The 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS is the latest example of what Chevrolet considers the new generation of SS cars -- vehicles that, to quote the PR folks' oft-repeated mantra, "go, stop and turn significantly better" than standard Chevrolet cars. Chevrolet is counting on the HHR SS to give buyers a proper re-introduction to the SS lineup. Is the 2008 HHR SS the car that will restore people's faith in the SS name? Read on. Price range $22,995 - $26,074, EPA fuel economy estimates 19-21 mpg city, 28-29 highway.
First Glance: The rebirth of SS
The story surrounding Chevrolet's newest hot rod, the 2008 HHR SS, goes well beyond the car itself. Not that the HHR SS isn't noteworthy; any time an automaker takes a fairly pedestrian car and stuffs in a turbocharged engine and sport-tuned suspension, it's worth talking about. But what's more important -- to Chevrolet and parent company General Motors, at least -- is that the new HHR SS is a key element in the rebirth of the SS badge.
You don't have to be old enough to remember the muscle car era to know that the SS moniker adorned many of Chevy's most potent beasts of the 1960s and '70s. But in more recent years, Chevy wasted the SS title on cars with dull-as-dirt mechanicals. It didn't take long before SS cars earned a reputation for being long on nostalgia but short on actual performance.
Chevy wants to change that. They want the SS name to regain the respect it once commanded, and to attract a new generation of drivers who equate performance with letters like Si, WRX, and GTI. And as with everything else the domestic automakers do, they know they're going to have to work twice as hard to earn one-half as much respect as the imports. So they turned development of SS models over to GM's in-house Performance Division. The HHR is the third Chevy SS vehicle they've developed, the first two being the 2005-2007 Cobalt SS and the 2007 TrailBlazer SS.
So with the stage set, let's meet the latest player in the resurgence of SS: The all-new 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS.
In the Driver's Seat: Building a proper SS
Chevrolet took a number of steps to elevate the HHR to SS status. For starters, they replaced the HHR's economy-minded engine with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder (link goes to photo), the same engine found in the Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line. Output is 260 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque with a manual transmission, but only 235 horsepower and 223 lb-ft with the optional 4-speed automatic. The suspension has been completely retuned, the styling's been tweaked, and they even repositioned the stick-shift's gear lever higher and further forward for better feel.
Inside, the HHR gets a turbo boost gauge mounted in the windshield pillar and optional ($95) "sport seats" with extra side and bottom bolstering to better hold occupants in place during hard cornering. (They don't do a great job, but kudos to Chevy for trying. The stock HHR seats, with less bolstering but more butt-space, come standard.) The HHR's interior is awash in super-cheap plastic that's better suited to a McDonald's Happy Meal toy than a $23,000 automobile, but there's plenty of space, particularly in the back seat, and a whopping 25.2 cubic feet of cargo area. The EPA actually classifies the HHR as an SUV -- and I darn near got into a full-on argument with Jason Fogelson, About.com's Guide to SUVs, about which one of us should review the HHR SS. Despite what the EPA says, I maintain that this is a car -- and believe me, there's nothing even remotely SUV-like about the way it drives.
On the Road: Very talented, but is it really that fast?
Most turbocharged engines suffer from turbo lag -- a sluggish start followed by a surge of acceleration. Chevy has eliminated this problem in the HHR SS, which is great -- there's no sudden burst of power to break the wheels loose as you jet out of the corners. But turbo lag is also a cheap thrill, and to be honest, I kind of missed it. Chevy claims a 0-60 time of 6.3 seconds and a 15.8 second quarter mile, but the HHR SS doesn't feel that fast. (The automatic is noticeably slower and less thrilling.) Torque steer -- the tendency of a powerful front-drive car to pull sideways under hard acceleration -- is well controlled, though not entirely eliminated; the steering tends to go light when you pour on the coals.
The HHR's electronic bag of tricks includes Launch Mode, which provides fast standing-starts with just enough wheelspin to amuse your friends and elate your tire dealer. Stick-shift cars feature the No-Lift Shift -- you can change gears with the accelerator floored, provided you can get your feet to perform such a counter-intuitive act. This keeps the turbocharger on the boil and supposedly speeds acceleration, though I'll be darned if I could feel much difference.
The HHR's suspension combines a comfortable ride with excellent body-motion control. The steering's a bit funky, though; turn the wheel beyond about 45 degrees and the car seems to respond more abruptly than commanded. The HHR penalizes ham-fisted driving but rewards smoothness: Head into a curve too fast and it'll understeer (run wide) like crazy, but finesse it and it'll rotate (oversteer) elegantly.
Journey's End: Chevy's back in the game
The HHR SS' closest competitor is the Dodge Caliber SRT-4, and there's no contest here -- the SRT-4 sucks, the HHR doesn't. The Dodge is faster in a straight line -- not that you can drive it in a straight line, what with all the torque steer -- but aside from that, everything the SRT-4 gets wrong, the HHR SS does right.
In fact, the HHR SS is good enough to invite comparison with the similarly-priced Volkswagen GTI. The HHR SS goes faster, carries more stuff, and, thanks to its optional ($495) limited-slip differential, doesn't suffer from the GTI's corner-exit wheelspin problem. That said, the GTI steers better, feels quicker (even if it isn't), and has a nicer interior. And if you're shopping for an automatic, there's no contest -- the GTI's 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox blows the HHR's 4-speed automatic out of the water, plus there's no power penalty for going the two-pedal route. Still, the fact that a Chevy can give the GTI a run for its money is pretty amazing.
So has the SS badge regained its former glory? Well, it's certainly headed in the right direction. Can the HHR SS attract a new generation of drivers? I think it can. Even if the HHR SS doesn't stand head and shoulders above cars like the VW GTI, Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX and Mazdaspeed 3, it certainly doesn't trail far behind.
Chevy promises more models like the HHR SS, including the 2009 Cobalt SS, which will get the same powertrain as the HHR SS. One thing is for sure: Chevy and the SS badge are definitely back in the game. -- Aaron Gold