General Motors of the 2000s is known for a number of not-so-flattering traits. Its interiors were plastic, some ignitions were faulty, and the General was unapologetic about badge engineering. If you look past all of that, you’ll find some real diamonds in the rough. One of those vehicles was the Chevrolet HHR SS, a retro-modern hatch with serious firepower in the form of a turbo four making 260 HP and 260 lb-ft torque. That base car was nutty enough, but Chevy went on ahead and built just 216 in panel wagon form, so you could deliver flowers with a smoky burnout, of course.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a trip back to the late 1990s, a time when readers Jack Trade and Rootwyrm wanted us to remember the best of the last North American Ford Escort. Ford realized it wasn’t even on the podium when it came to compact tuner cars and for a brief two years, the automaker offered up a version of the Escort with a variety of parts that made it a little faster and gave it better handling. Just 2,110 of them were built and most of them have seemingly been abused, forgotten, or both.
As a reminder, Holy Grails celebrates the best or most obscure versions of any car regardless if the base vehicle is forgettable or iconic. We’ll happily plant the red and white ribbon on the weirdest version of a Yugo just as much as we’d give it to a skunkworks BMW production. After all, this whole Holy Grail thing started because David loves finding obscure versions of Jeep Grand Cherokees. A Ford Escort, Chevy Monte Carlo, or a Mercury Tracer may be cars many of us don’t remember fondly, but there are versions of them that might be worth taking another look!
This week, we’re headed back to the 2000s — an era that seemed to be pretty glorious for car enthusiasts.
As we’ve noted in the past, enthusiasts living in the 2000s had access to a smorgasbord of sport sedans with manual transmissions, fuel-injected motorcycles, medium-duty commercial trucks with pickup beds, reborn pony cars, and a number of takes on retro-modern style. It really seemed like the 2000s had a little something for everyone and multiple automakers were willing to take chances on bombastic designs.
If you were a fan of General Motors, the 2000s offered you such wonderful vehicles such as the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky twins, the striking Chevy SSR, the Corvette C6, the Pontiac G8, the Pontiac GTO, the Cadillac CTS-V, and so on. As Thomas wrote last week, General Motors also offered up cheap speed in the form of the Chevy Cobalt SS and its platform mate, the Saturn Ion Red Line. One General Motors Delta platform sibling Thomas didn’t mention was the Chevrolet HHR Panel SS, the ultimate of the GM economy car tire shredders.
Many people will point out that the Chevy HHR looks like a PT Cruiser and not realize that they were designed by the same guy. When my wife, Sheryl, owned a cherry red Chevy HHR, strangers often commented about how cute her car was before saying something about how it looked like a PT Cruiser. Those people had their minds blown to learn it’s more than just coincidentally PT Cruiser-like in appearance.
As MotorTrend writes, in the mid-1990s Chrysler was looking for ways to revitalize Plymouth. The Neon was a great start, but the automaker saw more, specifically some sort of wagon type of vehicle as a sibling to the Neon.
Automakers in the 1990s were toying around with the concept of retro themes in car design and Chrysler was one of them. The original Dodge Viper was famously inspired by the Shelby Cobra. Chrysler former vice president of design Tom Gale noted to Ars Technica in 2021 that while the Viper was not a volume seller and not truly retro, it helped change the public perception of Chrysler. Gale was also involved in the design of the Viper after then Chrysler president Bob Lutz suggested creating a modern Cobra.
Given the excellent public reception to the Viper, Gale decided to lean into retro design, kicking off a series of concepts. Some of them were just design exercises while others would end up in production. Chrysler’s retro concepts of the 1990s include the Atlantic, the Chronos, the Power Wagon, the Pronto, and many more.
Even the 1994 Dodge Ram had retro style, borrowing design from Kenworth and Peterbilt big rigs. Gale says the Ram’s design was so successful that the truck shot up from six percent market share to into the 20s. You can point to Chrysler for the semi-truck style that trucks started getting after the Ram took the hearts of many truck buyers.
One of those retro designs was the PT Cruiser, which traces its roots to the Pronto, which was refined into the Pronto Cruizer. A young Bryan Nesbitt was a designer at Chrysler who took the streamlined curves and massive grilles of the 1930s and distilled them into a modern retro design. PT Cruisers may be the butt of jokes, but Chrysler sold 1.35 million of the things between the 2001 and 2010 model years. Oh yeah, the PT Cruiser was classified as a light truck due to Chrysler taking advantage of dated regulations on what the government classified as a truck.
Chevy’s PT Cruiser
Nesbitt’s stint at Chrysler lasted for seven years before he was picked up by General Motors in 2001. As Chevrolet’s chief designer the Tampa Bay Times reports, Nesbitt’s job was to inject some excitement into a lineup with slumping sales. Later that year, Bob Lutz arrived at General Motors, initially as vice chairman of product development before he became chairman two months later.
As USA Today reported in November 2001, when Lutz strolled through GM’s design center, he saw sketches for a rejected vehicle. Lutz saw the vehicle as a potential competitor to the successful PT Cruiser and ordered Nesbitt to get it ready for the Detroit auto show. The sketch was not a Nesbitt design, but Nesbitt was in charge of making it a reality.
By 2003, General Motors said that it was working on a vehicle with the same roomy interior and retro design that made the PT Cruiser famous, but it wasn’t a clone. Instead, the Heritage High Roof, or HHR, would be GM’s own take on a retro wagon. General Motors said the HHR would be sized like a PT Cruiser or a Pontiac Vibe, but with a design inspired by the 1949 Suburban.
