Chevrolet announced in October that it'll be putting this sweet panel version of its nostalgia twerp HHR into production during the first quarter of 2007. That's right: Chevy's getting back into the panel-truck business--though this time it's with a unibody structure, front drive, and four-cylinder engines. Hey, it's a start.

The basic structure of the HHR is retained in the HHR Panel right down to the rearward set of side doors. However, those doors are now smooth sheetmetal across the surface with no windows and no door handles--they each open with the press of a button on the dashboard. Steel inserts replace the rear side windows to make up the smooth appearance of this machine. While a traditional panel truck has only two side doors, the rear "cargo doors" (that's what Chevy's calling them) in the HHR make it that much easier to access loads if the vehicle is being used by, say, a taxidermist to deliver artfully stuffed dead animals posed in naturalistic positions. Further, the HHR panel looks good this way. Though, yes, it would probably look even better with a single set of longer doors.

Inside, the HHR's rear seats have been excised in favor of a flat loading floor that provides 57 cubic feet of cargo space plus an additional six cubic feet in underfloor plastic bins place where the rear seat is in passenger versions. Locks for those bins are optional. The remaining two seats can be had with power operation and even leather. In fact, virtually the entire range of options available on the original HHR will be offered in the Panel, including stereos with XM and MP3 capabilities, side-curtain side airbags, a navigation system, and OnStar. The standard powerplant in the HHR Panel LS and LT is a 149-horsepower, 2.2-liter, DOHC 16-valve Ecotec four lashed to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transaxle. Optional in the LT is a 2.4-liter version of the same engine rated at 175 horsepower with the same transmissions.

No word as of yet on whether the upcoming HHR SS package--which is likely to include a 225 (or more) horsepower turbocharged Ecotec--will be offered on the Panel version of the vehicle.

To these eyes, the 1949 Suburban styling of the HHR looks a lot better as a panel truck than as a passenger wagon. And it's easy to imagine a near-infinite number of these panels running around with custom paint jobs and oversize wheels. This may just be enough to lift the already-popular HHR beyond its current status as a me-too PT Cruiser.