2008 Chevrolet HHR SS Review Ann Arbor MI

2008 CHEVY HHR SS A Retro-Modern Pocket Rocket By Steve Purdy TheAutoChannel.com Detroit Bureau [1022] [1013] 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 whe...

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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 themedia launch of Chevy’s hot new HHR SS this week and spent somequality time both behind the wheel and smoozing with us assembled scribesfrom around the US and Canada. He acknowledged that Chevy had been guiltyof diluting the SS image on some models in the recent past by issuing somewith little more than cosmetic embellishments. “No more,” hevows. Beginning with the HHR SS, GM’s Performance Division boss, JohnHeinricy, will oversee and approve no Chevy “that doesn’t turn,stop and go substantially better than the base model.” Only then willthe SS badge be applied.

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

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This SS looks fresh and vibrant. While the styling of theMexico-built, front-wheel-drive HHR (short for Heritage High Roof) ispolarizing, like the PT Cruiser was when it was new, it has found a nicheamong a variety of buyers both young and not-so-young with around ahundred-thousand units a year sold. Styling reflects the late 40s Suburbanwith rounded corners and distinctive fenders. A certain timelessness comesinto 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 therear. Dual exhaust would have been nice but there was no advantage in termsof back pressure and performance, they insist. The 18-inch polishedaluminum wheels shod with 45-profile Michelins add to the aggressively cutepersona.

Suspension and handling were polished at the fabled Nürburgring, wherethe mighty fast Mr. Heinricy, a truly accomplished race driver, set theclass record with the HHR SS – that class being compact vans. Perhapsthat’s an unimpressive class name but the Europeans have someperformance-oriented vehicles in that class. Special spring rates, dampingand stabilizer bars front and rear make for an amazingly good balancebetween the stiffness required for competitive performance on the track andcomfort 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 describedsome of the challenges in meeting this balance. Most of the developmentwork, he explained, was done stateside then the fine tuning wasaccomplished at the Nürburgring where the car literally goes air born fourtimes each lap. This, by the way, is the same development regimen used forthe Cadillac CTS-V and other GM performance vehicles as well as many of themost prestigious European brands.

Front suspension is conventional McPherson strut design and the rear isa semi-independent torsion bar setup. Unique steering knuckles, linear coilsprings with specific damper tuning and lots of other massaging went intothe effort to make the SS’s ride and handling extra competent.Another feature of this new suspension is a “tri-rated” rearsprings that increase its resistance to compression as load increases. Thatway you can fill the car with four of your best friends and some stuffwithout the rear sitting down on its haunches.

Brakes are enhanced as well. While the basic HHR comes with drums in therear, this SS comes with discs all around and larger fronts. ABS isstandard. With Michelin all-weather tires they pulled 0.86g on the skidpad. That’s an admirable sports car number – better than theCorvette of a few generations ago. A Brembo front brake option will beavailable 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 a260-horsepower iteration of the trusty DOHC 16-valve, 2.0-liter Ecotec4-cylinder making 260 pound-feet of torque. Turbo charged and intercooledwith continuously variable valve timing and direct injection with variablehigh-pressure rail and electronic throttle, this is essentially the sameengine powering the Solstice GXP. Redline is 6300 rpm and the rev limiteris a gentle one. The turbo’s boost, by the way, is variable based onaltitude; 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 fuelis recommended but not required. EPA estimates fuel mileage will be about21-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-driveSUV. With a 16.2-gallon tank we can expect about a 400-mile range if wedon’t push too hard.

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

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

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

No-Lift Shift is cool, too. From a dead start, with the sticktransmission car, just goose it to about 4-grand. Get off the clutchquickly (don’t dump it), then keep your foot to the floor as youclutch to upshift to 2nd and 3rd. The system will automatically keep therpms at about 4-grand so the turbo won’t have to spool up againbetween shifts - great for the track or strip. They Chevy folks list azero-to-60 time of 6.3 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 14.8 seconds at98.5 mph.

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The cabin differs little from the basic HHR in layout andcontrols. Materials, fit and finish are better than expected for thislow-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 greatplace to sit while we play hard. Power, 6-way driver’s seat withlumbar support is standard. The stick shifter is positioned higher and abit forward to accomplish a nice short throw and better angle. As a resultit’s a tad stiff going into first and second. Not a problem for aperformance-oriented car. We like to shift ‘em energetically, afterall. The automatic transmission version has nothing on the dash to indicatewhat 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 boothangs over the indicator.

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

So what about practicality? This 3,200-pound screamer is easy to enterand exit, has good visibility and 25.2 cubic-feet of cargo space behind thesecond seat – 63.1 with the seat down. Trailering is “notrecommended.”

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Plenty of track time was allotted at the famous Bob Bondurantfacility. After controlled demonstrations of the No Lift Shift and LaunchControl, then a little time on a small autocross course to get acclimatedto the performance and handling we headed for the track for some hotlaps.

Now, for the fun part. The track was gated to guide us through a fastline around the track. It didn’t take very many laps before I knewwhere we could get on it hard and where we had to delicately dance throughthe tighter turns. The electric power steering felt precise and undercomplete control. A couple of full-power “yumps” allowed it toget just a tad squirrely with most of the weight off the ground –still an admirable performance. Just when I was beginning to think I wasquite a hot-shoe in getting around the track I took a demonstration withMr. 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, andrightly so. Their claim that this is a real performance machine - not justan exercise in trim - is well founded. Lutz’ contention that this SSis the culmination of the “relentless drive to recapture thesuccessful SS formula of the 50s and 60s” is legitimate.

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

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

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved

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