Marc Stengel, Tue, 14 Mar 2006 08:00:00 PDT
"For want of a nail," the old saying goes, "the kingdom was lost." Of course, there's less appreciation today for the nail that fell out of the horseshoe that came off the horse that failed the cavalry that lost the war that toppled the kingdom. There's a modern enough analogy to this parable of unintended consequences, however: "For want of a response to $3-per-gallon gasoline, the automotive industry was lost."
For years, dramatically higher fuel prices have been inevitable. They just never seemed to arrive; so we in the U.S.-both consumers and manufacturers-tended to put off, collectively, any proper, anticipatory response. Now, an ill wind quite literally has taught us how fast and how high fuel prices can rise. In the States, $3-per-gallon is just the beginning. In the U.K. last month, I personally witnessed the breach of the 1-per-liter threshold. That's $9-per-gallon! What are we gonna do? How quickly can we respond?
By a curious blend of fortunate timing and prescient planning, Chevrolet and Jeep are rolling out two new 2006 SUVs that can indeed be construed as the germ of a response to never-again-bargain-priced fuel. Chevy's new HHR disguises econocar frugality beneath sexy togs that are actually supremely functional. Jeep's Liberty brings to the U.S. a technology that the rest of the world not only adores but sincerely depends upon: diesel power. If indeed the inevitable future is now the inescapable present, here are two significant automotive options for our depraved new world.
Don't ask me what "HHR" means. Okay, I'll tell you just this once: Heritage High Roof. What a dumb name for such a clever car. Or wagon. Or truck. Or SUV. Whatever.
The "Heritage" third of this polynomial appellation is meant to draw attention-according to the press release-to the 1949 Suburban which supposedly serves as the inspiration for HHR's Dick Tracy paddy-wagon looks. Hence the '40s-era fender flares and the big grin of a grill with its bull's-eye Chevy bowtie.
What's really inspiring about the HHR, on the other hand, is the way it so deftly camouflages its humble origins as a Chevrolet Cobalt economy compact. As a result of this single fact, the HHR is both bargain-priced and fuel-frugal. Everything else, from the eye-catching if unorthodox styling to the versatile cargo-handling to the hip iPod compatibility of the stereo, is gravy.
With a 2.2-liter, 143-horsepower "Ecotec" inline-four, the HHR "LS" model starts at an amazing $15,990. I tested an "LT" version with the optional 2.4-liter "Ecotec" making 172 hp and 162 foot-pounds of torque. The as-tested price was $21,355, which included options like ABS brakes, front-to-rear head-curtain airbags, a roof rack and XM Satellite radio. Thus equipped, the HHR delivered 23 mpg/city and 30 mpg/highway. Clearly, the HHR has staged a coup on the affordability front.
Likewise with regard to versatility. This five-passenger wagon boasts 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the 60/40 split-folding rear seat. When that's folded, you get 63 cubes at your disposal, with a perfectly flat floor clad in durable hard vinyl. Then, fold the front passenger seat flat to create a two-by-two-foot "tunnel" that's eight feet long. A moveable rear shelf, moreover, provides two-tier packing options. This is an impressive degree of versatility from what began life as a mere economy sedan.
It's hip, too. Driving feel is not quite peppy even with the 2.4-liter; and brakes are disc/drum combos to hold down costs, while ABS is an option. But ride is pleasant, and steering is fantastic-quick, light and precise. This is the weekend-warrior par excellence for errands, particularly with XM radio or the auxiliary jack for an iPod or MP3 player in use. My severest complaint is the slipperiness of the hard vinyl cargo floor, but this is partially overcome with use of the folding tie-down anchors.
Chevy hopes to sell 100,000 HHRs for 2006. That's an ambitious goal for a new model under any circumstances; but it's also a goal made easier with every next acknowledgment that $3 gas is a thing of the past.
Readers in this space may well recall previous expressions of respect and admiration for Jeep's Liberty compact SUV. For 2006, those sentiments are burnished by the arrival of a diesel engine option. With its combination of fuel efficiency and extreme torque, the new 2.8-liter turbodiesel transforms an impressive on- and off-roader into an exceptional one.
The Liberty diesel may only produce 160 low-rpm hp; but its pulling torque is astronomical: 295 foot-pounds. That helps yield a 5,000-pound tow rating and 1,100-pound payload capacity, while still mustering 21 mpg/city, 26 mpg/highway.
Cargo handling in this five-passenger compact is comparable to the HHR: 29 cubic feet behind the rear seat, 69 cubes with the rear seat folded. And externally, both Liberty and HHR bear similar dimensions, although the HHR is longer whereas Liberty is wider and taller.
The chief difference, besides price, is one of intent. At $20,890 base price/$27,645 as-tested for the "Sport" trim level, the Liberty diesel described here is a bona-fide outdoor enthusiast. Selec-Trac all-time all-wheel-drive delivers significant off-road capability that simply eludes the front-drive, street-only HHR.
Selec-Trac also adds weight and rolling resistance, accounting for diesel mileage gains that aren't anywhere close to what they could be. (Volkswagen's 1.9 TDI diesel, for example, closes in on 45 mpg/highway.) Jeep's diesel, as well, is noisier than many other modern diesels, although certainly nowhere near as loud as the stentors of yesteryear.
But the fact remains that diesel power is unconscionably overlooked in North America as an option in our personal transportation arsenal. Diesel power is more fuel efficient than gas and more cost effective than hybrid. It's a proven technology that deserves more respect in the States, and now Jeep has given diesel the Liberty to earn it.
4-door, 5-pass.; optional 2.4-liter DOHC "Ecotec" inline-4; FWD, 5-sp. auto; 172 hp/162 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 30 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 23.8-63 cu. ft.; std. equipment: front ind. suspension & disc/drum brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD/Aux audio, 16-in. wheels, 60/40 split rear seatbacks w/ rear cargo shelf; base price: $16,425; as-tested: $21,355
4-door, 5-pass.; 2.8-liter DOHC inline-4 turbodiesel; "Selec-Trac" 4WD, 5-sp. auto; 160 hp/295 ft.-lbs.; 21 mpg/city, 26 mpg/hwy w/ diesel; cargo: 29-69 cu. ft.; std. equipment: front ind. suspension & 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD/Aux audio, 16-in. wheels, 60/40 split rear seatbacks; base price: $20,890; as-tested: $27,645