Last one out, please turn off the lights!
Chrysler retired the PT Cruiser last year after a ten-year run, the first half of that a very successful run. But by 2008 or even 2007, the PT was obviously getting old – and not just looks-wise, either. Underneath, it was all Neon. Remember the Neon? It goes all the way back to the mid-1990s and Mizz Lewinsky. Chrysler retired the Neon in 2000 but kept its platform around for much longer, hiding it under the retro-’40s looking body of the PT Cruiser. By 2010, though, nothing could hide the PT’s vintage mechanicals and people were just tired of it anyhow, so it was quietly dropped from the roster.
Chevy’s HHR – based on the same concept and designed by the same guy – is still around, though probably not for very much longer. While it’s a newer design than the PT (first year was 2006) it is still also getting to be an oldster – five years since launch, with no major updates and still riding on the same Chevy Cobalt-based chassis, too. Like the Neon, the Cobalt sleeps with the fishes, having been replaced by the more up-to-date Chevy Cruze.
How much longer can the Cobalt-based HHR avoid the needle?
And should you even think about buying a “new” HHR?
WHAT IT IS
Like the Dodge Neon-based PT Cruiser, the HHR (Heritage High Roof) is a five-door hatchback “retro-runabout” built on a modified small car chassis; in this case, the donor platform is GM’s “Delta” architecture and the bits and pieces are shared with the Chevy Cobalt.
All versions are front-wheel-drive and powered by four cylinder engines.
Base price is $18,720 for the LS; the work-minded Panel LS (which has no side or rear windows) has an MSRP of $19,030.
The top-of-the-line LT has a sticker price of $19,720.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
Very little, except what’s been dropped. The high-performance SS version of the HHR – which came with a 260 hp turbocharged engine from the Cobalt SS – is no longer available.
It’s cheap. Top-of-the-line model is priced under $20k and given declining market interest in an obviously aging design, it’s a good bet you can pick one up for thousands less than sticker.
It’s versatile and roomy for a compact-sized car.
It’s decent on gas
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
It’s cheap. The latest generation of small cars are so good they make older units like the HHR look and feel like what they are – yesterday’s news.
It’s going to lose value like a suburban McMansion in Vegas. The current retail value of last year’s HHR (only a few months old, really) has already plummeted to just under $13k on average.
It’s slow – and not so great on gas. The bar for high-mileage is now 35 MPG or more, not the HHR’s max-effort 32 highway.
It’s as dated-looking as Seinfeld talking on a brick phone.
UNDER THE HOOD
Two choices here. The standard engine is a 2.2 liter four cylinder that produces 155 hp. In the higher-trim LT you can upgrade to a larger 2.4 liter engine that makes an almost-adequate 172 hp.
I say “almost adequate” because when you order this engine, your HHR is capable of reaching 60 MPH in about 8.4 seconds – which is borderline slow by current standards. Equipped with the standard 2.2 liter engine, the HHR is slow. In an all-out 0-60 run against a Prius, it’s a dead heat. Both need about 10-11 seconds to get there.
The formerly available SS was much quicker – zero to 60 in about 6.5 seconds – but it’s off the menu.
Fuel economy is ok – 22 city, 32 highway (with the 2.2 engine and manual transmission).
All versions of the HHR are front-wheel-drive.
ON THE ROAD
Well, it’s slow.
With two people on board the HHR (with the 2.2 liter engine) is a gimp. With three or four people in there – and the curb weight now close to 4,000 pounds – the HHR is a gimp with both legs broken that will revive memories of driving Old Beetles and ’80s-era Cavaliers. The 2.4 liter engine brings the experience up to just under par. And that’s about as good as it gets.
Both engines are available with either a five-speed manual transmission or (optionally) a four-speed automatic. The latter is an example of the HHR’s hoariness. Most 2011 model year cars come with or offer at least a five-speed automatic; many have six speeds. The four-speed automatic is Reagan-era technology and it shows. Shifts are too widely spaced and the engine’s already marginal power (in a vehicle that weighs close to 3,200 lbs. empty) is called even further attention to during full-throttle acceleration runs.
Unless you’re running solo most of the time, buying the LT and with it, the bigger – and almost adequate – 2.4 liter engine is a must-do. The standard 2.2 liter engine is too small and too underpowered. It might have been ok back in 2006 when other economy-type cars were similarly slow, but in 2011, with some four cylinder engines producing 200-plus hp (and still delivering 30-plus MPGs) the HHR’s 155 hp seems awfully sad.
Another sign of the times – or that time has passed the HHR by – is the standard disc/drum brake system. Drum brakes are the stopping equivalent of Betamax. They work, just not especially well. And no one really wants ’em anymore. Most 2011 cars come with four-wheel-dic brakes, which give better stopping performance and which are (usually) also easier to maintain (although also more expensive to maintain).
There is some good news.
Unlike the now-retired PT the HHR’s basic chassis is not ancient – just middle-aged. You get at least some up-to-date small car technology – including features like an electric-assist power steering system that’s both precise and energy efficient (less wasted mechanical energy to drive a power steering pump means better fuel economy). The overall ride quality is much better than the old PT’s, too; it feels tighter and better-built – because it is.
