Home » Here’s How The Chevrolet HHR Proves That Catching Up Is Hard

Here’s How The Chevrolet HHR Proves That Catching Up Is Hard

Chevrolet Hhr Gm Hit Or Miss
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Is a second chance always helpful? While a mulligan can be a vital tool for correcting past mistakes, it’s also possible to use one to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Having a crack at a do-over might not always produce desired results, particularly when an idea’s tied to a specific fashion movement. Take the retro car movement of the noughties. For every model that made it, there’s one that didn’t quite make a splash, and it’s not hard to guess which category the Chevrolet HHR falls into, and that’s partly because it was a do-over of sorts.

Admittedly, I’m not above re-hashing the same damn idea with different components, so long as it works. Why do you think this is a series? However, re-loading is easy with digital publishing, but hard when it comes to cars. Sometimes another try under different circumstances produces something beautiful, like the Lucid Air. Not always, though.

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Welcome back to GM: Hit Or Miss, where we fire up a our combine harvester of blogging to plough a field of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning and separate the wheat from the chaff. These metaphors only get more and more tortured every week, folks.

A Questionable Inheritance

Chevrolet Hhr Lt 2006 1600 02

Believe it or not, the Chevrolet HHR and its main rival were both designed by the same guy — Brian Nesbitt. However, history has some dispute over how much of the HHR was Nesbitt’s idea. In a 2001 article on then-GM car dude ‘Maximum’ Bob Lutz, USA Today claims that the groundwork for the HHR started when Nesbitt inherited a failed concept.

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At the Detroit auto show in January, Lutz wants to unveil an as-yet-unnamed concept car that he hopes can do for Chevy what the PT Cruiser did to ignite Chrysler.

Few expected Lutz, who joined the company in August, to have such a quick impact. But during one of his first trips to GM’s design center, he saw sketches of a vehicle that had been rejected, and ordered Brian Nesbitt, Chevy’s design chief for concept cars, to get it ready for the show.

Nesbitt, credited with designing PT Cruiser at Chrysler, arrived at GM a few months before Lutz. The concept was not a Nesbitt design, but he will be in charge of the final product.

At the 2002 Detroit auto show, Chevrolet unveiled the Bel Air concept, and not only does it not share a tall wagon form with the HHR, it was also entirely unnecessary. For those who wanted a tall, retro drop-top, the SSR was already on its way, and we’ve already done a GM: Hit Or Miss on that particular product. The bottom line? Chevrolet already had one car for a customer that didn’t exist, it didn’t need two vehicles targeting the same fictional customer.

02detroit Belaircon

Over the next few years, Chevrolet experimented with rehashing various back catalog hits for auto show floors, eventually landing on a 2006 model year production car that looked familiar for two reasons. Car buffs knew that it looked a bit like an old Suburban, but to most people, it bore a resemblance to a car that had become terminally uncool in the public consciousness.

PT Two

2009 Chrysler Pt Cruiser

Yep, we’re talking about the Chrysler PT Cruiser. It’s not surprising that a few members of the public think the HHR is a do-over of the PT Cruiser from the same designer, because they share some fundamental similarities. They’re both styled like ancient station wagons, both based on compact sedan platforms, both front-wheel-drive, and both very much built to a cost. However, while the PT Cruiser was cool in 2001, it was decidedly less cool in 2005.

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2009 Chrysler Pt Cruiser Touring

However, the PT Cruiser was still a somewhat compelling product once you got past the stigma. It was a practical small wagon with available turbo power that you could load up pretty nicely, with stuff like faux-suede seat inserts and GPS navigation. Plus, its cabin leaned into the bit with painted trim, a ball-style shift knob, and even a steering wheel that leaned into the style. Sure, it wasn’t the most refined or best-handling thing in the world, but it was a bit of a left-field option that had some merit past the changing tides of fashion.

