The Key To Getting A Cheap Car Right Now Is To Chase The ‘Ugly Stick,’ And The Chevy HHR Is The King

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Right now people are overpaying for cars. If you want something from this millennium with under 150,000 miles and devoid of major mechanical or cosmetic issues, expect to pay at least seven grand. If that car has a Toyota or Honda badge on it, you might as well cash out your 401K. Lucky for you, you don’t have to partake in this used car feeding frenzy, because the vehicle you need is the one nobody else wants: It’s called the “Ugly Stick,” and the undisputed King of the vehicle category is the Chevy HHR. Here’s a look at the one I just bought.

An “ugly stick” is exactly what it sounds like: an ugly car with a stickshift. It’s an undesirable. An untouchable. An outcast. Think Chrysler PT Cruiser, Saturn Vue, Dodge Caliber, and of course, Chevrolet HHR.

These cars are almost immune to fluctuations in used car values, because even if the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index jumps by 20 percent, 20 percent of zero is still zero. Yes, these cars are basically worthless, and not for any logical reason, either. They’re actually quite good, but because of the irrational nature of car ownership, people want nothing to do with them.

The way a car looks — and the message it communicates — is as important to the layperson as reliability and safety, and the cars I just mentioned communicate weirdness. Even though we here at The Autopian champion weirdness, most people prefer not to stray too far outside of “normal” lanes, so they stay far, far away from these quirky contraptions. Add a manual transmission, which most Americans are incapable of driving, and you’ve got vehicles that very few looking for a used car right now would even consider. It was this logic that led me to purchase the $3,200 Chevrolet HHR you see in these photos.

Tom McParland, car-buying guru at Jalopnik, texted me recently that his Stellantis friend was looking for a car for a colleague who had just arrived in Michigan from France. As the colleague would only be stateside for 18 months, the vehicle had to be cheap. I volunteered to help, especially since the French gentleman called me and told said he was paying $300 a week for a rental car. Ouch! He also threatened to buy a 2012 Chevy Equinox for $7,000, a 2016 Chevy Cruze for for $7,650, a 2011 Jeep Patriot for $6,495, a 2011 Dodge Journey for $6,300, and a 2013 Jeep Compass for $6,500 — half of these cars are mechanical nightmares waiting to happen (thanks largely to bad automatic transmissions or engines with known maladies) and half were just priced too high. I couldn’t stand for it.

The ‘Ugly Sticks’ On The Market

While searching Facebook Marketplace, I kept my eye out for the best “ugly sticks” out there. I’m always on the lookout for 2.2-liter Ecotec Saturn Vues equipped with the F23 five-speed manual (a great powertrain combo if you get a 2005 to 2007, since these years were less prone to timing chain issues):

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There’s the Vue’s sibling, the Ion, which is equipped with the same powertrain:

A good option is the manual Chrysler PT Cruiser, which is equipped with a stout (but not particularly efficient) 2.4-liter inline-four:

The Dodge Caliber, maligned for its awful CVT transmission and cheap interior, could be had with a decent five-speed manual hooked to a reliable 2.0-liter “World” engine; you’d have to deal with the hard-plastic interior until 2010, when Chrysler refreshed the interior:

A little less ugly, but still dated are the Ford Escape or Ford Fusion, both of which came with the indestructible Mazda MZR engine and decent five-speed stick. Either of those are good options (the rebuilt title Escape with crazy high mileage is of course, only a good option if you need really, really cheap transportation and can do your own maintenance):

But the holy grail of this “Ugly Stick” category is the Chevy HHR, because it’s relatively new, practical, efficient, and unkillable.

The HHR Is The King Of The ‘Ugly Sticks’

Within just a couple of days, I found the HHR you see here — a 125,000 mile, 2.2-liter, five-speed, Imperial Blue Metallic wagon for sale for only $3,700. I immediately fell in love.

Just look at the condition of this thing! It’s almost like a brand new car. The Ecotec engine is the same one my dad put over 200,000 miles on in his 2005 Saturn Vue, which had the same Getrag five-speed. It’s a combo GM put in many of its small cars, including the Saturn Ion and Chevy Cobalt, with which this HHR shares a platform. 

