2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. Click image to enlarge
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2008 Chevrolet HHR

North Vancouver, British Columbia – HHR stands for “Heritage High Roof”, but in this case it could stand for “Heritage Hot Rod”.

With its turbocharged 260-hp four-cylinder engine, retro 1949-ish styling, and mini-wagon bodystyle, the 2008 Chevy HHR SS offers a unique combination of raw turbocharged performance, nostalgic American styling cues and surprising practicality. Like the 230-hp Chrysler PT Cruiser GT (which has been discontinued for 2008) the HHR SS is a compact performance hatchback/wagon with pseudo 40s styling based on a modern front-wheel drive unit body platform (in this case the Cobalt).

My test car featured “arrest-me-now” Victory Red paint, shiny chrome 18-inch alloys, low profile Michelin performance all-season tires, front fog lights, front air dam, black mesh grille, side sills and rear valance, blacked-out rear windows, rear roof spoiler, and rear chrome exhaust tip. If the red paint is a bit too flashy for your tastes, the HHR SS can also be had in Black, Light Tarnished Silver Metallic, Mystique Blue Flash Metallic and Sunburst Orange II Metallic.

2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. Click image to enlarge

For 2009, the HHR SS will also be available as a panel van, but unless you intend to paint your company logo on the side of the vehicle, I would recommend buying the full window model because rear visibility is much better when changing lanes and backing up.

The interior of my test car featured stylish black mesh cloth and red leather front sport seats with “SS”-embroidered seatbacks, suede-like “Ultralux” seat inserts, aluminum-look door and console trim, a 225-km/h speedometer, a stubby five-speed manual shifter, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a unique turbo-boost gauge in the driver’s windshield pillar. Alternate interior colours are Ebony and Light Grey.

Though I’m not really into retro vehicles, I have to admit, the HHR SS is a very stylish package, inside and out.

Now that the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT has been discontinued, competitors for the HHR SS might include the 285-hp Dodge Caliber SRT4 and the 263-hp Mazdaspeed3 – but the HHR SS’s nostalgic styling puts this vehicle in a class of its own now.

Standard and optional features

For its $28,240 base price, the 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS is well-equipped, save for a couple of notable safety features: curtain airbags are optional and front side airbags are not available. As these are now standard on many cars costing much less money, it seems odd that they’re not standard in this performance model. STOP THE PRESSES! I’ve just been informed that all 2009 HHR models will have standard curtain airbags (but no side airbags).

2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. Click image to enlarge

There’s a lot of stuff in the HHR SS for under $30,000, starting with its 260-hp 2.0-litre turbocharged, intercooled direct-injection four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, stability and traction control, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, speed-sensitive steering, performance tuned suspension, 225/45-R18 all-season performance tires and 18-inch polished alloy wheels, front fog lights, and stainless steel exhaust tip.

The interior includes air conditioning with a cabin air filtration system, CD/MP3 player, auxiliary input jack and six speakers, OnStar with a one-year subscription, eight-way power driver’s seat, power windows, power door locks, remote entry, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, driver information display with fuel economy readout, fuel range, coolant temperature, oil life, and outside temperature reading; a day/night mirror with built-in compass, 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks, and fold-flat front passenger seat.

My test car had $3,670 worth of options: the Sun & Sound Package which includes power moonroof, six-disc CD changer, 260-watt seven-speaker + subwoofer audio system ($1,960); limited slip differential ($645); head curtain airbags ($595); XM satellite radio w/three months service ($260); performance driver’s seat ($125); and cargo net ($65). With a Freight charge of $1,095 and A/C tax of $100, the as-tested price of my 2008 HHR SS came to $33,105.

2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. Click image to enlarge
Interior impressions

The HHR SS will seat four adult passengers comfortably – there’s generous headroom and legroom front and rear, and the tall roof and big doors make it easy to get in and out of. However, tall drivers will find that the upright windshield and forward roofline tends to block their view forwards – for example, traffic lights can be obscured when waiting at a stop line.

The driver’s seat has power height and lumbar adjusters, and my test car had the optional driver’s performance seat with thicker side and thigh bolsters. This extra body grip is reassuring during aggressive cornering, and I found the front seats comfortable as well.

The standard three-spoke, leather wrapped steering wheel tilts up and down but doesn’t telescope in and out, but I had no problem seeing the instruments. However, the small numbers on the 225 km/h speedometer are difficult to read, as is the small tachometer. And the tiny turbo boost gauge in the left A-pillar is almost impossible to read at a glance. As well, the pressure readings are in kilopascals rather than PSI, which I suspect few people will understand.

Other than its unique two-tone seats and gauges, the interior of the SS also has a smaller diameter steering wheel, power window buttons relocated from the centre console to the doors, SS-specific satin nickel trim accents, and a different manual shifter in a slightly higher position.

I liked the large interior door handles, the covered storage on top of the dash, rear wiper with intermittent setting and washer, auxiliary jack and 12-volt outlet on the centre console, and the two cupholders between the front seats. I also liked the wide footwells with driver’s footrest.

My car had the optional 260-watt, seven-speaker sound system with in-dash six-CD changer and subwoofer in the trunk – a really nice stereo with strong, clear, booming sound – but it’s part of a rather expensive $1,960 option package that includes the power moonroof.

