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.