Chevrolet Hhr Lt 2006 1600 0f

Unfortunately, the mid-aughts was a bleak time for General Motors. The Chevrolet HHR started on the wrong foot by looking a lot like the PT Cruiser, and then kept on going with an absence of inner whimsy. There were no interior panels matched to the exterior color, no brushes of surprisingly upscale upholstery, no embracing of the bit beyond exterior styling. The cargo area wasn’t as configurable as that of the PT Cruiser either. While it’s true that you rarely see the outside of a car from behind the wheel, a cheap mid-aughts GM interior isn’t an improvement over exterior styling that was behind the times. A Motor Trend comparison test of the 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser and 2006 Chevrolet HHR sums it all up:

Both the HHR and the PT Cruiser drive well and feature versatile cabins and retro-themed styling. The HHR is the new kid on the block and offers a slightly sportier chassis. The proven PT Cruiser has a much nicer interior than the HHR, but its slightly updated exterior is still an all-too-familiar sight. Since neither of these vehicles is geared toward enthusiast drivers, we’d vote for the PT Cruiser, because it has the nicest cockpit.

So, not only did the HHR fail to win a comparison test against a car that debuted roughly half a decade prior, it also had a worse cabin than a refreshed Chrysler product from the DaimlerChrysler years. Ouch.

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Calling It Off

Chevrolet Hhr Lt 2006 1600 08

Beyond the contentious style, was the Chevrolet HHR good? Not especially. It wasn’t particularly refined, wasn’t massively efficient, and was fundamentally a worse equivalent to a Pontiac Vibe in almost every conceivable way. Sure, it had a surprisingly potent 260-horsepower turbocharged SS trim, but beyond that, HHR keys were cause for trepidation at the rental car counter, and not just because the car’s ignition switch design could cause the vehicle to shut off while underway. Of course, most HHR owners weren’t killed behind the wheel, but they did have to contend with all the PT Cruiser stigma with none of the intrigue.

Chevrolet Hhr Ss 2008 1600 03

However, despite being flawed, a quick look at the HHR’s sales numbers suggest that GM didn’t completely fail. The firm managed to sell more than half a million of these retro wagons, and that’s a solid number for what is essentially a retread of the Cobalt compact sedan. Mind you, it didn’t exactly catch up with the cross-town competition. Even though the Chrysler PT Cruiser had a longer production run, Chrysler sold more than 1.35 million of those things. Talk about a first-mover advantage.

Chevrolet Hhr Lt 2006 1600 01

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Much of the time, a hit isn’t defined by raw sales figures alone. We need to ask question like: Was it good? Did it spawn a lineage? Does it have a positive legacy? Did it carry massive market share? For most of those questions, the answer for the HHR is no. While it was the safe option for GM to take at the time, it serves as an example of why it’s often a good idea to try something new. Without massive innovation, follow-ups rarely do as well as originals.

(Photo credits: Chevrolet, Chrysler)

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IanGTCS
IanGTCS
27 days ago

I dated a woman who had owned two of these. First she got because she needed a new car and got a really good deal. Second she got because by showing more expenses she would be able to get more alimony in her divorce and again got a smoking deal on the car. The only problem I remember her having in the time we dated was the key wouldn’t turn off one time and her laughing that it took her entirely too long to think to just intentionally stall it rather than wait for it to run out of gas.

Also I drove an SS version at a car auction with the worst clutch ever. Everyone who tried to drive the thing basically had to rev it to 5000 and dump the clutch and hope it wouldn’t stall. I assume it was driven pretty damn beat on by that point.

Aaron
Aaron
28 days ago

3 words: HHR SS Panel

I. P. Nightly
I. P. Nightly
28 days ago

HHR (Heritage High Roof) was GM’s way of replacing innovation with imitation.

Scott Ashley
Scott Ashley
28 days ago

I have driven both the PT and HHR. I own a PT that my daughter drives and the HHR was a staple in the fleet of the state agency I worked for before retirement. I have to say I have never minded the PT. A victim of its own success no doubt, but it is still functional and unique. The HHR just looks like a Cobalt inside and the extremely high belt line and lower roof line left a gun slit windshield and windows. It always made me feel like I was driving a coffin and had all of the enjoyment of the same.

