More stories related to 2005 Greater L.A. Auto Show LOS ANGELES – Call it a Chrysler PT Cruiser clone, call it late to the party, just don’t call it a guaranteed flop.

As media comparisons between General Motors Corp.’s new HHR and Chrysler Group’s successful PT Cruiser begin surfacing, top GM executives answer the criticism during the Greater L.A. Auto Show, where the HHR was unveiled. (See related story: Chevy Unveils HHR in LA)

“I would only say to that (PT comparison), it’s probably totally unavoidable when you’re only looking at static models,” GM North America President Gary Cowger tells Ward’s. “When you actually drive these things and you see the utility and the size and the interiors and the functionality and the versatility, I think those kinds of comparisons will go away.”

Cowger says previously forecast volumes of between 80,000-100,000 remain “reasonable.” Dealers say “we’re going to have broad appeal, because when you see the interior and you see the functionality and the versatility,” the buying proposition makes sense in the price range GM is planning, he says.

Other configurations could help HHR reach sales targets, a source says.

But don't expect all to be 4-door '49 Suburban look-alikes. The PT lineup, for example, includes a convertible and a high-performance version.

"The PT isn't the only rival in this segment," a source confides. "Honda (Motor Co. Ltd.) has the Element and Scion the xB wagon, so it's possible other HHR versions would be coming."

Bob Lutz, vice chairman-product development and overseer of PT Cruiser development during his days at Chrysler Corp., says the suggestion the HHR will fail because it is late to market is “silly.”

Lutz says reviews criticizing the HHR as a PT Cruiser that is three years late is “the height of stupidity.”

“Who the hell says there’s some magic period where you must absolutely introduce a heritage-derived vehicle for one of your brands?” he says. “Who says that three years ago was the right time to do it? Who says the PT Cruiser sucked up all the demand for small front-wheel-drive cars that draw on the corporate heritage for their definition?

“By that definition, the new Ford Mustang came to the party 40 years too late because that’s the last time they used that style.”

Much like the PT Cruiser, based on the Neon small-car chassis, the HHR is built off the Delta (Chevrolet Cobalt) platform to maximize volume and ensure GM’s small-car program is successful, Lutz says.

People will pay a premium for the HHR because it has minivan-like functionality, in a small and sensationally styled packaged, he says, which is the same formula employed under his leadership at Chrysler.

“There’s no reason the same formula won’t work again,” Lutz says.

He admits auto makers haven’t been successful in the past with trying to sell “small minivans” in the U.S. But that is where the styling comes in, he says.

“Small minivan is a bad word,” Lutz says. “Every time it’s been tried in the U.S., like the Nissan Access or the Mitsubishi Statesman, they’re always resounding flops. Because if people are going to carry the stigma of driving a family hauler, at least they want a big one that’s going to be functional.

“But the minute the you take a small a monocab package and disguise it as something different, such as a (miniaturized) ’49 Suburban in our case, all of the sudden they have the functionality with none of the stigma.”

Lutz derides publications suggesting market research on the HHR has failed to live up to the company’s initial expectations. The vehicle has passed through consumer clinics with flying colors and will fly off dealer lots with the same speed.

“Read my lips, the HHR marketed through Chevrolet dealerships and the price we’re going to sell it at, will be sensationally successful.”

– with Jim Mateja

jstoll@primediabusiness.com