SS Is More Than A Badge On The Chevy HHR

Unusual features such as launch control and no-lift shift turn retro `compact van’ into a scorcher

Nika Rolczewski
Special to the Star

Dec 29, 2007

CHANDLER, ARIZ. – On the road to Tortilla Flats on the outskirts of Phoenix, the road curves and the cliffs are steep.

Riding in the passenger seat of the Chevrolet HHR SS, I look for the rookie handle to hang on to while my driver pilots the vehicle flawlessly through the twists and turns, using up all the asphalt.

I don’t fear the car losing control so much as my stomach losing its breakfast.

This is not a good way to be when your chauffeur is Bob Lutz, vice-chair of product development for GM, and the vehicle he’s personally presenting to you is the latest high-performance model from the world’s largest car company.

“We are careful what we put the SS (Super Sport) badge on,” Lutz says, while making the 18-inch polished aluminum wheels and performance tires chirp.

“It has to be special, not just faster – it has to turn substantially better and stop.”

Lutz, a former air force pilot and now a hobby flyer, is in his 70s, with an illustrious automotive history behind him.

He shows no signs of slowing (see accompanying story), and neither does the HHR SS.

There have been rumblings that a pumped-up version of Chevy’s HHR (Heritage High Roof) was in the works almost since the retro-looking vehicle was introduced in the 2006 model year.

Spy photos were published, and in October 2006, GM confirmed that an SS-badged vehicle would be built.

Less than a year later, at the annual Detroit automotive love fest known as the Woodward Dream Cruise, the HHR SS was unveiled.

Lutz is sure this will be the “next generation’s collector car.”

It certainly looks the part. The front and rear fascias have been changed to give them a more aggressive appearance. The upper and lower grilles are mesh, while the interior has new sport seats, plus a trendy instrument display with an A-pillar boost gauge.

Indeed, with a top speed of 240 km/h and 0-to-100 km/h time of 6.3 seconds (a mere 0.3 seconds slower than a 15+ yr old Corvette), the SS version of the HHR packs a lot of power and performance into a relatively small package.

With a Canadian price of $28,240, this five-door delivers a lot of bang for the buck.

For one thing, the SS has launch control, which minimizes wheel slip from a standing start while keeping the revs high. The result makes the SS quicker off the line, and unlike the launch control on BMW models, there is no restriction on the number of launches allowed.

But the real piece of candy is the “no-lift shift” feature on the manual transmission, which allows you to keep the accelerator pressed down, while you use the clutch to shift gear.

The result is a smooth power shift that, in competition mode, shaves off 7/100ths of a second of your time.

It’s comforting knowing the engine and transmission are built to handle it. But I question its usefulness, and even Lutz, as an old-school driver, admits that he finds it difficult to bring himself to use the feature.

Our tester in Arizona also featured a five-speed manual transmission, Brembo brakes and a sport suspension.

There are specific stabilizer bars, spring rates and damper tuning — all designed to complement the turbocharged powertrain that provides 0.86 g worth of grip, ensuring the car is sure-footed on the twisty bits.

Fortunately, for the hour on the road to Tortilla Flats with Lutz, Gravol turns out to be my tummy’s saviour.

But the Chevy HHR SS is a misfit of sorts. It turned in a lap record on Germany’s famed Nürburgring racetrack earlier this year – but in the “compact van” class. Its retro-inspired look doesn’t fit the sports car image, even though GM sees the sporty Mazdaspeed3 as a rival. Chevy sales literature lists it as an SUV.

Though it remains a non-conformist – an automotive oddball looking to fit in – one place this wagon definitely feels at home is on the curvy road or racetrack.

Nika

Nika

Nika has had a love for cars and racing since childhood. A regional racing license holder she has been involved with the industry, working with racers, teams, journalists and automobile manufacturers in sponsorship solicitation, logistics, hospitality, road show and communication program implementation.