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2008 Chevrolet HHR SS Review

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2008 CHEVY HHR SS A Retro-Modern Pocket Rocket
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

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Bob Lutz, GM’s respected product guy, popped in to the media launch of Chevy’s hot new HHR SS this week and spent some quality time both behind the wheel and smoozing with us assembled scribes from around the US and Canada. He acknowledged that Chevy had been guilty of diluting the SS image on some models in the recent past by issuing some with little more than cosmetic embellishments. “No more,” he vows. Beginning with the HHR SS, GM’s Performance Division boss, John Heinricy, will oversee and approve no Chevy “that doesn’t turn, stop and go substantially better than the base model.” Only then will the SS badge be applied.

We gathered in the desert southwest not far from the GM Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona to challenge the Chevy folks to show just how hot this little car is. It is a little car, after all, sharing the versatile Delta platform with Chevy Cobalt, Pontiac G5 and Saturn Ion as well as a couple Opel products. The EPA calls it an SUV. The Europeans sanctioning the Nürburgring competition call it a compact van. I call it a retro-themed compact wagon. It really has no direct competitors, though we could say the PT Cruiser GT with turbo 4-cyliner might be close. In terms of size and performance the Chevy folks consider it in the sport compact market and compare it to the MazdaSpeed3 and Dodge Caliber SRT4. In terms of performance and handling the latter two make the most appropriate comparison, though they are very different in looks and execution.

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This SS looks fresh and vibrant. While the styling of the Mexico-built, front-wheel-drive HHR (short for Heritage High Roof) is polarizing, like the PT Cruiser was when it was new, it has found a niche among a variety of buyers both young and not-so-young with around a hundred-thousand units a year sold. Styling reflects the late 40s Suburban with rounded corners and distinctive fenders. A certain timelessness comes into play. This new SS comes in five colors only and sports new grill, fascias front and rear, rockers and rear spoiler shaped to make it look “slammed.” A brash single chromed exhaust tip punctuates the rear. Dual exhaust would have been nice but there was no advantage in terms of back pressure and performance, they insist. The 18-inch polished aluminum wheels shod with 45-profile Michelins add to the aggressively cute persona.

Suspension and handling were polished at the fabled Nürburgring, where the mighty fast Mr. Heinricy, a truly accomplished race driver, set the class record with the HHR SS – that class being compact vans. Perhaps that’s an unimpressive class name but the Europeans have some performance-oriented vehicles in that class. Special spring rates, damping and stabilizer bars front and rear make for an amazingly good balance between the stiffness required for competitive performance on the track and comfort required for every day driving.

Matt Purdy, GM engineer in charge of ride and handling for the HHR SS, rode with us during the first mountain road to Tortilla Flats. He described some of the challenges in meeting this balance. Most of the development work, he explained, was done stateside then the fine tuning was accomplished at the Nürburgring where the car literally goes air born four times each lap. This, by the way, is the same development regimen used for the Cadillac CTS-V and other GM performance vehicles as well as many of the most prestigious European brands.

Front suspension is conventional McPherson strut design and the rear is a semi-independent torsion bar setup. Unique steering knuckles, linear coil springs with specific damper tuning and lots of other massaging went into the effort to make the SS’s ride and handling extra competent. Another feature of this new suspension is a “tri-rated” rear springs that increase its resistance to compression as load increases. That way you can fill the car with four of your best friends and some stuff without the rear sitting down on its haunches.

Brakes are enhanced as well. While the basic HHR comes with drums in the rear, this SS comes with discs all around and larger fronts. ABS is standard. With Michelin all-weather tires they pulled 0.86g on the skid pad. That’s an admirable sports car number – better than the Corvette of a few generations ago. A Brembo front brake option will be available in a few months.

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Both 5-speed stick and 4-speed automatic versions are available. The 5-speed stick (GM Powertrain Sweden unit) is powered by a 260-horsepower iteration of the trusty DOHC 16-valve, 2.0-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder making 260 pound-feet of torque. Turbo charged and intercooled with continuously variable valve timing and direct injection with variable high-pressure rail and electronic throttle, this is essentially the same engine powering the Solstice GXP. Redline is 6300 rpm and the rev limiter is a gentle one. The turbo’s boost, by the way, is variable based on altitude; with 15 to 18 pounds at sea level and up to 21 at high altitude, so you’re ready for Pike’s Peak.

