The Chevrolet HHR LT – An American in Zurich

By Alex Ricciuti

08.01.2008

The first thing you inevitably ask about the Chevrolet HHR is: What does the HHR stand for? Well, it stands for Heritage High-Roof. What is that supposed to mean? I’m not sure because it doesn’t really have such a high roof. But the heritage part is easy to explain. It’s one of ’em olden times car, ya see.

The HHR reminded me of my days on the road back in the prehistoric 90s. You remember the days before e-mail? By the way, when was the last time you wrote a letter by hand? I’m guessing somewhere around 1996. For me, being the romantic that I am, I wrote letters up until 1998. I’ve checked it and that is true.

Where was I? Digressing again.

Yes, I was reminiscing about my days driving across America for an adventure travel company that I worked for and how the HHR reminded me of driving American cars, specifically Chevrolet’s, around the US and Canada.

The HHR does capture the iconic Chevy feel. GM has fundamentally hit its mark here. You can see yourself riding this car into Yellowstone or Grand Canyon National Park and camping out for the weekend. It’s got the boogie to make mountain driving comfortable and the cabin space that allows you to move things around.

It’s odd how particular Chevrolets can feel and it was surprising to me how much I missed it. It made me shed a WD40 tear as I recalled my 1984 Chevy Blazer which I once took with a friend across country from Montreal to Vancouver by way of St. Louis and Denver and LA. We camped or just slept in the car most of the way but it was, by far, the most expensive cross-country trip I have ever had with a rebuilt carb somewhere west of Denver and then a new transmission before we could even exit Colorado on the I-70. The garage gave us a banana-yellow 1977 VW Passat and the thing ran like a charm as we barreled to Las Vegas and back, trying to win the money we were spending getting this crappy Chevy to the Pacific. (That’s how I was thinking at the time. Nostalgia has softened my recollection of that truck). The experience was a rational eye opener. You don’t get burned like that if you buy German. I learned my lesson. Which is why I drive a Peugeot now.

The HHR is one of the most audacious of the retro design cars. That automotive fashion niche that began about 10 years ago with the New Beetle and was quickly followed by the Chrysler PT Cruiser which was actually designed by the same gentleman, Bryan Nesbitt, who brings us this latest bought of nostalgia which I find myself quite willing to indulge.

To its credit, the HHR does give you the full retro feel. The design is actually inspired primarily by the cult 1949 Chevy Suburban. The HHR and PT Cruiser are often referred to, perhaps simplistically and derisively, as ‘gangster’ cars because they recall the automobiles from old mob movies. As if only gangsters drove cars back then. The problem with the HHR is that the side windows are too small and too high up the door to easily level your Tommy Gun out and shoot at the cops giving chase. For those of you not into the drive-by thing, just wait until you have to lean out the window to pull a parking stub out of a machine or pay at a toll booth.

Those side windows coupled with a small windscreen and a not terribly high roof line give the cabin a cavernous feel. But it’s not all bad. It is actually pretty spacious and when you’re looking at it from the outside you’re wondering where all the inside room is coming from because the HHR is only 4,47 meters long, which places this car in the compact wagon class.

The car is practical and handles well – responsibly, solidly and with little roll even if it does have a slightly elevated center of gravity. The 2.4 liter, 4 cylinder engine, with 170 hp and 220 Nm of torque, married to a 4 speed automatic transmission gives it a decent amount of pull, although the HHR never does feel light. Fuel economy is a better than expected 9 liters/100km (12.0 city/7.3 highway) and I did, in fact, notice how well the fuel gage held up. It’s driving dynamics are comfortably American. There wasn’t as much volleying on the highway as you would expect from a fairly lumbering wagon and its smooth acceleration doesn’t provide much excitement but feels adequate and balanced.

The HHR also has a connection to Switzerland. Chevy is, sort of, a Swiss brand. Louis Chevrolet, was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Jura region of Switzerland and emigrated to the US where he later founded the Chevrolet Car Company of Michigan. There is your history lesson for the day.

About 200,000 have already been sold in the US since it’s launch there in 2005 but only about 3,000 to 4,000 will be making their way to Europe. But it was a treat to get a little Americana here. Sort of like finding a good bar & grill restaurant with great steaks and spare ribs. And if you want to be different then driving an American car in Europe certainly is that. Back in the US, for those of you looking for good economy with enough space while making a little statement of style — that is, that you enjoy your driving the good old fashion American way — the HHR delivers that.

Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe. He also blogs on all things automotive at eurocarguy.blogspot.com.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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4 Comments

  1. I assume you must stand out in Switzerland if you’re driving around in an American car. How many of them can there be on the roads there? I understand that most Europeans are not crazy about American cars, but I’ve also heard that there is a fanatic fringe that loves them. I guess it’s kind of a novelty there.

  2. Having driven both for a week this year while on two separate business trips, IMO the HHR is by far the more refined and better itereation of the this retro design as compared to the PT Cruiser. It’s more solid, it’s a better ride, and I thikn the engine is better as well.

  3. Well, they’ve slated 300 to 400 for the Swiss market.

    You do stand out, a little, but not as much as you’d think. At least, not here in Switzerland which is a neutral market and has always had a penchant for American cars.

    You actually see a lot of them on the road. Camaros, Mustangs, and, believe it or not, you will inevitably spot full-sized Dodge Ram pick up trucks.

    Switzerland is a wealthy market with the cheapest gas prices in Europe and there are people who love to indulge the American ‘live for today’ spirit that some of those models embody. I admit, and I wrote that in the review, that some of that magic made me like driving the HHR even when, rationally speaking, it’s not really a competitive car in it’s price range here.

  4. Agreed, I used to live in Ticino (Tessin), and down the street from us there was a mechanic who specialized in aging American cars. He always had this strange collection of awful family sedans – several examples of the Oldsmobile-badged Chevy Citation, a couple of Pontiac Grand Prix, even a Dodge Dart. We always took our Cinquecento there, since at least it wasn’t going to get looked down on by the other cars. 🙂

    There was also someone in our neighborhood who drove a late-80s Buick Century and somebody else who owned a completely tricked out Caprice wagon with a really loud exhaust and a custom paint job. I can only imagine how he got it through the (quite strict) Swiss car inspection.

    There are a few American cars that are actually fairly popular in Europe – the PT Cruiser is popular in Italy, though as you said it seems to me to be not competitive in its price range. The Italians also seem to like the Jeep Wrangler, which I suppose is tough to beat if you actually do any serious offroading. I also saw a surprising number of Hummer H2s in Switzerland – I can’t imagine parking one though, and I don’t really think it’s competitive in its price range in any country. (Why wouldn’t you just buy a Yukon or a Tahoe?)

    As for German cars never treating you that badly, after my first Mercedes ownership experience I’ll have to disagree: I had a ’91 300TE, and if you so much as looked at it the wrong way, you had to spend $1000 getting it fixed. And my mom’s 2001 Jetta went back to the dealer so many times during its first year that she could have forced them to buy it back under the new car “lemon law”. My Polish-made Fiat was a much better car than anything I’ve seen from Germany since around 1990.

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