BAKERSFIELD, CA – Cobalt, the element, has a split personality.

Its name is derived from a German word that equates to “goblin” in English. And it can be morphed into a nuclear weapon with enough destructive potential to wipe out every life form on the planet.

So, according to these criteria, if the base-model Chevrolet Cobalt were a mischievous gnome, the ’08 Cobalt SS coupe would be “the bomb.”

Not even Chevy would go that far. But the performance-oriented iteration of the bow-tie brand’s compact segment offering boasts the basic chemistry of affordable street cred.

Start with the ’08 model’s taut exterior, uncontaminated by hood scoops and side air extractors.

Its front fascia yawns politely, framing a heat exchanger that serves the 20-psi (1.4-bar) BorgWarner turbocharger. Meanwhile, Brembo front calipers suggest potency as they peek through 18-in. forged aluminum wheels.

For tuners who just can’t help themselves, there’s a $125 raised-wing option. And according to Chevy, it’s functional, adding more than 100 lbs. (45 kg) of down-force at 120 mph (193 km/h).

The car’s sporty interior is welcoming, with a contrasting-color theme carried throughout.

Comfort is assured in front by prominent bolsters that provide snug security without the rigid Iron-Maiden-like grip of some performance seats. Coziness awaits two rear-seat passengers, but expect claustrophobia when the third rear seat is filled.

Give Chevy full credit for equipping each of the five seating positions with a head restraint. But that’s no reason to expect neck-snapping performance, if only because the car’s power and torque are so well managed.

For those times when you’ve just got to put your foot down, there are two technologies that debuted on the ’08 Chevy HHR SS sport wagon: launch control and “no-lift shift.”

The former minimizes wheel spin, while the latter uses an algorithm to maintain boost pressure just long enough to execute a shift – if the accelerator is pinned.

Forget that it shaves 0.7 seconds from each stroke of the short-throw shifter. The resulting smoothness accentuates the car’s pull, a heady feeling punctuated by the accompanying back-pressure pop.

(Note: The shifter’s throw isn’t short enough when the console’s forward cupholders are in use. Drink up or first, third and fifth gears get annoying.)

For ’09, look for Chevy to take a page from the Dodge Caliber SRT4’s “performance pages,” which deliver real-time data such as lateral G-forces on a digital display.

’08 Chevrolet Cobalt SS
Vehicle type front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger coupe
Engine turbocharged 2.0L DOHC I-4
Power (SAE net) 260 hp @ 5,300 rpm
Torque 253 lb.-ft (353 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.2:1
Transmission F35 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 103.5 ins. (263 cm)
Overall length 180.5 ins. (459 cm)
Overall width 67.9 ins. (173 cm)
Overall height 55.7 ins. (142 cm)
Curb Weight 2,975 lbs. (1,349 kg)
Base price $22,995
Fuel economy 22/30 mpg (11/7.8 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen GTI, Mazdaspeed3, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Pros Cons
Clean styling Exhaust note absent
No-lift shift No performance meter
Puts power down Cramped console

But no-lift shift only highlights the coupe’s compliant steering and satisfying stiffness. The Cobalt SS practically maneuvers itself, which is no mean feat for a front-wheel-drive performance car.

At city pace, steering feels conflicted, the way a thoroughbred fusses when forced to walk. But kick it up to back-road tempo, and you’ll know how it feels when horse and rider work together.

Whipping through the undulating blacktop that winds between Bakersfield’s myriad oil wells, where fuel-consumption averaged a thrifty 26 mpg (9 L/100 km), the car’s electric variable-speed rack-and-pinion setup defines the term linear.

Until now, the Mazdaspeed3 has been the poster child for torque-steer mitigation. But the Cobalt SS matches the Mazda zoom for zoom using angled half-shafts, a 0.9-in. (24-mm) solid stabilizer bar and a pair of algorithms that subtly dilute wheel inputs and reduce throttle to put control back in the driver’s hands.

About the only thing wanting here is an exhaust note. All 260 ponies rounded up by the 2.0L Ecotec I-4 are muffled by its turbo.

That’s the nature of the beast, Chevy says, chiding Volkswagen AG for adding cost to the GTI with induction amplification.

Still, the new Cobalt SS car should placate Chevy fans who bemoaned the departure of the supercharged model after model-year ’06.

Cobalt may rank 27th on the periodic table, but with Chevy’s SS badge attached, it has all the elements of a winner.

emayne@wardsauto.com