By Richard Russell
Photos by Grant Yoxon
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Toronto, Ontario — Sport utility vehicles have been the hot ticket over the past decade. Every major manufacturer has jumped on the bandwagon, none more so than General Motors. But with rising gas prices and the “I don’t want what everyone else is driving” syndrome, the bloom may be off the rose. As vehicle manufacturers attempt to define and fill even imaginary segments, the next wave looks to be ‘crossover’ vehicles.
In the midst of this madness, it’s easy to forget that the SUV is not new at all. Vehicles similar to today’s SUVs date back more than a half century. In the case of General Motors, back to at least 1949 and the Chevy Suburban. How fitting then, that the marketing and design minds at GM are looking to the company’s past for ideas. The newest Chevrolet utility vehicle, the HHR, fuses numerous styling elements of that 1949 model with plenty of modern touches.
The HHR jumps into a segment begun by the PT Cruiser and since populated with the likes of the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix.
Unlike the hulking gas-guzzlers that get all the attention, these smallest of SUVs, or ‘crossovers’ as they are sometimes called, are powered by fuel-sipping four-cylinder engines and offer a surprising degree of utility.
After several hundred kilometres behind the wheel of an HHR, I can report that this is a seriously capable and well-developed little car, truck, SUV, crossover — whatever!
Built on the same global Delta platform found beneath the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac Pursuit and Saturn Ion, the HHR is a modern, solid piece of work. A front-driver, it comes in two trim levels: LS or LT, with a pair of four cylinder engines and manual or automatic transmissions. When it arrives in Chevy stores in August, prices will range from $19,000 to about $29,000 with all the bells and whistles.
Even the base model is equipped with enough features to make it attractive. At $18,995 it includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise, remote keyless entry and a six-speaker CD audio system with provision for input from iPOD and other MP3 players.
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The standard engine is a 2.2 litre four cylinder producing 143 horsepower coupled to a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox. You can opt for a four-speed automatic as well. At $21,195 the LT version substitutes a new 2.4 litre version of the same engine which develops a more robust 172 horsepower. The LT also adds a six-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar adjustment, cast aluminum wheels and satin nickel trim. It also comes with a five-speed manual and optional four speed auto.
Options include everything from a 260-watt Pioneer audio system with sub-woofer to OnStar, ABS, side curtain airbags, sunroof, heated leather seats and 17-inch forged aluminum wheels mated to a special sport suspension. GM’s marketing department will offer a special package at launch which puts much of the good stuff on the base model without making too big a hit on the bottom line. For $2,200 you get ABS, the Pioneer audio system, the 17-inch alloys with sport suspension, fog lights and some chrome and leather trim.
‘HHR’ stands for Heritage High Roof and the design, while retro in some respects, breaks new ground in others. The HHR is an amazing amalgam of style and space with a very roomy passenger compartment augmented by a cargo area that can become positively cavernous when the seats are folded and people-space is traded for package-space. The tall roof is the principal contributor to that amazing space making it easy to not only accommodate tall or bulky items but also make entry truly easy — simply step in, not up or down, but in. The back seat comfortably handles full-size folks with plenty of head room and ample shoulder room for two, or three in a pinch.
The front passenger seat folds flat as do both sides of the rear seat making it possible to carry eight-foot long objects with the lift gate closed. The cargo compartment is adaptable to a variety of configurations. The floor is flat with or without the second row seats folded down. The load floor itself can be raised and used as a shelf. There is a 10 cm deep recessed area below the cargo floor and a pair of cargo bins behind the rear seat. Grocery bag holders and a carpeted cargo mat are standard. There is also a compartment atop the instrument panel with a flip up lid putting small items within easy reach of the driver but hidden from prying eyes.
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Equipped with the base engine, the HHR acquits itself reasonably well on the road, but the 2.4 litre is the way to go, especially if paired with the five-speed Getrag and sport suspension. In this guise the HHR tackles the turns with a lot more alacrity than expected from something that looks like this. Visibility is excellent in all directions, although the A-pillar is rather beefy.
The HHR is an interesting combination of retro and modern — looks and utility. Affordability is the icing on the cake.