full-size van, you could order a “sedan delivery” – basically, a station wagon with no rear windows. Their light-duty car construction restricted the payload, but their long, flat cargo floors made them easy to load.

Car-based vans and pickups are still found in many markets, such as the Ford Falcon Ute in Australia and the Chevrolet Tornado in Mexico. But in Canada and the U.S., the last sedan delivery was made by Chevrolet in 1960 — until now. The company is back in the game with the all-new 2007 HHR Panel.

Very little has been done to transform the sedan into the panel. The rear windows have been replaced with sheet metal, the rear handles have been removed and replaced with electric releases, and the back seat has been swapped for a flat cargo floor with lidded cubbies; their $35 locks are the only option that isn’t shared with the passenger version.

2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel. Click image to enlarge

There are a couple of places where the people-hauling features don’t translate perfectly into a work vehicle, but they’re forgivable: this is a very intelligent way to build a new vehicle inexpensively. Sure, items like sliding or rear-hinged doors and independently-opening liftgate glass would be nice, but they would swell the HHR Panel’s price beyond what most companies will want to pay.

Instead, the HHR Panel starts at $19,480 for the LS model, with 2.2-litre four-cylinder, and $22,120 for the LT with 2.4-litre inline four – a base price that is a scant $260 over the LS sedan. Those prices include air conditioning, power windows, power locks with keyless entry, CD stereo and moulded-in running boards. The base models give you a five-speed stick shift; my tester was optioned with a $1,260 four-speed automatic, which I would imagine most businesses would purchase, and perhaps my tester’s $600 anti-lock brakes, which are optional on all HHR models. I doubt most shops would kick in for my tester’s other options, though, including $595 for curtain airbags (which, because they’re straight from the sedan, cover front and rear), $325 for an upgraded stereo, and a jaw-dropping $1,115 for OnStar with a year’s Safe & Sound package.

Paul Burk delivers parts to a customer
A load of parts for delivery
Paul Burk delivers parts to a customer (top); and a load of parts for delivery. Click image to enlarge

So I had me a work truck, and for the occasion, I went out and actually did some work. My friend Paul Burk delivers auto parts for RPG Supply Inc. in Whitby, Ontario, and he agreed to let me chauffeur him around on his day’s route. (Really, it wasn’t a hard sell, but don’t tell his bosses that.) I haven’t driven daily for a living since my taxi-driving days back in the 1980s, and I’d forgotten just how tiring it can be; never let it be said that delivery guys have it easy, just sitting on their duffs in traffic.

RPG Supply specializes in quick service, and it sends out parts as soon as the orders come in; as a result, the HHR was often overkill for the small loads we carried. But it’s extremely useful for many types of businesses: the high roofline lets you pack a lot in, the back doors and liftgate let you load it from three sides, and the windowless panels keep sunlight off the fragile items transported by florists and bakeries; they’re also better than glass for keeping out prying eyes. That flat expanse is also a huge blank canvas for a company name and logo. The 900 lb (408 kg) payload is small potatoes compared to bigger trucks, but the vehicle’s small footprint is perfect for city deliveries.

2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel. Click image to enlarge

While there were a few things I didn’t like about the HHR as a sedan, I found them easily forgivable in the panel. The vehicle is underpowered – my tester used the 2.2-litre – and it gets wheezy going up hills, but it’s fine for the daily grind of urban deliveries. I also faulted the sedan’s removable rear tray, which forms part of the floor when it’s in its lowest position, but can be taken out and reinserted halfway up against the seatbacks for two-tiered cargo-carrying. It’s not much smaller than the hatch opening and so it’s not easy to manoeuvre, but in the panel it’s a moot point: with no back seat to prevent cargo from sliding forward, the tray would just sit in midair, and so it’s doubtful anyone will ever take it off the floor. I also found the steering wheel too big – it’s like driving a bus – but others didn’t seem to mind it.

Removing the rear door handles was necessary to give the HHR its closed-van appearance – a couple of onlookers didn’t even realize it was a four-door until I opened them – and so they must be opened from the inside, using either dash-mounted electric switches that pop them open a few inches, or the inner door handles. The switches work well, but the doors need a secondary safety latch, similar to those used on hoods; pop the door on a windy day, and a good gust could catch and throw it open.

Along with secondary latches, the HHR needs just a couple of other things to turn it into the perfect delivery vehicle. You get used to the blind spots quickly, but the mirrors are too small, and it would benefit from a pair of combination flat and convex truck mirrors.

2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel. Click image to enlarge

(For now, a set of clip-on convex mirrors from the local parts store will be a great help.) And in place of the dainty reading lamps on the underside of the mirror, it needs a big map light in the ceiling for handling paperwork in the wee hours. A rubber floor in place of the cockpit’s carpeting would also add to the functionality, but again, using the sedan’s stock flooring keeps the price down.

For the most part, my day’s work with the HHR was positive; most of the mechanics at the shops we visited were very intrigued with it, especially at one where the fellows stopped working on a race-car to come out and mull over the idea of slipping a V8 and rear-wheel drive chassis under the little hauler. I expect the Panel to be the darling at this year’s SEMA aftermarket show in Las Vegas in October once the customizers get their hands on it. Chrysler hinted that it would also turn the PT Cruiser into a panel truck, and there were a few one-off custom versions built, but it never made it into production. Those PTs were also two-doors, which look better than the HHR’s four doors, but in the real world, the HHR’s configuration is more practical for loading.

2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel
2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel. Click image to enlarge

The cargo floor has a low liftover, and measures 148 cm in length; the plastic-backed passenger seat can be folded flat, opening it up to 250 cm. There are eight tie-downs, along with the two latches that would normally hold the rear seats, for a total of ten points for securing cargos. The high roofline accommodates both cargo and drivers; Paul, at six-foot-three, said he was very comfortable in both seats. We covered a little over 450 km for our day’s work, at an average of 9.1 L/100 km, on regular-grade fuel.

A GM representative says the company expects the HHR Panel to be a low-volume seller, but I can see these flying off the shelf once businesses start noticing them. It’s not going to replace heavier-duty pickups and vans, or the small, zippy cars used by couriers and small-item companies – my day’s employer has a couple of Pontiac Waves that are perfect for the job – but there’s a mid-range that, up until now, hasn’t had a vehicle to call its own. This is the HHR’s niche, and it’s going to fill it very well.


Pricing: 2007 Chevrolet HHR Panel

  • Base price: $19,480
  • Options: $ 4,210 (Four-speed automatic transmission, $1,260; OnStar, $1,115; ABS with traction assist, $600; head curtain airbags front and rear, $595; upgraded CD/MP3 stereo, $325; roof side rails, $280; storage compartment locks, $35)
  • Freight: $1,095
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Price as tested: $24,885 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives


Specifications

  • Click here for complete specifications


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