Junkyard Gem: 2009 Chevrolet HHR with manual transmission

Murilee Martin

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The sales success of the retro-ized Volkswagen New Beetle in 1998 caught Chrysler's attention, which led to the big-selling PT Cruiser for the 2002 model year. GM, with a wealth of cool-looking machinery in its heritage, leaped onto the nostalgia bandwagon by designing a late-1940s-style sedan delivery body for the Chevy Cobalt platform (the PT Cruiser lived on the Neon platform). This was the HHR, and production ran from the 2006 through 2011 model years. A 5-speed manual transmission came as standard equipment on the HHR, but just about every one sold in the United States seems to have been equipped with the optional four-speed automatic. Here's one of those rare three-pedal cars, found in a Colorado Springs yard.

The automatic added $1,000 to the cost of the $18,720 HHR LS, which was about $500 less than the (inflation-adjusted) cost of a 2-speed Powerglide auto in the Chevy wagons of 50 years earlier. You'd think that the relative cheapness of the manual would have resulted in plenty of takers among HHR buyers— this was the case with the PT Cruiser— but it took me many months of junkyard searching to find such a car. Perhaps the 5-speed HHRs are so enjoyable to drive that owners keep them longer.

I'm always on the lookout for these rare manual-transmission cars when I'm prowling the junkyards, and I've managed to spot such oddities as a 5-speed Dodge Caliber, a 5-speed Mercury Mystique, a 5-speed (non-SHO) Ford Taurus, and a 5-speed Toyota Previa All-Trac over the years. I'm still looking for a 21st-century Camry with a manual transmission, without success.

It has become trendy to hate the PT Cruiser in recent years, but the nostalgo-Chrysler sold very well for years and it took until the early 2010s before they started showing up in the cheap U-Wrench boneyards in large quantities. The HHR followed a similar, if shorter, trajectory and is commonplace at such yards today.

This "truck" was a Cobalt under the skin, with all of the pluses and minuses of its car sibling. The modern and reliable Ecotec engine was one of the HHR's pluses; this one is the 2.2 rated at 149 horsepower. Buyers could get an HHR SS for 2009, which offered a screaming 260 horsepower. I don't expect to see an SS in a place like this for at least a few more years.

2009 was a rough year for The General, and sales of the HHR had plunged from their solid 2006-2007 levels. Still, optimism remained.

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