Add the title of “Automobile Reviewer” to the versatile Robot’s list of talents. Seeing as though I’ve been without my car for the better part of two weeks, it’s allowed me to experiment with rental cars. Ah, rental cars. That feeling of complete freedom to do 90mph on the highway. Or, uh, “test” out the brakes or turning angle. Good times, indeed. Over the past couple of days, I’ve had the opportunity to try out the brand new 2006 Chevrolet HHR. This is a new vehicle which just hit the showroom floors and the local Avis here in Maynard just happened to have one.My short verdict: cool ride, but I would never buy it. As you can tell, they’ve taken some chances on the design. It’s the old retro body/modern interior trick. While I do remain very optimistic that the U.S. automakers can bring the standards of quality up to match or even beat foregin cars, it will take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that blah blah blah.

So….the good. Finally, I’ve driven a Chevy that drives quite nicely. I really liked the tight steering and the smooth ride. The car, as you might imagine, drew many stares, something which I probably would have really enjoyed in my attention-starved years (what?) but now it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Hell, even the toll-taker at Logan Airport gave me a smile and a big thumbs up and said “hey, nice car!” It was 1 am and I just wanted to get home.

I also really dug the interior. I’m a total sucker for a souped up interior. Give me the colors, the knobs, switches, buttons. Give it all to me. I don’t even care if the buttons don’t do a damn thing – load up that dashboard with nicely lit buttons or messages and I’m drooling like Pavlov’s doggie. So there’s some nice features about this interior – the radio display, even though the picture is a little fuzzy, is a step ahead in terms of intuitiveness – it actually displays the “100.7” and all your other saved stations right there on the screen so you don’t have to remember that “100.7” is preset #1. Nice touch. The driver displays (MPH, RPM, etc) are stylishly retro. Nice job, Chevy. For once.

Yuck: visibility is atrocious. Trying to see out the back is a complete disaster, due to what seems like a one square foot window back there and for some reason, objects in the rear view mirrors seemed further than they actually appeared. That must be a first. While the radio display screen was good, the knobs were badly located, causing me to take my eyes off the road more than once. I should assume that the more you drive the car, the more you get used to it, but you never know. It was a definite minus. What I would never get used to is that all four buttons for the power windows are located in the center console under the knobs for the heat & AC. A horrific idea.

All in all, the important factor here is that I’ve driven an American car that I didn’t get out of and immeadiately puke about. It’s actually been quite a long time since that has happened for me. When I look at Detroit’s output over the past 20 years, it hasn’t been one of innovation or quality. But take a look around. The HHR is an obvious response to the PT Cruiser, despite Chevy’s consistant denial of it. But other, newer designs coming out of Detroit bring lots of hope – the Pontiac Solstice looks like quite a bargain and a nice little sports car. Ford’s Escape Hybrid is a promising start to their green initiative. Other cars like the Chrysler Pacifica, the Dodge Magnum and the beautiful newly designed Ford Mustang all bring hope to what has been a long drought for the U.S. carmakers. I won’t be rushing out to buy one anytime soon, but when I do, they very well might be in the crosshairs.