Small MPVs like the Citroen Xsara Picasso, the Fiat Multipla, and the Renault Scenic have become the preferred family vehicles in Europe over the past decade. With their tidy exterior dimensions, they're easy to maneuver on the narrow streets of crowded cities. Although their cabins are not as cavernous as those of U.S.-market minivans, they have tall roofs, and they make very clever use of every single square foot of space. The general consensus was that we Americans had little or no interest in European-style MPVs, since we so love our big SUVs and minivans. Nonetheless, when Chrysler introduced the PT Cruiser here almost six years ago, it was an immediate success, because it wasn't just utilitarian and affordable; it was stylish, with an appealing retro-delivery-van exterior design that resonated with baby boomers.
Chrysler has had the retro-wagon market to itself until now. For 2006, Chevy introduces the HHR, which is virtually identical to the PT in concept. GM says the styling was influenced by the current Chevy SSR convertible pickup as well as the 1949 Suburban. Park the PT and the HHR side-by-side, and it will be obvious to you that they are competitors. Both are fairly low-slung, tall-roofed wagons with four doors and a hatchback that lifts to reveal a versatile load area with movable shelving and other clever features. Both vehicles are based on front-wheel-drive economy-car platforms: the PT Cruiser on the Neon and the HHR on the Chevy Cobalt. Neither one is offered with all-wheel drive, both to keep them affordable and because their makers each offers several other all-wheel-drive vehicles. Yet they are taller and roomier than small station wagons. This unique niche has been occupied solely by the PT Cruiser for nearly six years. Is there room in it for another player?
Chevy clearly hopes so. Interior layout and size, chassis configuration, and exterior styling for the two vehicles all are from the same playbook, but Chevy went down a slightly different road with the HHR's engines. Whereas the PT Cruiser offers three four-cylinder engines, two of them with turbochargers, the HHR sticks with two normally aspirated versions of GM's well-regarded Ecotec four. The standard 2.2-liter version produces 143 horsepower, while the optional 2.4-liter engine uses variable valve timing to achieve 172 horsepower. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic with a remote vehicle starting function is optional. Our test car, fitted with the 2.4-liter and the automatic, shifted smoothly but lacked midrange power. The chassis felt buttoned down, and the HHR rode nicely, but its standard electric power steering lacked linearity and was too slow for maneuvering through the urban jungle of our local Wal-Mart parking lot.
Anybody who's spent time in a PT Cruiser will be at home inside the similarly realized HHR cabin. The raised seating position, the centrally located power-window switches, and the flexible seating arrangements all are familiar. The HHR's radio has a Honda-like large volume knob sensibly located in the center--you'll be seeing variations on this new radio theme in other GM products like the Saturn Vue. Material quality is better than some we've seen from the General, for sure, but it's still below VW, Mazda, Honda, and Toyota standards. Panel fits generally are disappointing, and the markings for the HVAC rotary knobs are nearly impossible to decipher. On the plus side, the HHR's cargo-hauling capability is impressive, especially if you position the adjustable rear cargo shelf in line with the folding rear seat. Fold down the front passenger's seat as well, and you have one long, uninterrupted surface. The PT's seats are easier and quicker to remove than the HHR's.
It was no secret that Chevy was developing the HHR, so Chrysler went on the defense with a well timed, 2006 upgrade to the aging PT Cruiser. The old girl's new party dress consists of freshened front and rear fascias, new headlamps, and a different front grill. Chrysler's stylists fitted the interior with larger gauges, rotating air vents, additional chrome trim, and a very attractive, Chrysler signature analog clock. The stylish steering wheel, the well-designed center console, and a nicer radio also help make the PT Cruiser's cabin look and feel more upmarket than the HHR's. A new acoustic package adds refinement and snuffs out additional road noise.
We tested a PT Cruiser Limited, powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine sending 180 hp through a four-speed automatic transmission. Thanks to its light-pressure turbocharger, it offers much more midrange power than the HHR, but that turbo adds about $1300 to the price. We were not surprised to discover that the Chrysler's chassis is slightly less sporty than the HHR's, since the PT is based on ancient Neon underpinnings, while GM's much more modern Delta platform underlies the HHR. When driven quickly, the PT tends to understeer, which again is no surprise: Neither of these vehicles is going to be your choice for autocrossing.
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.