Review: 2008 Chevy HHR SS

2008 Chevy HHR SS – Click above for high-res image gallery

Our first experience with the Chevy HHR was back in 2006 when we rented one in Los Angeles while covering the 2006 L.A. Auto Show. Being a fleet vehicle, our HHR rental failed to impress with its raspy, underpowered Ecotec four-cylinder and cheap interior materials. The HHR does, however, have a way about itself. Its retro-inspired design is just plain good looking, better than the PT Cruiser to which this vehicle is most often compared (they were both designed by Brian Nesibtt, GM's current Executive Director of its European design center), and its outward attractiveness shows even on bare bones rental units like the one we abused in L.A.

The 2008 Chevy HHR SS would seem to be the HHR we always wanted, with more power, an upgraded interior, aggressive tweaks to the exterior and the same two-box shape and clever cargo solutions that make the base model popular. But with the market for new car sales in the U.S. as soft as it is, should Chevy be spending its time making a high-horsepower, better handling SS version of a vehicle like the HHR? Read on to find out if their effort was worth it.

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All photos Copyright ©2008 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

The HHR's retro design is probably not for everyone, but it's a hit with us. It applies specific cues from the 1949 Chevy Suburban to a smaller, tidier package and adds just enough modernity to avoid being a caricature of the past. The General Motors Performance Division (GMPD) didn't just slap a spoiler and some big wheels on a base model to make the HHR SS, but gave the high-performance model a completely new front fascia with a split grille, big lower air intake framing the turbocharged engine's intercooler and a subtle chin spoiler.

Part of what makes the HHR's retro design so nostalgic are its chunky fenders that used to be all the rage some 60 years ago, and here they look right at home shrouding a set of large 18-inch aluminum wheels wearing Michelin all-seasons. There's also a spoiler perched atop the rear hatch and a new rear apron through which a single, larger exhaust tip exits. Finally, there are special "SS Turbocharged" badges heralding the vehicle's motive force on each front door and the rear liftgate.

Our HRR SS tester was coated in a rich shade of Blue Flash Metallic paint, and thanks to body-colored mirrors, side sills and super chunky pillars, there's a lot of surface area to show off the color. While those wide pillars may look fun from the outside, but they also create some big blind spots from the driver's seat. Staring through the short and rather upright windshield can also be frustrating as traffic lights disappear from view long before you reach the white line. This is the price one pays for a cool design.

The interior of the HHR SS is made from the same hard, textured plastic as our rental vehicle was two years ago, but Chevy has added a few extra touches of differentiation. The most obvious is the turbo boost gauge mounted on the A-pillar. Some might think it's cool, but we found it looked aftermarket and was superfluous. The seats are also performance spec with wide cushions and deep bolsters that are both extremely comfortable and grippy. The upholstery is a combination of black woven nylon and gray "suede" Ultralux inserts that make the new thrones look like the most expensive items inside the vehicle.

The rest inside is standard GM parts bin components that are shared with a number of the automaker's other vehicles. While the HVAC controls and stereo are easy to use, we're getting tired of seeing them in almost every Chevy, Saturn, Pontiac, Buick and GMC vehicle we test. The instrument panel, meanwhile, feels like one continuous piece of thin, hard plastic, and the door panels flex in and out from the pressure of your leg pressing against them.

The leather-covered steering wheel with redundant controls for the upgraded stereo (iPod jack included, thank you) and cruise control is swollen in the right places, though could be a bit smaller. There's also some "chrome" trim on the gauge dials, door handles, vents and floor shifter that add a sparkle from the sun to break up the acreage of black.

Rear-seat occupants are treated to the same visual and tactile aesthetic as front-seat passengers and take their places on a 60-40 split folding bench seat. Head and legroom are adequate regardless of where you sit, unless you're the fifth person who's stuck riding center in the second row. There's no third row of seats in the HHR, which is fine. We wouldn't trade this vehicle's excellent ability to swallow stuff for a couple of extra cramped seats.