Rafael
Rafael
29 days ago

This design always struck me as too far from modern designs, yet not far enough for a good retro design. Looks like Ssangyong’s idea of a retro car, but somehow with 90’s styling.
I think there’s a place for retro styling, much like there’s space for a three piece suit in fashion. This design is the equivalent of a t-shirt with tie, socks and sandals.

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
29 days ago

It wasn’t just the PT Cruiser competition, also the Scion xB, Nissan Cube, Honda Element, and then Ford even came out with the faux side paneled Flex. Lots were getting in on the quirky wagon phase of the early 2000s so GM had to make something, and the HHR definitely was!

At least they did do a panel version so that was something.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
29 days ago

If I had to roll the dice on one of the two I’d feel better about GM build quality over Chrysler and deal with a crappy interior. That said, if you look at this as the wagon version of the Cobalt (kind of), and it stretched Cobalt sales by 1/2 million on a relatively small budget, I’d call it a win.

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
29 days ago

Body shape makes this very similar to the current Chevy Trax, but the styling makes them seem like completely different cars. I wonder if this would have been more of a hit if it looked to the future for styling rather than the past.

NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
29 days ago

Chevy of this era definitely wasn’t designing anything futuristic. See: Malibu, Impala, etc.

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
29 days ago
Reply to  NebraskaStig

Oh 100%, they were just throwing out bland appliances.

WR250R
WR250R
29 days ago

It wasn’t until YEARS after the HHR debuted that I learned they are supposed to look like the Advanced Design series of the 1940’s/50’s. And after learning that I kinda see it, but only kinda

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
30 days ago

I liked the look of the Panel Truck version, but I knew it was just a Cobalt underneath, so I stayed away.

You could probably give the Holy Grail treatment to the HHR Panel SS Turbo 5-speed. I’m pretty sure they’re rare enough to qualify.

Dinklesmith
Dinklesmith
30 days ago

My mom had a pumpkin orange HHR when I was in high school. It had a stick shift and was one of the first cars I learned how to drive. She traded in a ’92 Ford Thunderbird for it (oof).

Still, I can’t help but be nostalgic for them. I liked the styling, mostly because any 17 year old likes driving anything. It was also a stick shift which was a nice skill to learn.

Jacob Rippey
Jacob Rippey
30 days ago

The biggest upside to these over the PT is serviceability

Jack Swansey
Jack Swansey
30 days ago

My dad thought the HHR was cool at the time.

Greensoul
Greensoul
30 days ago

I remember the PT cruisers having 5-10k dealer mark ups when they first hit the dealers

Greensoul
Greensoul
30 days ago

I actually managed to find a 1:18 scale model of that Bel Air concept for my model car collection. I liked the retro cars. Yes the HHR was a crude copy, but it did offer neat cargo versions deleting the side windows. One of my aunts had a purple HHR for eons that she adored. She’d probably still have it if it wasn’t side swiped a few years ago and totaled. She said the styling reminder her of grandpa’s 1950s Chevy farm trucks.

Anonymous Person
Anonymous Person
29 days ago
Reply to  Greensoul

I actually got to see that Bel Air concept as well as the Nomad concept at the GM tent at a MI car show. What stuck with me the most was that as concepts, the Bel Air had a 5-cyl engine and 5-speed auto transmission while the Nomad was based on the Solstice and had a 4-cyl engine and 5-speed auto transmission. Imagine the fun if they could have come with a clutch pedal. At least both were rwd.

Connor Cridlin
Connor Cridlin
30 days ago

Honestly, I think this is a bit biased. As an owner of a high-mileage HHR, it is clear to see that while the PT Cruiser had more sales and a quirkier interior, the HHR is fun and even though it is slow (holy hell slow), it is enjoyable. I can fit all my groceries inside and it has a cute and fun exterior, besides the grille design (the SSR had a more accurate 50’s Chevy grille) not even being at all like the Suburbans of the 50’s.