The thing I like the most about the interior of the HHR SS, and all HHRs, is the versatile cargo area. In the first place, the square design of the trunk provides a lot of vertical and horizontal space, and the trunk opening is large. As well, a removeable floor panel can be positioned mid-way in the cargo area to create upper and lower loading surfaces. It can also be flipped over to provide an indented surface with extra tie-downs. Or it can be positioned at a 45-degree angle to prevent loose items from sliding around. There’s also a hidden storage area under the cargo floor and two narrow covered bins just behind the rear seats.

Both rear seatbacks can be folded down flat without removing the head restraints, flush with the trunk surface, and the right front passenger seatback can be folded flat as well. Cargo volume with the rear seats up is 638 litres (25.2 cu. ft.); with the rear seats down it almost triples to 1787 litres (63.1 cu. ft.). The floor loading height is low and there is a removeable carpet for the trunk floor. An optional cargo net is also available. I once rented an HHR while on holidays, and found it very easy to load heavy suitcases into the cargo area because of its low, flat loading floor.

Driving impressions

Performance enhancements to the HHR SS were engineered by GM’s Performance Division (GMPD), which also did the TrailBlazer SS and Cobalt SS Supercharged models. The HHR SS is the first GMPD-engineered model to follow the division’s new mandate that all SS models meet “go, stop and turn” requirements: in other words, they should handle and brake as well as they accelerate.

2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. Click image to enlarge

On the SS, the HHR’s standard front MacPherson strut and rear twist-beam axle suspension is improved with a new “FE5 Sport suspension”. It was tested at Germany’s famous Nürburgring race track where the HHR SS set a new lap record of 8:43.52 minutes for its class, beating the previous record of 8:54.38 held by the Opel Zafira OPC. The FE5 suspension includes special stabilizer bars, spring rates and shock tuning. According to GM, the HHR SS (with manual transmission) offers an impressive lateral grip of 0.86 g when equipped with standard Michelin Pilot Sport MXM4 P225/45R18 all-season performance radials.

While the standard HHR model has a 149-hp 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine or optional 172-hp 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, the HHR SS is powered by a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-litre “Ecotec” four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection that delivers 260 horsepower at 5,300 r.p.m. and 260 lb.-ft. of torque at a low 2,000 r.p.m. with the standard five-speed manual transmission; and 250 horsepower at 5,550 r.p.m. and 223 lb-ft of torque at 1,650 r.p.m. with the optional four-speed automatic transmission.

Direct-injection technology helps the engine produce more power while maintaining reasonable fuel consumption: with the manual transmission, the HHR SS averages 8.5 L/100 km (33 mpg); and with the automatic transmission, 9.1 L/100 km (31 mpg). (Energuide figures) Premium gas is recommended but not required.

In the SS, the five-speed manual shifter is mounted higher and farther forward than in other HHRs because throws between gears are 30 per cent shorter – 94 mm versus non-SS models’ 135 mm – according to GM. The manual shifter features a driver-selectable “no-lift shift” mode where an algorithm in the engine’s controller enables upshifts to be done quickly without lifting the throttle. That helps the HHR SS achieve a 0 to 60 mph time of just 6.3 seconds and a top speed of 240 km/h, according to GM’s tests.

The Driver Information Center located in the gauge cluster allows the driver to engage a “competition” mode designed for track use that adjusts shock firmness, engages the no-lift-shift, and turns off traction control. There is also a launch control function that provides consistent acceleration.

The braking system has been improved too – four-wheel discs with anti-lock replace front disc/rear drum. “StabiliTrak” electronic stability control system is standard, but can be turned off via a button on the dash.

The HHR SS’s electric rack and pinion, variable-assist power steering system is 20 per cent quicker than other HHR models and a smaller steering wheel enhances the sporty steering feel.

2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
2008 Chevrolet HHR SS. Click image to enlarge

The HHR SS is certainly quick but it’s not quite as slick as a Mazdaspeed3. The powerful, torquey 2.0-litre turbocharged engine can cause some torque-steer when accelerating quickly – although I found it manageable – and there is an audible whine from the turbocharger. The shifter has short throws, but the action is stiff when compared to most shifters nowadays – and there were some unusual noises coming from the clutch when changing gears.

My biggest complaint is that the HHR SS’s turning circle of 12 metres (39.4 ft.) is too wide for a small car, forcing the driver stop and back up to execute a typical U-turn.

Still, with its abundance of torque, the HHR SS can be driven around town without having to shift down to a lower gear all the time, and the highway ride is comfortable and quiet. Driver visibility is very good, clutch action is light, and braking is excellent. When not driven aggressively, its four-cylinder engine can provide reasonable fuel economy too.

Add to that its cool looks and practical, cargo-friendly interior, and the HHR SS is really a nice combination package for an enthusiast who needs cargo room.

Verdict

With its combination of performance, practicality and retro styling, the compact 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS is unique in its class now that the PT Cruiser GT has been discontinued. But there are some driveability issues related to its performance enhancements.

Pricing: 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS

Base price: $28,240
Options: $3,670 (Sun & Sound Package: power moonroof, six-disc CD changer, 260-watt seven-speaker + subwoofer audio, $1,960; limited slip differential, $645; head curtain airbags, $595; XM satellite radio w/three months service, $260; performance driver’s seat, $125; cargo net, $65)

A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,095
Price as tested: $33,105
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Chevrolet HHR

    Related articles on Autos
    Test Drives
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  • 2006 Chevrolet HHR, by Peter Bleakney
    Test Drives
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    Competitors
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT4
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Mazdaspeed3

    Manufacturer’s web site
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