19 June 2009

Review of the Chevy HHR

For the last week, I had the opportunity to drive a 2009 Chevy HHR for our Yellowstone trip. At first blush, the HHR doesn't have a lot to recommend it. As you sit in the drivers seat, right away you find a tacky hard plastic dashboard... ick. Then as you pull out, you notice the huge A-pillars block much of your view, especially when turning. The low-mounted rearview mirror similarly blocks forward vision, which is especially annoying given that the view through the small rear window only fills about half of this oversize mirror. The side mirrors are also oversize, which I'm sure Chevy did on purpose because visibility to the rear is so poor thanks to the large D-pillars.

Another annoyance was the low front lip that sits lower than most curbs. Parking my usual daily-driver cars, I like to pull right up until the front tires bump the curb -- no way in this car, you'd destroy the front bumper assembly before the tires got close to the curb. As a result, I found myself parking about three feet from the curb.

So, the HHR and I did not get off to a good start. The good news is, that's about where the major negatives end. I even didn't mind the automatic transmission -- and that's high praise from me, because I hate automatics and will never own a car with an automatic if I can help it. The HHR's transmission didn't constantly shift or "hunt" for the right gear when climbing and descending the hills of Yellowstone, and I especially appreciated that it didn't downshift at the slightest pressure on the accelerator (as our Mazda 5 did on last year's Colorado trip). The 'I' or 'Intermediate' selection on the shifter was also put to good use descending long steep mountains, and while engine braking was anemic compared to a manual transmission, it was adequate. Again, that's a ringing endorsement from a confirmed automatic-hater such as myself.

On a related note, the Chevy engineers did a good job on the throttle response. The aforementioned Mazda 5's front end would "hop up" as the car surged forward with the slightest press on the throttle, but the HHR had very good manners and accelerated smoothly without nose lift even when the pedal was inexpertly mashed. The brakes were similarly refined, resisting the tendancy to nose-dive even when the brakes were manhandled. The suspension and steering handling were also well-engineered (though the power steering required a bit more effort at freeway speeds than I might have liked, making one-handing steering awkward and tiring).

One interesting feature was the cruise control. Chevy eschewed the traditional Set/Accel and Coast/Resume format and instead used a new (to me) +/Resume and -/Set. The 'Set' is self explanatory, and once engaged, you can then use '+' and '-' to accelerate and decelerate. Since there is no Coast button, you must tap the brakes to disengage the Cruise (which can then be resumed, appropriately, with 'Resume'). My only gripe is the lack of a Coast button, otherwise, I had no complaints. Well, almost. If you tapped the brakes to Coast and slowed down significantly below the set speed, hitting Resume would accelerate to about 3MPH before hitting your set speed, and then it would decide to downshift for those last three MPH. Odd but not a major problem.

A major problem, incidentally, was the fact that the power windows refused to roll up if the ignition was turned off. I lost count of how many times I had to turn the ignition back on so we could all roll our windows up. I guess Chevy never expected anyone to actually roll their windows down in this day and age of the air conditioner?

No major problems with the other controls. The heat, A/C, and radio controls were logical and well-laid-out. Speaking of the radio, there was a neat feature that automatically increased the volume with road speed (to compensate for road and wind noise). I sorely need that feature on my 20-year old cars where the radio's volume can barely overpower the roaring noise at freeway speeds, but it was unnecessary on the HHR as the cabin was pleasantly quiet at 75MPH.

In short, it's not a bad car, but the visibility problems ultimately prevent me from recommending it.

10 June 2009

Motorcycle safety, part III

No pictures for this one I'm afraid, because there's not much to show. But, I purchased a headlight modulator -- this device flashes my headlight about 4 times per second when I flip my high beam on. This is useful for three reasons:

  • It's attention-grabbing. Obvious.
  • Some drivers see a motorcycle, but misjudge it's speed (leading to a collision). The same thing happens when motorists try to beat a train to a railroad crossing -- the sizes of motorcycles and trains are different than the size of cars, which makes it more difficult to judge their relative speed. A headlight modulator knocks a driver's brain out of it's "comfort zone" and forces a re-assessment of the situation.
  • Most new cars are wired so that their headlights are on all the time, even during the day. Motorcycles also have their headlights wired to be on during the day, so motorcycles now tend to "blend in" with a pack of lighted cars. A modulator helps make them stand out again (hopefully, modulators will not ever be allowed on cars).
Installation was plug 'n' play. It simply plugs into the back of the headlight for a tool-free install, which is part of the reason I didn't take any pictures. The other reason is it's hard to see a flashing light in a still photo. ;)

I don't have it set to modulate all the time, however, as the flashing in the rearview mirrors can be annoying for the person immediately in front of me. Since I'm constantly scanning side streets and oncoming traffic for people who may become a threat to me, I just flip it on whenever the situation warrants it.

You may be wondering if a flashing light is legal if I'm not an emergency vehicle. A modulator is 50-state legal for civilian motorcycles per the Federal Department of Transportation if it meets certain specifications (which mine does) in regards to flash rate and time of day (it has an 'eye' to sense the light level and automatically disable itself at night). The DOT has done a lot of stupid things, but this was one thing they got right.

And it does get noticed. A couple of times now, I've flicked it on and been satisfied to see a driver's head swivel to follow me as I ride past (they're probably thinking "is that a motor cop?"). The device was fairly expensive, but cheaper than a hospital visit. Plus, it gives some piece of mind, which is -- as they say -- priceless.