Last edited 30 days ago by Connor Cridlin
Timbuck2
Timbuck2
30 days ago

The manual version is actually kinda fun to drive ngl. Plus I like the styling better than the PT. Also, while the interior materials are worse than the PT, I’d argue the HHR is screwed together a bit better.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
30 days ago

Maybe I’m weird, but I liked the HHR. Not enough to buy one, but I thought they looked neat from the outside.

My one bit of trivia on the HHR: the hood has such an extreme, deep curvature to it that, it required a special press and tooling to stamp it out. Given that and their relative unpopularity, there may be difficulty getting one in the future.

I’m not saying a person could maybe establish a retirement fund by hoarding and selling HHR hoods to future enthusiasts, but I’m not NOT saying either…

Bob Owensby
Bob Owensby
30 days ago

Had a 2007 HHR. Was a good car over the 135K miles I put on it. The 2.2L engine was smooth and powerful. The seats were really comfortable and the driver sat a little higher than in most compact cars. It was reliable and got great mileage – 35 MPG. The rear cargo area very versatile. No problems and never let me down. The front visibility was compromised looking up at traffic lights when close, but that is something a buyer could note during test drive. GM could have invested a little more in nicer plastics and interior trim. A nice instrument panel and great seating compromised by that. And it doesn’t look like every other car on the road. Would buy another.

Root
Root
29 days ago
Reply to  Bob Owensby

My office had a couple of HHRs, and nobody liked driving them because of the visibility issues. So bad people would invariably take the decade-older Taurus wagon before the HHR.

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
30 days ago

As someone who has owned a Chevy HHR and extensively used my dad’s old Chrysler PT Cruiser, I think the cargo area of the HHR is better than the PT. For starters, the flat roof meant you didn’t have to deal with the goofy problem of roof space that got smaller on you. I’ll get back to that in a second…

Another good feature of the HHR’s cargo area was the fact that the cargo floor joined up with fold-flat rear seats to create a completely flat, unbroken surface. This was perfect for carrying stuff around or for how I used an HHR as a mini camper. A flat load area meant all I had to do was plop down a mattress pad. Sure, the PT Cruiser’s seats also folded flat, but in my experience, it just wasn’t the same. There were gaps between the load area tray and the seats, plus nubs that stuck up from the seats, which made sleeping in a PT a little painful unless I brought a thicker pad.

Even cooler was the fact that the HHR had secret cubbies embedded in this cargo area, perfect for storing toiletries. The HHR was downright roomy in its cargo area and the flat roof meant I didn’t bang my head depending on where I sat in the back.

As for fuel economy, we got 35 mpg with ours, which was better than the EPA numbers, better than a PT Cruiser, and not that bad considering we’re talking about a car from 2009. Auto parts stores in my area still use HHRs to move things around.

I do agree that the interior was a letdown. There was so much awful plastic all over and massive blindspots created by the pillars. That said, there was some color coding going on like the PT Cruiser, but only if you bought the HHR SS. Really, just buy the HHR SS, because 260 HP and 260 TQ rights a lot of wrongs and smokes PTs in the process. 🙂

Last edited 30 days ago by Mercedes Streeter
Greensoul
Greensoul
30 days ago

Mercedes, is there any kind of vehicle you or your parents haven’t owned LOL? Your almost to the point of needing to get obsessed with tractors and combines now. Purdy much the only unexplored wheeled territory left for ya dear!

Last edited 30 days ago by Greensoul
Greensoul
Greensoul
30 days ago
Reply to  Greensoul

PS, the Bishop already got the Amish cart thing taken care of previously.

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
29 days ago
Reply to  Greensoul

A bit of everything but boats and planes!

My dad used to go through cars like pairs of socks! They would usually get wrecked and my dad would usually tell some grand story about it. One time, he sent an Oldsmobile 98 to the grave after hitting a “porcupine.”

Another time, he had a sleek Saturn SC, the car he taught me how to drive a manual in. That one saw its unibody split in half, apparently due to a cyclist getting in the way at the last second.

