As we headed towards Mosport for the vintage festival last week, it seemed fitting that we were cruising in Chevy’s retro styled HHR. Fortunately, this was no plain Jane grocery getter either. We were headed for some twisties where the turbocharged 2008 HHR SS could get it’s boogie on. With pie wagon styling, substantial chrome wheels and pumping out 260 ponies this machine was just perfect for a dragging the cooler and cameras up for a day at the track, not to mention a few dance steps along the way.
Over the past years, we haven’t owned a car with overly sporting intentions. Reason? Kids. A herd of them. There hasn’t been too many vehicles conceived over the years that are capable of hauling a family of 5 and a bunch of their junk that can do double duty as a weekend warrior. The two jobs have distinctly different needs. Lately though, several automakers have managed to combine the needs of a parental taxi with the wants of an autocrosser.
The General’s entry in this niche is visually more subtle than the most obvious competitor, the Caliber SRT4. The exterior cues include a deep chin spoiler, chunky side skirts and rear hatch spoiler. Chrome 18 inch wheels, soup can tailpipe and the requisite SS badges complete the look.
Unlike the pipes on some other showroom models, that soup can tailpipe finishes off a truly free flowing exhaust that allows the 2.0 liter 4 banger to howl it’s intentions at anyone who will listen. The Ecotec 4 is pretty highly strung, and at idle it makes a healthy number of rattly noises that are somewhat common in big horsepower turbo fours. Roll into the throttle though and things get smooth as silk. In fact, this engine delivers it’s power in such a smooth manner that blasting through 2nd and 3rd gears is a treat each and every time. Couple that with the very aggressive wail from the exhaust and you have a machine that just begs to be flogged.
In fact, GM is practically begging drivers to flog the SS delivery. They have been inviting the press all over North America to pound this thing down the drag strip, where they claim it will turn in a 15.8 second quarter mile run. Press the traction control button once and the display says Traction Control Off. Press it twice and competitve mode flashes briefly before reading launch Control. That’s right Houston, we have launch control. Turbo engines have a bit of an inherent problem in that they need boost to make power. To have boost, the engine must be running at a certain speed and under a certain load. With the launch control feature, the computer keeps things spinning just at the right point to keep the turbo on a boil. In function, it’s pretty cool and it takes a while for a long time driver to wrap their head around the process.
Engage Launch control. Depress clutch and engage 1st gear. Pin the throttle to the floor and prepare to leave it glued there. Dump the clutch with out any thoughts of feathering and let technology take over. As redline approaches, quickly depress clutch and shift into 2nd. Remember to keep gas pedal on the boards. Hold on to steering wheel for dear life as 260 ponies claw for traction through the front driven wheels. Do you still have the pedal to the metal? Great. Repeat with the clutch and grab 3rd gear. Still on the gas right? Repeat with the steering.
It all sounds a bit dramatic, but it really is tough to force oneself to keep the throttle mashed between shifts. Likewise, torque steer is quite the challenge on anything other than perfectly flat pavement. Perhaps the coolest thing is the sound from that big pipe out back as you wait for launch. As the computer controls ignition timing and rpm’s, the exhaust bangs and snaps like a WRC car and one can almost imagine flames coming into view. Almost.
With all of this performance, I was surprised while researching the little rocket that several other scribes reported that one of the HHR SS’s strengths was fuel economy. Right. A road burner that gets great mileage. Sure. During our time with the car though, we found it wasn’t all that bad. While our combined usage of 11.7 l/100 (20.1 miles per us gal) was a far cry from government ratings of 9.8 l/100 k city and 6.8 l/100 highway, we showed no mercy on the throttle. With 260 hp on tap and a great sounding exhaust, the throttle was wide open at every chance. If we were looking for fuel economy, I think those conservative test numbers would be well within reach. Things are looking good here, with some real performance and decent economy. Owning this bit of muscle would not cost a fortune at the pumps.
So the HHR SS can haul kids and it can hustle it’s not so large behind down the quarter mile. What about enthusiasts who like a windy road or an auto cross? On a twisty back road, the HHR is actually very capable. In fact, like many of today’s sports sedans, it is capable enough that it’s limits are so high that they can’t really be explored sanely on public roads. I have a favorite road on the way up to Mosport and I couldn’t get to HHR to exhibit any hints of imbalance even when pushed pretty hard. That’s a lot of push for something that looks like a delivery van. I didn’t have a chance to run it around the cones, but I suspect that the HHR SS would be a respectable auto cross competitor.
Out on the road, the HHR SS has bridged the gap between driving enthusiast and Mom or Dad. One really can be a soccer Mom and then take the same vehicle out and burn a bit of rubber. In our next installment, we’ll see if the HHR SS has the goods indoors to make the transition too.