First Drive: 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
Street Hustler: Mild-mannered hauler goes to bad-boy boot camp
Hardy perennial in Chevrolet's 100K sales club, the neo-nostalgic HHR has always maintained solid-citizen status among the ranks of the Bowtie Brigade. For 2008, the new SS model gives it a long-overdue dose of attitude, as well. Created by GM's Performance Division, the HHR SS is aimed at youthful buyers from the "turnkey tuner" school of distinctive vehicle ownership. A day split between on-road flogging outside of Phoenix and on-track exercises at the Bondurant's school at Firebird Raceway quickly proved this high-energy variant takes Chevy's new-era SS credo to "go, stop, and turn" quite seriously, while sacrificing virtually nothing in the way of day-to-day utility.
First impressions are important, and the HHR SS builds street cred in subtle but effective ways. Bolder, extended fascias shed vestigial bumperettes and add front foglamps and a chrome exhaust tip, while blackout mesh grillework, a tasteful deck spoiler, recontoured rocker sills, color-matched trim and "SS" badging round out the body tweaks. Meaty 225/45WR18 all-season Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s on polished forged alloy wheels purposefully fill each fenderwell.
The GPD gang did an equally admirable job of thinking inside the SS box. Sport buckets with more aggressive upper side bolsters provide comfort and lateral support that base HHR perches only dream about-not to mention grippy faux-suede inserts and embroidered "SS" logos. Those anticipating the occasional track-day outing can step up to a seat with even deeper bolstering and an extended cushion, but all these hot haulers come with a smaller-diameter leather-wrapped three-spoke sport wheel and an eye-level turbo boost gauge in the A-pillar. A final serendipitous "two-fer" design touch repositions the shift lever up and forward in the console to better facilitate grab-'n'-stab activities. That change also forced the power window switches onto the door panels, where they should've been from day one.
Centerpiece of the HHR SS experience is GM's tech-rich turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec four. Currently used in the Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line, this meaner, greener, and even more fuel-efficient prime mover also will replace the not-ready-for-PZEV, 205-horse, 2.2-liter supercharged Ecotec in the topline 2008 Cobalt SS come spring. Boasting direct injection, continuously variable valve timing, and an intercooled twin-scroll T-charger, the reigning alpha dog of the Ecotec pack makes 260 horsepower-more per-liter punch than any GM production engine ever-and 260 pound-feet of torque when matched with the five-speed manual gearbox. Back it with the optional four-speed automatic, as Chevy anticipates about 75 percent of owners will, and durability/reliability issues trim those figures to 235 and 223, respectively. But in either case, this little giant matches hardware and software in ways that minimize lag and maximize torque-which peaks and plateaus at just 2000 rpm with the manual and a mere 1650 revs with the autobox.
Both variants have standard StabiliTrak that incorporate additional enhancements to help put that power down most effectively. The manual brings Launch Control and No-lift Shift circuitry. Toggling the former into Competitive Mode and flooring the throttle raises and holds revs at 4100 rpm to limit wheelspin and prevent engine bogging as you leave the line. As its name implies, No-Lift shift lets your right foot stay planted on changeups, maintaining boost and trimming up to .07 second off each change. Although the automatic still lacks a proper gear count and a Sport Shift gate, it also features Launch Control that activates at the converter's 2800-rpm stall speed and has an "I" (intermediate) position that switches the electronic controls into a more aggressive performance algorithm. Chevy says a five-speed HHR SS can sprint from 0-to-60 mph in a very believable 6.3 seconds while netting 21/29-mpg EPA fuel-economy numbers. That pass demands a still-respectable 7.5 ticks with the autobox, which earns 19/28-mpg marks from the feds.
A home-and-away effort that included five weeks of fine-tuning its FE5 suspension bits at the famed Nurburgring left the HHR SS equally proficient in meeting its requisite stop and turn performance bogeys -- enough to slash 10.86 seconds off of the existing Compact Van Class lap record on the challenging 14.2-mile Nordschleife circuit. Confident and predictable with little body roll, the HHR SS enthusiastically dispatches corners while maintaining ride compliance that ensures no fillings will be lost or even loosened from any sudden encounters with less-than-perfect pavement. Respectably low-profile even when active, its StabiliTrak can be shut down completely for those ultimate red-mist moments. Revised front-end components and geometry plus brushless electric power steering that's 20 percent faster than a base HHR combine to make SS turn-ins precise and immediate while relegating torque steer to mere light-squirm status. Stopping duties are also quite capably handled by big ABS discs with fade-foiling high-performance pads, but a Brembo upgrade will be available in the spring.
Entry to the HHR SS fun zone opens at just $22,995. That makes a heads-up confrontation with its prime rival, the like-priced Dodge Caliber SRT4, an inevitable -- and decidedly most intriguing -- addition to our 2008 to-do list.
|2008 Chevrolet HHR SS|
|Vehicle Layout||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 5-door SUV|
|Engine||2.0L/260-hp/260 lb-ft (235-hp/223 lb-ft w/automatic) turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|Transmission||5-speed manual (opt 4-speed auto)|
|Curb Weight||3280-3353 lb|
|Wheelbase||176.5 x 69.1 x 62.5 in|
|Length x Width x Height||6.3 sec (manual) 7.5 sec (automatic) mfg est|
|0-60 mph||21/29 (manual) 19/28 (automatic)|
|EPA City/Hwy Econ||81/87 lb/mile|
|On Sale In U.S.||Currently|