The HHR Panel Van – caution: weird load |

The HHR Panel Van – caution: weird load

Andy Stonehouse

Those blessed or cursed with this infernal car-writing gig get a mixed lot: automobiles that are so incredibly sublime that you nearly break down in tears when they’re returned to the manufacturer, or others that, to phrase it nicely, you hardly remember driving, despite doing so for a week at a time.

That’s where the equally infernal invention that is the cell phone camera comes in handy. I’ve amassed a memory card’s worth of pictures of myself and the occasional brave, waiver-signing passenger checking out automobiles aplenty ” and often those photos tell a much better story than anything I can really remember about the automobile itself.

Take, for instance, the small and stylistically in-your-face Chevrolet HHR truck-van thing. I drove one when they first materalized about three years ago and found it to be a cute and marginally functional retro-machine created in the spirit of the PT Cruiser (in fact, created by the same guy who designed the PT, which made sense).

Shaped like a miniaturized version of the 1949 Suburban, the Heritage High Roof (there’s a smooth-flowing name) scoots around with a long, almost truck-like hood and chrome grille, followed up by a small van-like body with overstated, widely flared wheel wells, substantial running boards and pop-eyed tail lamps.

That was all fine and good, but last summer, in the midst of an orgy of shows at Red Rocks, I managed to acquire the new HHR panel van, and from what I remember it was one of the most peculiar vehicles I’ve ever driven. Bright red, too, which made things all the more strange.

While the standard, four-door HHR’s tiny van shape does allow for reasonably good visibility, the panel-van version conspired to create the most blind spots of any automobile on the road, with the exception of one of those armored personnel carriers they use for knocking down meth lab homes in East L.A.

The windows in the rear doors have disappeared, and the doors themselves made nearly invisible, popping open only by controls in the front of the cabin or, as I remember it, a remote control that may not have worked (remote start was also promised, but my feeling was that the battery was dead, so I had plenty of trouble opening the doors.)

An oval window in the back liftgate is your only opportunity for visibility; parallel parking the panel van was practically impossible without a spotter (even with side mirrors). The vehicle effectively has the largest blind spot in automotive history.

And just what is it that you get instead of rear seats? We found a large, raised, carpet-covered platform that seemed suited to the automobile’s perhaps unwritten target market: pizza delivery people with a sense of panache, or those running a mortuary for the vertically challenged. You can get 57 cubic feet of stuff in there, plus another five cubic feet of covered storage under the deck.

The whole thing was strange as hell, frankly. We discovered that the curiously claustrophobic cabin did make for an effective if not submarine-like space to ride out a terrifying pre-concert typhoon, but the concession for having three people crammed in there were some strange footprints on the inside of the HHR’s ceiling, which I’m sure future test drivers found a tad unusual.

The HHRs I’ve tested have come with either a loose five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission to try to make things a bit more fun. While handling and stopping in the tiny car/truck were reasonably good for the vehicle’s proportions and 17-inch wheels and tires, the buzzy engine just failed to provide enough oomph to make things that exciting.

True automotive iconoclasts can opt for the HHR SS, which blows out a 2.0 liter engine to produce 260 horsepower, adds some super-tuned suspension and is, again, a very odd but fast little van-type thing.

Loads and loads and loads of plastic on the inside of the cabin were softened a bit by the presence of leather seating surfaces and a leather-wrapped wheel; the high-performance audio system (with seven Pioneer speakers and XM satellite radio) was made all the more resonant and poignant by the windowless wonder of the rear cabin. Actually accessing the seat controls is difficult, as there’s very little space between the seat bottom and the door.

A very funny little instrument panel with a series of concentric half-moons and circles delivers the info ” a tiny little gauge that looks like it might be a temperature read-out is in fact the tachometer.

What do GM’s own marketing materials say the HHR panel van is really suited for? Apparently, rolling billboards, or custom paint jobs in the ilk of the Viking-with-sword styled airbrush jobs of vans of the late 1970s. Awesome indeed.

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