Much like how Chrysler turned its Dodge Neon into the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chevy turned its Cobalt into the HHR (the two cars were both styled by designer Bryan Nesbitt). The result is a vehicle built on cheap bones and with a small, efficient engine. Fuel economy for the HHR is 22 MPG city, 32 MPG highway, 26 MPG combined — better than any other “ugly stick” car I’ve mentioned except the smaller Saturn Ion. Again, the HHR is the undisputed king of the category, and therefore the best deal in cheap cars in 2022.

Sitting in this thing, it feels modern. The interior styling is fairly nice, the car drives smoothly, the shifter is actually decent (even if first gear feels far too tall), and theres a ridiculous amount of room. Sure, visibility could be greater, but who cares — I bought a car that feels almost brand new for only $3,200 (I negotiated down $500). And what’s wild is that you can, too. These things are dirt cheap:

The HHR Offers Great Parts Availability

And let’s say you buy that 153,000 mile 2007 model in Warren for only $2,500 (that’s an automatic, which I don’t recommend out of principle, though if you must, just know that it is a GM 4T40-series four-speed that will likely hold up quite well, as it is the same as the one found in the Pontiac Grand Am that we here at The Autopian think is a great option for those of you looking for something absolutely bargain-basement cheap), but you don’t like the scuffed rear bumper. No worries: The junkyard is full of HHRs to snag cheap parts off of:

Here’s the donor:

Here’s What’s Wrong With My HHR

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The HHR I bought isn’t perfect, of course. There’s a bit of rust on the bottom of the doors; I’ll just grind that down and paint it. I bet it’ll look good. And there are a few paint blemishes here and there:

And there’s a little bend in the front bottom corner of the passenger’s side door. I think something must have have been jammed between the door and the sill, and when someone went to open the door, that object bent the corner a bit:

But otherwise, this thing is in great shape. It’s reliable, safe (it comes with side curtain airbags), efficient, practical, fun to drive, and for $3,200, unquestionably an amazing deal. As Mercedes Streeter, once a proud HHR owner, once wrote: The Chevy HHR Is A Better Car Than You Remember. That’s absolutely correct, but it’s not likely to change many minds, as most folks will take one look at it and say “nope.” What that means for the rest of us is an amazing deal on a great new-ish car.

Images: Sellers
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85 Responses

  1. Man, my friend in college had one of these. I drive it on a road trip once. Blind spots for days, the cheapest plastic interior one could imagine, and a look at the time that I hated. But it was more exciting to be driving one of those than a Camry or whatever, so it gets fun points.

    Now… through the ugly stick lens…

    I don’t hate the look like I used to. Front is still like warthog ugly, but the rear treatment and the long roof are … Interesting? Not too hard on the eyes? The transmission wasn’t bad. The cheap plastics are ok because you’re only touching the climate and radio, not much that has a risk of snapping off. The wagon-ish-hatch was practical.

  2. “because even if the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index jumps by 20 percent, 20 percent of zero is still zero. Yes, these cars are basically worthless”

    “I just bought this beauty * for $3,200”

    Something does not compute.

    * with rust, paint damage, and a dented door.

  3. Doesn’t look too bad! Though it highlights one of the things I hate about many cars built in the last 20 years: When I open the hood, I want to see the ENGINE. Not a big plastic cover with a logo on it. They might as well put a sticker on it like on old TVs that says “No user-serviceable parts inside.” First thing I’d do: yank that big hunk of black plastic off the valve cover and chuck it in the recycling.

    1. Just such a typical comment. Why would you even care? I mean…in like 99,99% of the time I use my car, the hood is closed, because I use it for driving. In the 0,01% of the time that I have to work on the car, I don’t care about a stupid cover, which actually has a reason to be there (NVH).

