Pros: Smoother and quieter ride, more refined engine, more macho styling, driving position
Cons: Not as cute, no performance engine option, numb steering, more lean in turns
My wife isn't much of a car person, but the especially cute ones nevertheless capture her attention. She wanted VW New Beetle when they first came out, but she also wanted to start a family. So functionality, or a lack of the same, nixed the VW.
Chrysler's PT Cruiser, in contrast, managed to combine a cute exterior with a functional interior. So that's what she's been driving.
General Motors reacted to the success of the PT Cruiser by hiring the guy who designed it, Bryan Nesbitt, and putting him in charge of designing new Chevrolets. One result: the new-for-2006 HHR. Chevrolet claims that the HHR's styling recalls that of the original Suburban. Maybe so, but my first reaction was that GM had simply done a "me-too" of the PT. And with a unique product like the PT, why would anyone want someone else's copy?
When the HHR arrived at dealers recently I began to rethink my position. Sure, I give many points to Chrysler for having the guts to test the waters, and for doing a retro wagon first. But the PT has its faults. What if the HHR was significantly better in many ways? Might it then be worth buying over the PT? Maybe it would be my wife's next car after all? I took a fully loaded LT for a test drive to find out.
Chevrolet stresses that the HHR, with its squarer hood, roof, and fenders, is considerably more macho-looking than the PT Cruiser. Since macho is pretty much the opposite of cute, this might explain why my wife doesn't seem to care for it. While the guy in me finds the HHR's looks more appealing, even to my eye it isn't as pretty.
Even if PT Cruiser owners like the HHR's sheetmetal, they'll probably be disappointed by the interior. It seems a bit higher in quality than the interior of the PT, with notably tight and precise panel fits, but also very bland. The body-color bits that inject a good deal of personality into the PT's interior are absent in the HHR. The styling is also considerably less distinctive, with far fewer retro touches.
The HHR looks larger than the PT Cruiser, and looks are not deceiving. Compared to the Chrysler, the HHR is eight inches longer and two inches wider. As a result, I expected it to be much roomier inside. Nope--about the same. The PT Cruiser even has an advantage in some specs, but this advantage is slight. Bottom line: both are roomy and comfortable (even in back) for compacts, but the PT Cruiser is more truly a compact in terms of exterior dimensions.
I prefer the driving position in the HHR. The PT's abnormally high driving position has led me to wonder why anyone would use the seat's power height adjustment. In it I feel uncomfortably high above the hood and instrument panel. This position further lends the PT a slightly tippy feel. The Chevrolet's instrument panel is higher relative to the seat, lending it a more normal feel from behind the wheel. The HHR's driving position is also more customizable, as it has a six-way power driver's seat. The PT Cruiser's seat power adjusts only for height.
Like the PT Cruiser, the HHR has a rigid package shelf, but this shelf can only be placed on the floor (leaving a storage compartment beneath it) or at seatback height. The shelf in the PT is more adjustable. Also like the PT, all passenger seats fold, even the one in front. Very useful for carrying long items.
On the Road
The HHR is available with two engines, a 144-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder and a 172-horsepower 2.4. I drove the latter paired with an automatic. The PT's base engine, a 150-horsepower 2.4, provides roughly equivalent acceleration, so the HHR cannot hope to compete with the PT's optional turbocharged engines. Instead, the major advantage of the 2.4 in the HHR is that it is much smoother and quieter than the Chrysler lump. Most people will need to work this engine hard to yield acceptable performance, so this refinement could be critical.
The HHR's suspension tuning is biased towards ride quality more than the PT's. In turns the Chevrolet leans more, and its relatively numb steering feels less precise, especially on-center. On the other hand, the HHR rides much more smoothly and quietly over patchy pavement. This is the PT's most significant weakness in my experience, as its busy ride (the rear suspension likes to dance over minor bumps and divots) often annoys me.
Chevrolet HHR Price Comparisons and Pricing
The HHR is priced a few hundred dollars lower than the PT, but incentives on the latter currently give the 2005 PT a sizable advantage.
The fully loaded HHR I drove had a few features I would personally not pay for, including OnStar. Without these it would list for a very reasonable $21,500.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate price comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the HHR:
Like the PT Cruiser, the HHR offers a very practical interior and uniquely retro styling (with the obvious exception of the PT) at a reasonable price. The HHR probably won't appeal to PT Cruiser fans, as it isn't as stylish, especially not inside, and doesn't handle with as much agility. On the other hand, the Chevrolet rides much more smoothly and quietly. So for those who like the PT Cruiser, but find its ride unacceptable, the HHR will be a welcome alternative. Time will tell how many such people there are.
A Note on Chevrolet HHR Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy an HHR rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Chevrolet HHR reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the HHR--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Chrysler PT Cruiser review
Dodge Caliber review
Pontiac Vibe review