It gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway and two thumbs up for looks.
With its second-row seats raised, it carries five people and several pieces of luggage. With the seats lowered, it hauls enough supplies to take care of a family of five displaced by the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina or by her equally vicious sister, Rita.
It accepts regular unleaded gasoline, and it doesn't mind tight urban parking spaces. It's made for the city.
Chevrolet calls it the HHR -- the Heritage High Roof -- in homage to the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban wagon and its 1936 predecessor, the Carryall-Suburban.
But that's Chevrolet's problem. Its marketers know product history, but they often demonstrate a lack of intelligence for marketing. Few automotive buyers in the United States today know or care anything about the Suburban's wagon heritage. Most people think of it as a gargantuan, fuel-sucking sport-utility vehicle, which the HHR is not.
On the streets of the District of Columbia, at rest stops in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, people crowded around the little HHR and gave it kudos for being "hot" and "hip" and, as one D.C. dude praised it, "ready." There's your name. There's your image. There's your potential bestseller -- the HHR/Hot, Hip and Ready.
Maybe Chevrolet is saving that appellation for the day it sticks a V-6 engine in the front-wheel-drive HHR, or when it adds all-wheel drive. Those things will happen, even if U.S. gasoline prices hit $5 a gallon for regular unleaded. People are funny. They complain about high pump prices; but if a vehicle lacks zip, it's a product they'll skip.
There is zip enough for normal drivers in the current versions of the HHR, sold as the base LS, mid-line 1LT and upscale 2LT. All of those models come with fuel-efficient inline four-cylinder engines, including a 2.2-liter, 16-valve, 143-horsepower inline four for the tested HHR 1LT, and a 2.4-liter, 172-hp version of that engine for the 2LT.
Valve technology is important here. Valves open and close to admit air and fuel into engine combustion chambers, where the mix is compressed and burned, thus producing the power to drive the vehicle's wheels. Exhaust valves release the burned gases, which are further treated with catalytic converters to help reduce emissions before escaping into the atmosphere.
The more efficiently those valves work, the better the engine works, producing more power without using more gas. Four valves per cylinder generally do the job better than the traditional two valves per cylinder; and increasingly, over the past decade, car and truck manufacturers have been using the four-valve setup.
That is what General Motors has done with its Ecotec (short for Ecology Technology) 2.2-liter and 2.4-liter inline -- the cylinders lined up in a straight row -- four-cylinder engines used in the HHR.
I congratulate GM for taking that approach in a wagon that also can be used as a truck. It's a risky but common-sense move in a market in which, despite continuing gas price shocks, many Americans labor under the illusion that they can hold onto cheap gasoline when consumers worldwide are demanding and using more of the stuff, and often are paying more for it than their American counterparts.
Americans crave power. It matters not that the HHR's engines, as currently configured, offer more than enough zip for urban commuting and hauling. There remains a consumer lust -- willingly and deftly exploited by every automobile manufacturer doing business in the United States -- to hear those engines roar, to have them propel cars and trucks from 0 to 60 miles per hour in five seconds, which is about twice as fast as the HHR can make that run.
So, you can bank on GM boosting the power in pursuit of putting more money in its bank. But, for the moment, the four-cylinder machines do what they do exceptionally well. They haul people and their stuff in small-wagon safety and comfort with a lot of style at a very decent price.