Now, some may feel that the HHR was a shameless clone of the PT Cruiser, but I’d argue that it’s better. Sure, the PT Cruiser was available as a convertible, but the HHR’s largely flat roof makes it better for work than the PT Cruiser. Sheryl and I turned her old Chevy HHR into a mini camper and I tell you what, to date I’ve never slept better in a car or truck. Chevy undersold the fold-flat rear seats. When folded down, they made for a completely flat load floor, perfect for a bed.
In the 2007 model year, Chevy really leaned in on this with a panel van variant, which traded the rear windows and rear seat for a cargo compartment. Chevy said the HHR Panel had the same 57 cubic feet of cargo space offered by a regular HHR with a rear seat, but it was configured as a cargo box featuring another 6 cubic feet of “under-seat” storage. In its press release, Chevy proudly proclaimed that there weren’t many commercial vehicles that scored 30 mpg. GM wasn’t lying; Sheryl’s HHR routinely returned over 30 mpg in normal driving conditions. That’s great for a small business like a parts shop or a flower shop. Plus, you could use that windowless real estate to advertise your business.
The HHR itself is not a Holy Grail and arguably, neither is its performance variant, the HHR SS. But, there is a version of the SS that’s a bit wild because it doesn’t really make a ton of sense.
At launch, the HHR was available with a 2.2-liter Ecotec four making 143 HP. The bigger engine was a 2.4-liter Ecotec four making 172 HP. By the end of the HHR’s run, the 2.2-liter was making 149 HP. Those were ok numbers and in my experience, a regular HHR wasn’t fast, but it got the job done with decent fuel economy. Sheryl and I found hers for just $1,000, too.
For 2008, Chevy rolled out the Chevy HHR SS, which pumped up the tempo thanks to a 2.0-liter Ecotec LNF turbo four making 260 HP and 260 lb-ft torque. This engine was found in other performance cars like the Cobalt SS, Pontiac Solstice GXP, Opel GT, Fisker Karma, and the Saturn Sky Red Line. Though, I’d argue that the HHR was the weirdest application. Most of those cars were sporty cars or at the very least has a sporty-ish design.
The HHR was none of the sort. This was a utilitarian retro-style hatchback that thanks to the GM Performance Division now had the capability of dispatching 60 mph in 6.3 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.8 seconds. The HHR SS is faster in a straight line than the Audi TT 180 HP I used to own. And it was more than just a new engine as the SS version of the HHR got new front and rear bumpers, a new grille, 18-inch polished forged aluminum wheels, sport suspension, performance tires, embroidered seats with suede, a new instrument cluster, and even an A-pillar boost gauge. Chevy even said that the HHR SS was tested and tuned on the famous Nürburgring. Add in a top speed exceeding 150 mph and a manual transmission and you have a quirky little tire smoker.
The HHR grail first made its appearance in 2007 during the SEMA show. Back then, Chevy combined the HHR Panel with the SS appearance and powertrain.
That year, Chevy confirmed that a production example would hit showrooms in 2009. This vehicle wasn’t recommended by a reader, but by Autopian staff during one of our morning meetings.
The Chevy HHR Panel SS was physically the same vehicle as a normal HHR SS, but in Panel form. You got the same 260 HP turbo four, the same manual transmission, the same body kit, and the same silly-cool boost gauge, but a cargo area in the back. It’s perfect for the pizza delivery driver or florist with a need for speed.
It’s also weirdly rare. Of the 489,780 HHRs put on the road between the 2006 and 2011 model years, 8,659 of them were SS models. Of those, just 216 are Panel SS units. Even rarer is the “Half Panel” SS, which is said to have been made in just 199 units. Those cars started life as a regular HHR before their original owners selected the option for the rear window delete. So, they don’t have a panel wagon interior, just two missing windows.
Car and Driver did not get to test the HHR Panel SS, but it did test the regular HHR SS, and I like the review notes:
For those who are still skeptical, consider that the HHR SS includes some pretty nifty performance tuning tricks such as launch control. With the standard StabiliTrak control in competitive mode, the engine is limited to 4100 rpm until the tires hook up. In cars with the manual transmission, flooring the accelerator with the clutch depressed holds the engine at 4100 rpm. Miscreants who need more freedom to smoke the front tires will be happy to hear that, with stability control fully off, redline-wrenching parking-brake burnouts are still a possibility. Torque steer, a virtual guarantee when plumbing 260 pound-feet of torque through the front wheels, is wonderfully minimized; we noticed just the tiniest whiff in the lower gears.
The second bit of surprising high-performance programming in the HHR SS is the no-lift shift feature, which allows the driver to keep the throttle pinned during shifts and holds the engine just below redline, therefore keeping boost up and eliminating turbo lag. With the throttle on the floor, the unrelenting turbo whoosh from beneath the HHR’s shapely hood is accompanied by a pleasingly violent pop from the exhaust pipe during shifts.
Meanwhile, MotorTrend seemed to give it high marks for handling:
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.
Doug DeMuro also reviewed one. In other words, for a lucky 216 buyers, you can deliver things so fast you can guarantee to reach your customer in 30 minutes or less. Sadly, these cars seem to hold onto their value well. An HHR Panel SS stickered for $25,135 and one sold Bring a Trailer for $23,850. These are so rare that none have appeared on Cars & Bids and there are few for sale.
Weirdly, there is a rarer HHR SS in the half-panel configuration for sale in Largo, Florida for just $5,500. Though, it does have over 180,000 miles and an automatic transmission. I also found another half-panel SS for sale for $9,000. I did find one HHR Panel SS, but the listing is a year old and the seller wants $31,000 for it. I didn’t think one of the rarer cars to appear in this series would be a Chevy HHR.
Every once in a while, I wish General Motors got back to making weird cars like these. Sure, a speedy retro wagon wouldn’t print money as well as a crossover, but there’s nothing wrong with having some silly fun. Maybe we’ll see something like this again in the future, I sure hope so.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
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