Dad’s had a minty Nissan Hardbody, a Ford Ranger, a Hyundai Tiburon, a Kia Rio, a couple of vans, a couple of ’90s Freightliners, and who knows how many others I’m forgetting. Most of them died off. The sad reality is much more boring than porcupines and had to do with the fact that he worked all day and came home at like 1 am… speed and tiredness.

The PT Cruiser was lucky as it didn’t crash. Instead, it died in the garage when dad started the engine and the timing belt left the chat.

Don’t worry, my wife is trying her hardest to get me on a tractor. 🙂 She’s obsessed with them!

Last edited 29 days ago by Mercedes Streeter
Twobox Designgineer
Twobox Designgineer
29 days ago

As far as cargo area — my friend is a keyboard player, and had an HHR. He liked it quite a bit. Plenty of easily loadable space for keyboards, amps, etc.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
30 days ago

Typical GM:
Spend money on exterior styling.
Cheap out on the interior and mechanicals.
No wonder it was a loser.

Connor Cridlin
Connor Cridlin
30 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

Did you own one though? If not, you cannot complain.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
30 days ago

It’s always seemed to me that also making things hard was how there was no jacked up, off-road-looking version of it.

Back then, the rugged truck association thing was still hugely driving people’s perceptions of and desire for SUVs.

If GM could have somehow fitted the HHR with an AWD option, a slightly lifted suspension, and burly tires/wheels, it could have provided a halo effect for the model as a whole. Instead, it came across to many prospective buyers as just an oddly shaped wagon.

Bryan McIntosh
Bryan McIntosh
30 days ago

I got a HHR as an “upgrade” at the rental counter when they didn’t have the car I had reserved. I drove it from Boston to Sherbrooke, QC for work, and hated every minute that I had to drive in a city because the various pillars were in EXACTLY the wrong places. The transmission didn’t seem to know which gear it wanted to stay in while highway cruising, and the only good part of the trip was that I could load my suitcase in and out easily. If someone drives this car because it’s the best car that they could afford or had it gifted from a relative, I can understand that, but I’d need to be in a somewhat dire situation to willingly choose one of these for myself.

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
30 days ago
Reply to  Bryan McIntosh

I had an HHR rental car when they first came out, I believe right after having a PT rental a week earlier, and I guess my perceptions were skewed by the PT, but my thoughts were it’s not as bad as I expected it to be… Same general “It’s fine, but I’d never buy one myself” feeling as getting a Malibu.

It’s probably the prevalence of PT’s, Calibers, HHR’s, Malibu’s, Rio’s, and Altimas at rental counters back then that convinced a significant portion of the US population that the Altima is a high performance supercar…

Citrus
Citrus
30 days ago
Reply to  Bryan McIntosh

I found they had absurdly over-boosted steering, which made it feel kind of jittery for no good reason, but that is the main thing I remember about them.

Harvey Firebirdman
Harvey Firebirdman
30 days ago
Reply to  Bryan McIntosh

My dad owned one of these (so glad it is gone now) besides being what I think was hideous it was a dog to drive and from what you have said hard to see out of (and this is coming from an FJ cruiser owner hah)

Connor Cridlin
Connor Cridlin
30 days ago
Reply to  Bryan McIntosh

I bought mine as an enthusiast buy. They are so much fun and while slow and including a confused transmission that shifts strangely, it is fantastic. It has everything I need. But the visibility is…. fun….

Citrus
Citrus
30 days ago

You know what? The PT Cruiser was mostly good. It looked different from everything else out there, it actually had solid proportions and detailing, and it was genuinely useful.

It was still a 2000s Chrysler product, so it had all of the inherent issues there, but a PT Cruiser is way cooler than, I don’t know, a Honda HR-V.

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
30 days ago

I wonder what happened to those 1.35mil PT Cruisers, as I don’t see them around anymore? Same with the Neon.

Citrus
Citrus
30 days ago
Reply to  OttosPhotos

They weren’t the most well-made cars, but they seem to age better than Neons. Both seem prone to impressive rust.