The second row of seats folds completely flat in the HHR and are also backed with plastic flooring. When down, you've got a cavernous cargo hold with a completely flat and level floor that's finished in durable plastic instead of stainable carpet. There are two smaller storage nooks with closeable lids built into the floor and a larger one at the rear hatch. Configurable in a number of ways with nets, straps and different shelving configurations, the cargo carrying and organizing ability of the HHR are some of its best selling points.

It's finally time to turn the darn thing on, and anyone who's twisted the key of a Pontiac Solstice GXP, Saturn Sky Redline or Chevy Cobalt SS Turbo will instantly recognize the sound of GM's 2.0L turbocharged, direct-inject Ecotec four-cylinder. A jewel of the General's engine lineup, this little mill puts out a stout 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque... when paired with the available five-speed Getrag manual transmission in the HHR SS. As you can see, our tester was equipped with GM's 4T45 four-speed automatic, with which the 2.0L turbo is dialed back to 235 hp for what we presume is a good reason other than giving us a giant buzz kill.

Even being 25 horsepower down, this HHR SS can still haul aSS. Even though it's a cliché, the HHR SS really does feel like its powered by a V6 rather than a tiny 2.0L four-cylinder. Since the slushbox has only four forward gears, however, it relies too much on the engine's strength to makes its tall gears feel short. We can only imagine what the five-speed manual feels like when you engage it in the motor's sweet spot, as the automatic gives you just a taste. Since there's no manual shift option or paddle shifters, you're completely at the mercy of the four-speed automatic, which, like most GM gearboxes lately, seems more interested in short shifting for fuel economy than maximizing the engine's output.

The upside to a stingy automatic is impressive fuel economy, with the HHR SS scoring an EPA estimate of 19 city and 28 highway mpg. We drove the HHR SS all over creation during its week with us, and because much of that was long-distance driving on the freeway, the trip computer reported that we averaged an incredible 27 mpg. We would've stayed ecstatic after our first refueling, but a sticker on the fuel filler door reminded us that only premium fuel gets poured down this engine's gullet.

We honestly weren't thinking of gas prices while driving the HHR SS, though. That's because our mouths were left agape at how this vehicle handles. GM has become increasingly good at suspension tuning, somehow finding that perfect balance between sporty handling and a comfortable ride that exists around 7/10ths of a vehicle's full potential. That's about the limit of safe performance driving on public roads, and the HHR SS handles like a sports car up to that point before giving way to the understeer, torque steer and body roll you would expect. The top 3/10ths of the performance scale have been sacrificed, however, for a ride that's eminently livable on a day-to-day basis and downright comfy on long drives.

If you can believe it, the HHR SS's FE5 sport suspension was actually tuned on the famed Nurburgring in Germany where it posted a record lap time for its class of 8:43.52. While the vehicle's basic suspension components were never meant to tackle the Green Hell, performance-spec components like a 23mm stabilizer bar up front and 24mm bar in the rear, gas-charged twin-tube struts and unique electric power steering system prove that this is no SS wannabe.

We still haven't answered our original question: Should GM have bothered making an HHR SS? Retail and rental customers alike would've appreciated some extra monies applied to the tall wagon's interior, and wouldn't an HHR Hybrid (even a mild hybrid) make a lot of sense right now? Perhaps, but the HHR SS is anomaly the likes of which we'll encounter less and less of going forward. Stiffer CAFÉ and emissions standards will squeeze out development dollars for high-performance models, especially oddball ones like the HHR SS.

The 2008 Chevy HHR SS has a base price of $24,560 $22,375 (sorry, misread the sticker), while our tester was loaded up to $24,560 (not including destination charges) with options like the four-speed automatic transmission ($1,000), side airbags all around ($395), an upgraded stereo system ($295), the Blue Flash Metallic paint job ($295) and XM Satellite Radio ($200). Its pool of potential buyers will be limited to those cross shopping vehicles like the Dodge Caliber SRT4 and MazdaSpeed3. The market for these vehicles isn't large and probably won't grow in the near term, but we don't think Chevy wasted its time developing the HHR SS. Aside from some a sub-par interior, it offers high performance and a level of practicality that aren't often found in the same vehicle at the same time. The HHR SS is much more than its rental fleet relatives would have you think, and for that it deserves a place in the lineup.

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All photos Copyright ©2008 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

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