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.