That’s a lot of technology in this hot little number. Premium fuel is recommended but not required. EPA estimates fuel mileage will be about 21-city/29-highway for the stick and 19-city/28-highway for the automatic. The EPA, you’ll recall, categorizes the HHR SS as a two-wheel-drive SUV. With a 16.2-gallon tank we can expect about a 400-mile range if we don’t push too hard.

The 4-speed automatic only makes 235 horsepower and 223 pound-feet of torque – essentially the same engine just detuned a bit. This off-the-shelf GM transmission was not designed to handle more horsepower. The market for the automatic, we’re assured by the Chevy folks, is expected to be different than the market for the stick. The automatic will appeal, they think, to the enthusiast who wants better power and handling but would be unlikely to drive it competitively. At 235 horsepower, that’s still plenty for this little car - just not as awe-inspiring as 260 horsepower.

Here are a couple more tidbits of technology geared toward those who like to maximize performance but may not have the experience, or perhaps the inclination, to drive like a racer: Launch Control and No-Lift Shift – both innovations to help the less experienced performance driver have some controlled fun.

Launch Control allows the hot-shot driver of the automatic SS to get maximum traction on a start by putting his/her foot to the floor with the brake mashed, then letting off the brake allowing just the right amount of spin. I’m not convinced of that one. It seemed to me in hot-shoeing it myself that there was a bit too much wheel spin. I seem to remember from drag racing days that the ideal was just a solid, short chirp of wheel spin, then bite. This may have something to do with tire technology as well. Certainly, drag slicks would make for different dynamics.

No-Lift Shift is cool, too. From a dead start, with the stick transmission car, just goose it to about 4-grand. Get off the clutch quickly (don’t dump it), then keep your foot to the floor as you clutch to upshift to 2nd and 3rd. The system will automatically keep the rpms at about 4-grand so the turbo won’t have to spool up again between shifts - great for the track or strip. They Chevy folks list a zero-to-60 time of 6.3 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 14.8 seconds at 98.5 mph.

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The cabin differs little from the basic HHR in layout and controls. Materials, fit and finish are better than expected for this low-end-of the-market car. Special sport seats with suede-like inserts, embroidered with the HHR SS badging, and lots of extra bolster make a great place to sit while we play hard. Power, 6-way driver’s seat with lumbar support is standard. The stick shifter is positioned higher and a bit forward to accomplish a nice short throw and better angle. As a result it’s a tad stiff going into first and second. Not a problem for a performance-oriented car. We like to shift ‘em energetically, after all. The automatic transmission version has nothing on the dash to indicate what gear we’re in and the between-the-seats shifter is hard to see, both because it’s dark down there and because the leather shift boot hangs over the indicator.

SS’s sport steering wheel is a tad smaller and fatter than the base HHR’s, and feels great. A pilar-mounted boost gauge and 140-mph speedometer let us know we’re in something special. Top speed for the automatic is 130-mph and about 155 for the stick.

So what about practicality? This 3,200-pound screamer is easy to enter and exit, has good visibility and 25.2 cubic-feet of cargo space behind the second seat – 63.1 with the seat down. Trailering is “not recommended.”

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Plenty of track time was allotted at the famous Bob Bondurant facility. After controlled demonstrations of the No Lift Shift and Launch Control, then a little time on a small autocross course to get acclimated to the performance and handling we headed for the track for some hot laps.

Now, for the fun part. The track was gated to guide us through a fast line around the track. It didn’t take very many laps before I knew where we could get on it hard and where we had to delicately dance through the tighter turns. The electric power steering felt precise and under complete control. A couple of full-power “yumps” allowed it to get just a tad squirrely with most of the weight off the ground – still an admirable performance. Just when I was beginning to think I was quite a hot-shoe in getting around the track I took a demonstration with Mr. Heinricy behind the wheel. He really made the SS dance and fly. Amazing!

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These GM guys and gals are mighty proud of the new HHR SS, and rightly so. Their claim that this is a real performance machine - not just an exercise in trim - is well founded. Lutz’ contention that this SS is the culmination of the “relentless drive to recapture the successful SS formula of the 50s and 60s” is legitimate.

One final detail I’m impressed with: the hood hold’s itself up with two delicate-looking struts. You’d be surprised how many expensive cars have prop rods.

Prices start at $22,995 for the 5-speed stick, including the $650 destination charge and $1,000 more for the automatic with remote start. Though the HHR SS is reaching dealers now (first quarter of ’07), you might have a hard time getting one early on, so better get in line.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved