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There’s a certain stigma around modern cars with retro styling that makes them feel tacky or awkward. The Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevy HHR are two such examples. Born in a time of design experimentation, they captured the essence of classic cars for the modern-day. But how do these two anomalies compare, and are they worth remembering?

The Chrysler PT Cruiser’s bold design and botched build-quality

The Chrysler PT Cruiser
The Chrysler PT Cruiser George Pimentel/WireImage

The more you learn about the PT Cruiser, the stranger it gets. First debuted in 1999, the production version of this car was actually classified as a truck. At the time, Chrystler’s average fuel economy across their lineup wasn’t stellar. To remedy this, classifying the Cruiser as a truck meant its higher fuel economy for a “truck” would help balance out the lower fuel economy in their other vehicles. And because of its large and sturdy design, the Cruiser was remarkably utilitarian. But beyond that, things start to fall apart. Literally.

The 2.4L four-cylinder engine made 150 hp, which isn’t a lot for a 3,000-pound car. This performance problem was remedied in 2006 with the GT version, bumping up the horsepower to 230. But regardless of power, these “economical” engines had issues with guzzling gas and burning oil. Electrical components were prone to failure, making the car run rough and refuse to start. But any car built on the same platform as the Dodge Neon would be dicey from the start.

Many things about the PT Cruiser are put in quotations, including that it looks like a “classic car.” It doesn’t meet today’s typical standards, but for the era, strange vehicles like this made sense. Volkswagen brought back the Beetle, one of the most iconic cars of the 1960s and 70s. So it made sense for automakers to cash in on this retro vibe. In fact, the PT Cruiser was so popular, it was even exported and became somewhat of a cult classic in foreign markets as well. But the PT Cruiser’s only real competition came in 2006, six years after the Cruiser had entered production, with the Chevy HHR.

The Chevy HHR isn’t just a carbon copy

The Retro Styled Chevy HHR SUV parked on the street
The Chevy HHR Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

While late to the party, the Chevy HHR had a lot of similarities to the PT Cruiser, for better or worse. On the one hand, both were designed by Bryan Nesbit, which explains their strange yet alluring style. On the other, both the HHR and the Cruiser suffered from lackluster performance figures and low fuel economy. The engine options in the HHR varied, but the lowest power figure you could get was 143 hp, while the highest was 260 hp. And while the design is fairly loud on the outside, road noise is pretty loud on the inside as well.

That said, the HHR managed to get some things right, such as a better fuel economy. The HHR got a combined 25 mpg in comparison to the Cruiser’s 22 mpg. And while the interior was cheap and plastic, the mechanics and chassis were a bit more sound. It also offered a larger trunk, especially if you purchased the panel van version, with 63 cubic feet of space.

What we have then are two cars attempting to spark nostalgia in consumers, while also being budget-friendly. Neither of them is by any means a perfect car, with the Consumer Reports owner’s satisfaction being a one out of five for both. But some of that shoddiness can be forgiven by the styling.

Why these retro cars kind of worked

The Chrysler PT Cruiser
The Chrysler PT Cruiser George Pimentel/WireImage

What both these cars lack in quality they make up for in personality. You see either of these on the road and take a moment to gawk in confusion and furrow your brow. Why were these made? What is their purpose? Truth be told, both of these cars were playing to the times, for everyone who thought the 60s were better. And while the road noise may have been loud on the inside, their styling was loud on the outside, and that’s what mattered.

Whether we’ll see more retro styling like this in the future or not is yet to be determined. We’ve already seen a rise in reviving nameplates, such as the Ford Maverick and the GMC Hummer. So there’s something to be said about cashing in on the past. But whether you fall for the marketing gimmicks or not, there’s no denying that the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevy HHR were appropriate for the time, and downright odd today.


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