      And even rather modern cars are still user-servicable if you just want to. I service and repair all of our cars (the newest one is from 2014). No problem at all. The only thing you might need is a laptop for checking errors.
      I guess the reason is more likely, that people simply got too lazy, which I can partly understand, since working on my daily driver sucks because of the lack of time. I work 5 days a week, drive 160km a day…of course I don’t want to spend additional time in or with that car.

      By the way I cannot comment here with my phone. This sucks.

      1. Agree with you there. I used to think engine covers were really stupid too but I don’t even think about it any more. And the one on my TDI literally just pulls right off, no tools required.

        Seconded on being able to work on modern cars. I actually prefer working on newer cars to my classic, because I’m not contending with 50 years of rust, dirt, and grease. The principles are the same, you’re just moving more wires and sensors out of the way first.

  4. While I dig the hell out of this particular car because of the stick and steelie combo, I have a personal hatred for HHRs because my brother got suckered into a severely overpriced. His shitty friend needed a cosigner and he took the HHR over a $900 Honda Accord I recommended for his friend.

    They did everything wrong when buying that ass box; getting put into that $8,000 HHR instead of the $3,000 Saturn she originally wanted because “that’s what she qualified for” (side note, the Saturn was listed on their website but it wasn’t on the lot), a visual inspection from inside the showroom instead of outside with the car, a parking lot test drive, the monthly payment instead of sticker price negotiation, etc etc.

    It came to no one’s surprise when she could no longer afford the payment and my brother was stuck with the bill. But being the kind hearted (that is endlessly stupid) friend that he was, he gave her our spare 2000 Toyota Solara for her to drive. Which she did, into the ground. Then she got pulled over and had the car impounded because it turned out her license was suspended months ago. Meanwhile, the HHR developed a perpetual misfire in cylinder 3 that his mechanic suspected to be a crack in the block since he parts canoned it and couldn’t remedy the problem. Eventually he sold it to Carmax and decided to buy a 2004 RSX that itself was severely overpriced. On top of that, the HHR wasn’t paid off so my brother was upside down on the new car. A $24,000 RSX in 2015.

    Sure, most of my hatred comes from the insane asylum worthy car buying experience, but maybe if I buy a stick HHR like this one, I’d learn to love them again.

  5. I needed a truck recently and followed a similar strategy: look for ‘unwanted’ trucks that very few people would buy.
    I ended up with a 2005 Frontier XE for $4k.
    2.5 4 cylinder, short cab, 5 speed manual, RWD, 15 inch steelies, no AC, crank windows, no cruise control, not even central locks!
    The only option it has is ABS, because it was probably mandatory back in ’05.
    Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

      1. It probably can be upgraded, but the QR25DE is a long stroke, undersquare engine. Torquey, but not very rev-happy.
        A Z24 from a squarebody or a KA24DE from a D22 Frontier is maybe a better candidate.

  6. We have the coupe version, the Chevy Cobalt and this little bastard takes everything we throw at it. Great drive train. The interior is laughable, but it’s insanely useful. Nothing you don’t need, everything you do.

    1. This is the exact ugly stick I found myself considering a couple years ago. Unfortunately the Honda badge and America’s newfound desire for “sporty, outdoorsy” vehicles (none of which will ever leave tarmac) drove their prices up. Owners have nothing but good to say about them, they’re quirky as all hell, can be had with a (dash mounted!!) stick, can be hosed out I think, and just go on and on. Would be an excellent ugly stick beater one day.

  7. Ctrl + f, “blind spot”

    … Phrase not found

    ….

    Really,??! not one comment on how atrocious the blind spots (forward and rear) are on the HHR? I had to drive a rental for nearly a month and it was one of the worst motoring experiences of my life, awful pieces of crap. I will yuck your yum on this one forever DT.

  8. I think the HHR is less ugly now than when it was new. Once upon a time I was at a car dealership that hosted a Jeep event and they were moving a bunch of cars around. One of the employees asked me to move a new HHR and I asked if I had to. Just pure gut reaction to someone asking you to do something disgusting. He said no and moved it before my still idiotic brain could come back to earth and realize what a dick I was. I did help move some other cars.

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