Last edited 30 days ago by Citrus
Goof
Goof
30 days ago
Reply to  Citrus

Yep. The reality is most people look at cars as “something to use up.” Its job is to move you and things from place to place, ideally as long as possible. Yet since they’re expensive, to quote Chris Bangle, “cars are avatars.” So they have to represent you and be the face you show the world.

Well, they wore out structurally, sometimes mechanically, and absolutely ran their course in terms a styling trend. Moreover, other alternatives continued to come into existence, with better packaging, and other desirable attributes like AWD and higher H-point. So to the trash heap the PT Cruisers go.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
30 days ago
Reply to  Goof

> wore out structurally, sometimes mechanically, and absolutely ran their course in terms a styling trend. Moreover, other alternatives continued to come into existence, with better packaging, and other desirable attributes

I’m pretty sure I’ve been dumped to this exact combination of words.

AlterId
AlterId
30 days ago
Reply to  Mechjaz

I’m pretty sure I’ve been dumped to this exact combination of words.

We’ve always assumed so.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
30 days ago
Reply to  OttosPhotos

They were cheap cars.that needed an expensive timing belt change at 100k or the interference engine would explode. At 100k, the cost of that service was more than the car was worth. That should be all the explanation you need.

Space
Space
30 days ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

David Tracy was right about timing belts it seems.

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
27 days ago
Reply to  Space

If you can’t do them yourself, or have a friend who’s capable, for most old cars the labor cost on a belt change is just too much to make it economical.

Vee
Vee
30 days ago
Reply to  OttosPhotos

Neons didn’t survive because of The Fast And The Furious tuner craze and the glut of used Mitsubishis in the mid 2000s. When you destroyed your Neon by overboosting it with a sketchy add-on turbocharger you just went and bought a repo’d 3G Eclipse GT or GTS for three grand. And when you killed it a year later the same way, you grabbed a five year old IS300 — or if one wasn’t available, an SN-95 Mustang or Hyundai Tiburon GT. Thus was the cycle from 2004 to 2006.

The same cycle claimed B13 through B15 Nissan Sentra SE-Rs, S13 and S14 240SXs, Z31 and Z32 300ZXs, Dodge Stealths, Ford Probes and Escort GTs, Honda Civics and CRXs, Mazda MX-3s, first generation Mercury Tracers, Mitsubishi Starions, Mirages, and Eclipses, Eagle Talons, Chrysler 300Ms (odd but true), and so on and so on.

Chronometric
Chronometric
30 days ago
Reply to  Vee

If only people would heed the pressure warning:
DANGER TO MANIFOLD.

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
29 days ago
Reply to  Vee

Not to mention “Cash for Clunkers” at the end of the decade which sent a nice chunk of these to the junk yard.

Vee
Vee
27 days ago

Cash 4 Clunkers mostly wiped out the old ’70s and early ’80s cars that were still hanging around. Most newer stuff than that tended to be trucks, full size vans, station wagons, or full size sedans. People didn’t expect to get anything beyond the guaranteed minimum out of old Dodge Aries’ and Chevrolet Berettas, so low end cars like those got used up (to an even faster pace considering financial circumstances at the time) instead of being traded in for the $2,000 minimum. During that era it was better to keep your $2600 car that cost you $400 a year than the $26,000 car you’d pay $400 a month on.

Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
29 days ago
Reply to  OttosPhotos

On one of the side streets near my house some poor soul parks their Woody paneled PT Cruiser convertible. I am unsure it even works, but it doesn’t appear abandoned, the tires are always inflated and its got current reg.

Hamish48
Hamish48
29 days ago
Reply to  Nick Fortes

confession: I have a soft spot for PT Woodies

Dead Elvis, Inc.
Dead Elvis, Inc.
29 days ago
Reply to  Hamish48

There’s probably a medication to help with that.

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
27 days ago
Reply to  OttosPhotos

Around here (Indiana) there are FAR more HHRs on the road than PTs. Proving the old maxim that GM cars run on poorly long after most other cars don’t run at all. Ecotec 2.2 engine (after the chain tensioner upgrade) and 4T40 trans is a long term proposition.

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