Looking @ The Chevy HHR

Meant to compete with products including the Scion xB, Honda Element, and, yes, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, this vehicle not only provides Chevy with still another competitive vehicle in the small-size arena, but it further leverages GM's global product architecture.

Phil Zak, GM design manager, Small/Mid-Size Vehicles, talks about the HHR, Chevrolet's latest vehicle in what has been a fairly aggressive launch of new products during the past several months—everything from the C6 Corvette to the Cobalt sedan. He says that it is sort of like the Chevy SSR—which was used as the "benchmark vehicle". . but at a lower price point. (Much lower. The SSR starts at $43K. You could get a couple of HHRs and a bevy of options for that.) He notes the fact the prominent wheel flares of the SSR are picked up by the HHR, but in the case of the HHR, the flares are less rounded, more tucked into the sides of the vehicle, which, he maintains, combined with the inward curving rockers, makes the vehicle have a stance he describes as being "really planted." He says that it has design cues from what is conceivably the first SUV, the '49 Suburban, particularly the shape of the hood.

The aspect of the vehicle that he is most impressed with/gratified by is the passenger's side rear quarter panel, a stamped piece that he describes as being "a work of art." Note how this stamped piece not only encompasses the two rounded tail lamps, but also has the cut-in for the fuel-filler door. And almost equally impressive to Zak is the one-piece front hood stamping, which he calls "an exquisite piece of metalwork for a vehicle in this segment." Or put more simply: given that this is a vehicle with a starting MSRP of $15,990, the kind of attention to detail that is being deployed here is above and beyond that which might be expected. As he walks around the vehicle, he notes things ranging from gaps that he says are <4 mm to the tight detailing around the headlamps to the single-piece molding around the windows. "The interior," he remarks, "has the same level of quality and detailed execution." He cites, for example, the chrome rings around the gauge cluster and the clean graphics. Chrome is also used on other surfaces, ranging from the shifter ring to the door handles to the control knobs. The interior strategy is to use darker colors on the upper portions and lighter on the lower; this is said to provide a more upscale-appearance. Still, this is a utility vehicle, so one of the things that they've done is to integrate a multitude of storage and cargo capabilities. These range from a bin in the top center of the instrument panel with a flip-up lid to the ability to take the primary load floor in the rear of the vehicle and to raise it up and secure it so that it creates a shelf. The rear seats are 60/40 split (with the 60 being on the passenger's side) and the front passenger's seat folds flat (at the same level as the rear seats in the folded position) such that there is the ability to carry something 8-ft long with the hatch closed. (Total cargo area is 63.1-ft3 with the rear seat removed. According to product manager Michael Danowski, there is a "rear-seat delete" option for the vehicle, as there are commercial vehicle applications being taken into consideration.)

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QUIET IS BETTER. The HHR is on what's known as the GM "Delta" platform. This is the same platform that is used for the Chevy Cobalt (and the Saturn Ion).* The two Chevy vehicles share the same chief engineer, Doug Parks. Consequently, although the two appear radically different, there are certain commonalities. For example, in the case of both vehicles, "Quiet Steel" laminate material is used in the plenum area so as to decrease the radiated noise from under the hood. Danowski points out that given the architecture of the HHR, with its comparatively high roof and rear cargo area contiguous with the passenger compartment, the opportunities for sound to echo ("There's a cave back there," he jokes) are high, so they did several things. For one thing, they worked to create a solid structure, including the extensive use of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels in the rockers and cross-vehicle reinforcing beam (for a beaming frequency of 23 Hz). In addition to which, they've added acoustic mats in the cargo area (these appear to be a nice consumer touch, but are actually engineered to attenuate sound), molded a damping material behind the headliner and interior carpet, put a panel made with molded cotton beneath the instrument panel, and worked on other areas that can provide interior noise, from the powertrain (they're using a low-restriction, low-noise air induction system on the engine and tuned the engine mounts to minimize idle vibration) to the exterior (they did testing in a wind tunnel so as to determine the side-view mirror and body side molding shapes that would provide the least amount of wind noise for the HHR).

LEVERAGING GM COMPONENTS. The HHR represents an example of some clever "borrowing" of components from other GM vehicles. It is clever because it is transparent. Case in point: the (optional) sunroof. It's from another vehicle with a three-letter name: the CTS. That's right, Cadillac CTS. Mike Danowski, product manager on the HHR program, says that during vehicle development they wanted to find the largest sunroof they could install. So they consulted the corporate "BOM rows." These are the corporation's Bills of Materials categorized (into, in effect, rows). Things from sunroofs to radios. And so the CTS sunroof was selected and only marginally modified for the HHR, thereby making it far more accessible than had it been engineered from scratch. Another borrowing: the touchpad used to activate the opening of the tailgate. It is also found in the Cadillac XLR—and a Chevy: the Corvette. It is safe to say that this comparatively economical vehicle (it starts at $15,990, including destination and freight; the 1LT trim level—there's the base LS, and the top-end 2LT—which is one that the sunroof can be selected for, starts at $16,990) is one with some higher-priced componentry.

Under the hood, there are two engine options, either a 143-hp Ecotec 2.2-liter engine or the 172-hp Ecotec 2.4-liter engine. Both engines are all-aluminum and have overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. The 2.2-liter is standard on the LS and 1LT models; the 2.4-liter is standard on the 2LT and optional on the 1LT. There are two transmissions. The standard is a Getrag five-speed manual; a Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic is available on all models.

The HHR is being produced in the GM plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, assembly plant. The plant, which was originally opened in 1981, is where the Buick Rendezvous is produced. As some people may recall, the platform mate of the Rendezvous is the Pontiac Aztek, which is going out of production. The HHR is taking the place of the Aztek in that plant. According to Deborah A. Lund, GM vehicle line director, Small Cars, it was anticipated that the Ramos Arizpe plant would have different vehicles in it so that the tooling was put in place to allow adaptability without major changeover requirements.