By: Bruce W. Smith
Wow! That’s some cool custom job. I’ve never seen a PT Cruiser that looks this sharp. Who did the body work?”
It’s a common comment when you’re driving around in the 2008 Chevrolet HHR Panel, the three letters being the internal codename acronym used by GM during the early development stages of the Heritage High Roof. The little SUV looks like a custom build. But it’s not.
The four-door HHR 5-passenger model went on sale in late 2006 to give GM buyers a small vehicle that delivers a dash of nostalgic styling with all the benefits of modern technology, just as their rival did with the popular PT Cruiser.
But Chevrolet went a step further this year. They thought small businesses needing a fuel-effcient, cargo-friendly delivery van and auto enthusiasts looking for a blank canvas more open to customization and personalization would be a natural progression of the standard HHR. They were right.
The new HHR Panel evokes an instant sense of cool retro, the smooth, windowless sides reflecting a body styling that is without a doubt a cross between the late ‘40s and early ‘50s panels and Suburbans. Adding to that are the “shaved” rear door handles those who see the panel for the first-time assume are the work of a custom shop.
“The HHR Panel is a model unlike anything else in the [small vehicle] segment, and it continues HHR’s mission of offering customers a bold, expressive, functional and different vehicle,” says Ed Pepper, Chevrolet general manager.
What sets the HHR Panel apart form the standard model is the panel is a two-passenger vehicle. Even thought eh HHR Panel is a four-door, The split 60/40 second-row seat doesn’t exist. In its place is a flat floor with tie downs, no-slip rubber mat, and under-floor storage compartments. This is, after all, a “delivery” van.
The front buckets—ours were leather—are very comfortable with good support in every direction. The upgrade Pioneer sound system ($295) is also quite enjoyable, giving the overall surroundings a feel of comfortable luxury.
What is a bit odd at first is where the door and window controls are located. The rear doors don’t have external latches; they have release buttons located on the driver’s side of the dash just below the left air vent. Another is located on the passenger’s side just left and below of the glovebox.
The window controls are located at the bottom of the dash just in front of the center console on each side of the HHR logo. But that’s just the sort of things that make the HHR so cool.
It’s the rear area that really stands out, though, and what makes the Panel perfect for many because the interior can be customized for just about any use, whether that’s leaving it as an open cargo area or adding shelves and special compartments.
The rear cargo area would also make an awesome space to put in a creative array of audio and video systems that would blow the minds of most audiophiles.
The openness of the Panel could also make a very cool vehicle for those who love outdoor pursuits. With some 57 square feet of cargo space there’s plenty of room to carry camping gear, backpacks and a couple mountain bikes. Of course, the rear area just begs to be used as a comfortable sleeping quarters.
Another aspect that makes the HHR Panel very attractive to those who like the panel concept is it comes with the fuel-miserly Ecotec four-cylinder. This year GM has upped the performance so now the 2.4L makes 175 horsepower while delivering 23mpg in the city and 30mpg on the highway.
Our two-week stint behind the wheel showed the Ecotec, backed by the optional 4-speed automatic ($1,000) is a very smooth running, peppy engine. The peppy aspect takes a bit to figure out. GM has seen fit to make drive-by-wire gas pedal respond slowly. So to get the engine to respond quickly, you have to be a bit more aggressive in how you apply the throttle.
We also noted rather quickly how light the steering is in the HHR. It features electric power steering (EPS), so it turns with ease, making short, easy work of weaving in and out of tight parking areas.
GM says EPS eliminates the use of an engine-driven power steering pump, as well as the corresponding fluid reservoir and plumbing, reducing both fuel consumption and the potential source of an environmental contaminant.
Another nice aspect of the HHR is it’s built to last. GM placed the Panel on a robust, global small-car unibody platform. This lower-dominant structure is designed with strength in the lower portions of the chassis, contributing to an overall feeling of rigidity, effectively minimizing superior noise and vibration characteristics.
The use of premium materials, such as Quiet Steel laminated panels in the plenum area, further enhances the vehicle’s overall quietness, which is readily apparent when crusing along on the interstate.
We also noted how well the HHR Panel handles overall. The HHR uses a MacPherson strut front suspension design, along with a semi-independent, torsion beam rear suspension.
But GM takes that a step more by offering two suspension choices: FE1 suspension standard on LS and 1LT, with an FE3 suspension standard on the 2LT model. The FE1 suspension is tuned for a softer ride and includes 16-inch wheels, while the FE3 provides sportier handling traits and offers standard 17-inch wheels and monotube shocks, which enhance ride and handling. Forged aluminum high-polished 17-inch wheels are also available.
Ours LT model came equipped with the FE3 “sport suspension,” which I’d recommend as the upgrade of choice. It seems perfect for the Panel.
GM makes extensive use of high-strength steel and ultra-high-strength steel in key structural components, including the rocker panels and cross-vehicle reinforcing beam, all which help bolster the vehicle’s rigid feel while providing additional side-impact support.
Speaking of safety, the HHR Panel rates the highest in passenger safety with five stars in both frontal and roll-over tests.
The HHR also stops quickly. Its brakes consist of large front discs and rear drums, with ABS and traction control standard on 2LT models (traction control available only with automatic transmission) and available on LS and 1LT models.
Anyone who is looking for an affordable, reliable mode of transportation that is ideally suited to being a rolling billboard for a small business, you can’t go wrong with the HHR Panel. Neither can the person who is more likely to bring along a date or a friend than a party of five.
The HHR Panel features an open interior that provides the spaciousness and cargo capacity of an SUV, a fuel-efficient, powerful four-cylinder, a ride and handling that brings a smile, and an overall design that fits just about any lifestyle interest.
The best part is the base price is a mere $18,000.
Get a top-of-the-line model like we tested, with the leather and all the frills, and you’re still just nipping $24,000. There’s not another compact SUV out there that offers those attributes for those prices. The HHR Panel is one of a kind, for sure.—Bruce W. Smith / Truck Test Digest