Chevy HHR: A fine under-the-radar domestic

What a good little foot soldier the Chevrolet HHR has been in Chevrolet's battle against the imports. Initially regarded as a novelty when it was introduced as a 2006 model, the HHR promptly proved to be a handsome, stylish people-mover that was economical and fun to drive.

And — for better or worse — it was also undeniably Chevrolet, since there was nothing on the road that resembled it, except perhaps the Chrysler PT Cruiser with its retro styling. The PT Cruiser ceased production in July.

The future of the HHR is also in question, because it's based on the same platform as the Chevy Cobalt, which is nearing the end of its run.

While the test HHR is a 2010 model, there is a 2011 HHR that differs from the 2010 only in color availability. In fact, it would be difficult to tell a 2006 HHR from a 2011, a suggestion that GM isn't investing heavily in keeping it fresh.

Though I'm not the Cobalt's biggest fan, I was surprised at how well the Cobalt-based HHR turned out. There is plenty of room for four 6-footers — the console extends so far back that there's only a few inches of foot room in the center back seat.

The interior design, though not quite deluxe — even with the test vehicle's optional leather interior — is well executed. Instruments and controls are properly placed and easy to use.

The base model HHR LS comes with the 2.2-liter, 155-hp 4-cylinder engine. The test model was the premium LT, with a 2.4-liter, 172-hp 4-cylinder. The test car also had an optional automatic transmission, an extra $1,000, though it was only a 4-speed. EPA mileage ratings are the same for the 2.4-liter regardless of whether you have the 5-speed manual or the 4-speed auto: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway.

That, incidentally, is on regular gas. The 2.4-liter can operate on E85 ethanol, which is 85 percent alcohol, 15 percent gasoline, but mileage drops on E85 to 15 mpg city, 21 mpg highway. Performance is the same, but the EPA says your annual "carbon footprint" would drop on E85 from producing 7.5 tons of carbon dioxide to 6.3 tons under average driving circumstances.

While the 2.4-liter engine isn't quite up to the smoothness standard of the better Japanese-branded 4-cylinders, it isn't bad. The 4-speed automatic matches up nicely to the engine, and you don't really notice it has one or two fewer gears than most new automatic transmissions.

On the road, the HHR is a pleasant companion, comfortable for long-distance touring or a daily commute. Our test model had a premium package ($1,700) that added the larger engine, an improved stereo and several other features. Additional options and a $720 delivery fee brought the $19,720 base price up to $24,465.

I can't find much not to like on the HHR — even the wonky electric power steering introduced in 2006 that seemed just slightly different in every HHR I drove has been fine-tuned to provide a consistent feel. Good vehicle, good mileage, in-the-ballpark price: nicely done, then and now.

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