Unfortunately for Chevy, these flattering comparisons are being made vis-a-vis a competitor that’s already left the field. If you drive the HHR against the latest crop of compact runabouts in the same general price range like the Nissan Juke or Kia Soul the HHR’s architectural arthritis will be all-too-obvious.
Plus, you’re gonna be an instant member of the Metamucil Club – because if you look around you’ll see the typical HHR owner is someone who is 50-plus or even older.
AT THE CURB
The retro ’40s look is getting long in the tooth. Cool in 2000 or even 2005, it’s about as hip in 2011 as cassette tapes were in back in ’95. Also the interior is both bland and Motel 6 looking. It’s perfectly functional, with no ergonomic egregiousness or anything like that. It just looks and feel cheap. Basic. Rental car.
But there is the size issue in the HHR’s favor.
Not only is it a bigger car than the old PT, it is much more usable/versatile than the new small runabouts just mentioned.
The HRR is about 7 inches longer, two inches wider and two inches taller than the PT Cruiser – so it looks like a larger, more substantial vehicle. And it is. Total cargo capacity is 63 cubic feet; 23 if you keep the second-row seats up. There’s also a cubbyhole built into the cargo area floor that you can use to keep things like cameras and other valuable out of sight.
Like the PT, the HHR’s design layout – especially the “high roof” part of Heritage High Roof – lends itself to carrying home large, oversized (and unusually shaped) items that probably wouldn’t fit in a small sedan. It’s great for swap meets, Home Depot runs, road trips – whatever – and can do many of the things you’d be able to do with a standard minivan, but it’s easier to park and maneuver in close quarters.
The Panel version of the HHR is marketed at small business owners and contractors who need a small delivery vehicle that costs less to operate than a traditional van. It has just two seats and more cargo compartments plus a 40 amp power point in the rear to run accessories.
All versions are pretty decently equipped and come standard with all the basic “givens” people now expect in even a low-priced vehicle, such as air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control and a better-than-you-might-expect six-speaker stereo with CD/MP3 and Sirius-XM satellite radio.
Step up to the LT if you want a power driver’s seat and body-colored mirrors. You’ll also need to buy the LT if you want the 2.4 liter engine. Other LT options include a firmer-riding “sport” suspension with 17 inch alloy wheels, heated leather seats, back-up camera, remote ignition and a premium Pioneer audio system with integrated Bluetooth wireless.
A weak warranty comes with the deal: Three years/36,000 miles. The drivetrain coverage is better at five years, 100,000 miles and you also get a five year, 100,000 mile roadside assistance deal.
Here’s the thing. The HHR’s not a bad car; it’s just a nothing-special-anymore car whose time has come – and probably gone. Buying a two or three-year-old used HHR may make more sense than buying a new HHR since they’re both pretty much the same and the two or three-year-old version will have depreciated to about half the advertised cost of a new HHR.
What’s to gain by purchasing the new HHR other than you’re the first one to fart in the seat?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Given its age and its competition, acquiring a new HHR probably makes sense only if you can swing a really sweet deal on one.
We have a 2006 (one of those REALLY sweet deal things) and honestly at 13 years 100K+ it’s been a pretty good car despite all the times that I’ve cussed it. 30 mpg was a big step up from a 15mpg Suburban. Since mostly it gets used for basically what you said: 130 mile round trips to town to stock up on groceries and animal food. The absolutely flat floor with the rear seats folded down is a must-have for us, and the seats are folded 99% of the time.
It’s somewhat tolerable but economical for long trips, made better by replacing the 50R17 wheels/tires with 65R15 steel wheels from a junkyard, which also makes it better for mud/snow but basically it sits parked 3-5 months in the winter and spring. I don’t get the hate on the rear drum brakes. The rear brakes don’t do that much anyway and the original shoes are still about 50%. The solid rear axle and coil spring/trailing arms are good for hauling a load.
The only big repairs have been a fuel pump and the in-line tie rod joints on the rack. A VVT solenoid failed but it was $50 and I changed it myself in about 30 minutes after I did the research online. Other than that we’ve had no mechanical trouble with it. The inside door handle snapped off which is a potentially dangerous cheap crap failure.
We considered trading it off a few years ago, but now I plan to just drive it into the ground and see how long it lasts. I have no idea what could replace it because I really don’t want an AWD crossover with IRS.
PS: I did replace the front struts and rear shocks myself. It was a very simple job.
And of course front pads and rotors. That’s not a whole lot harder than just changing a tire.
A friend of mine rented a PT Cruiser when we arrived for a ski vacation in Denver. I groaned when I saw it. He called it the party time cruiser. It literally felt like it was held together by glue. It could barely make it up the mountain roads at full throttle and people were honking and giving us the bird as they passed us. It felt like the guys in the dumb and dumber movie. Not to be dramatic but I was a bit scared in the thing.
Just ride bikes instead; it won’t be much less annoying but at least you’ll have the moral high ground!