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CAR OF THE YEAR: Slick retro styling, affordability make Chevrolet's HHR a hit

December 22, 2005



The HHR is flying off lots with no cash incentives. GM sold 32,290 units in four months.

2006 Chevrolet HHR

  • Front-wheel-drive, five-seat compact wagon

    Base price: $15,425 (excluding destination charge)

    EPA fuel economy: 23 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway (either engine with automatic transmission)

    Drivetrain: Standard 2.2-liter, 143-horsepower, DOHC, four-cylinder and five-speed manual transmission. Optional 2.4-liter DOHC 172-horsepower four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission.

    Assembled in: Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.
The runners-up

  • First: The 2006 Dodge Charger was first runner-up for Free Press Car of the Year. It's a great-looking car that's a good value and a blast to drive.

    DaimlerChrysler has proven it can build three totally different but equally appealing cars -- the Charger, Magnum and Chrysler 300 -- from a single set of components.

    The Charger also proves that, given the choice, American buyers will always choose power and style over bland, utilitarian vehicles.
  • Second: The 2006 Pontiac Solstice roadster is second runner-up for Free Press Car of the Year. The delightful little Solstice is a sporty, pretty and affordable car that could be the first step in making Pontiac GM's excitement brand again.

    It might have scored higher if it'd been on the market long enough for me to see if it will succeed at resuscitating Pontiac.
It's not often that Americans get excited about a small car, but the Chevrolet HHR did the trick this year.

With its retro styling, modern conveniences and attractive price, the HHR joins a select fraternity that includes the Volkswagen Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Like those hot cars before it, the HHR is flying off dealer lots with no cash incentives. GM increased production almost as soon as the HHR debuted. It sold 32,290 of them in four months, and buyers have had to wait weeks to take delivery of their cars.

It's even more noteworthy because it's the first affordable compact -- prices start at $15,425 excluding destination charges, and you can get a well-equipped HHR for around $22,000 -- from General Motors Corp. that feels like the automaker took it as seriously as it does traditional moneymakers like big pickups, SUVs and Cadillacs.

The HHR teems with thoughtful and useful features that range from an iPod-ready stereo to a useful storage bin in its dashboard and a split-level cargo space with a lid that doubles as a shelf and two small bins to hold small gear.

None of these ideas is revolutionary, but they are the things automakers that understand small cars offer.

They produce the little shivers of pleasure that distinguish good small cars from what Detroit wrong-headedly dismissed for decades as econo-boxes.

The HHR is economical, with EPA fuel economy ratings of 22 m.p.g. in the city and 27 m.p.g. on the highway, in addition to its low price.

Equipped with an optional 172-horsepower engine, the HHR I tested is one of the exceedingly rare cars that actually exceeded the EPA estimates in a week of my own driving.

The HHR's affordability and safety features -- you can add antilock brakes and curtain air bags for $795 over sticker -- have also made it popular with many parents seeking a safe and affordable first car for their kids. Its roomy and useful interior makes it equally popular with those kids, who can haul four friends and a dorm-room full of stuff in reasonable comfort.

In addition, the HHR's wide-opening doors and easy-entry seats make it appealing for people with limited mobility. Unlike previous compact Chevrolets, however, there's nothing cheap about the little five-seat wagon.

Like the best small cars -- think Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf -- the HHR has rapidly distinguished itself as an inexpensive car that some buyers who could afford to pay more choose because it's the car they want.

Some of the credit for that goes to the HHR's roomy interior and handy features, but the eyes have it.

Some critics dismissed the HHR as a belated rip-off of the PT Cruiser, but it's much more than that. The two cars both borrow from the past, but they draw on different traditions. There's plenty of room in the market for several different interpretations of retro styling, as long as they meld traditional looks with contemporary features.

The HHR's distinctive styling and attractive colors get your attention; its value and practicality close the deal.

I called the HHR the biggest disappointment of the 2005 North American International Auto Show, because I expected its price to start thousands of dollars higher, and I didn't think Chevrolet would ever invest the time and thought necessary to make a really good compact car.

I've never been happier to be wrong.

Every time I've tested an HHR I've found new things to like about it, and it should provide its owners with the same flow of pleasant surprises.

Contact MARK PHELAN at 313-222-6731 or [email protected]

727 Posts
I saw an HHR on the road the other day and I really liked what I saw. Yeah its very PT Cruiser-esk, but at the same time its soo much better. Better lines, better size etc...

612 Posts
i was with one of my friends, and she asked when did PT cruisers get uglier. i corrected her, but she is right. those are ugly imo. maybe thats why the ppl i see drivin them are middleaged women

339 Posts
At the Hot Rod Power Tour they had 1 and the comments I heard most when around it was, "why does GM have a PT Cruiser in their area?"

I think they could have distinguished it a bit more. For the average person I doubt anyone could tell the difference if you removed the badges.

Premium Member
10,230 Posts
All i can say is we lost an icon (F-Body) and we got that in return ? I can think of a couple words i would use for the HHR and none are suitable for a Younger audience , what the hell are they thinkin ? i cant even see a LS2 M6 combo making that thing cool .. do me a favor chris when ya head up to the unveiling of the New Camaro .. slap some sense into GM , whats next return of the chevette ? Atleast Mopar has there ducks in a row when it comes to new Retro designs.. im still slobbering on those challenger pics !

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