PHOENIX – If the ’08 Chevrolet HHR SS portends the future of performance and utility, Americans used to having their cake and eating it, too, are headed for a crash diet.

In fact, as GM Vice Chairman and product boss Bob Lutz suggests here during a recent preview of the vehicle, even the relatively economical Chevy HHR SS could fall victim to a new federal law requiring the U.S. fleet to achieve 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020.

“Twenty years from now, these will be highly sought-after collector’s cars,” Lutz says of the Chevy with a laugh. “This won’t survive, even with a 29 mpg (8 L/100 km) highway rating.”

That’s not a black mark on the Chevy HHR SS, either. With a turbocharged 4-cyl. engine that pumps out 260 hp and a delicious 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) of torque, the cross/utility vehicle packs enough punch to satisfy most appetites.

At the same time, it’s much more than a light-to-light racer. A Nurburgring-tuned suspension adds surprisingly sophisticated driving dynamics for the money. And with seating for five adults and a cargo capacity of up to 63.1 cu.-ft. (1,787 L), it rates as a functional beast, as well.

But the HHR SS also offers a glimpse of what might await consumers after the new fuel-economy rule exercises its full influence. For starters, the high-pitched, popping exhaust note of tuner vehicles could replace the low, rumbling V-8 sound that performance enthusiasts have gorged on for the last 30 years.

And those days when an everyday family of five would load a garage full of gear and hitch a boat to their fullsize SUV for a week’s vacation might become the dalliance of a moneyed few.

Given such a future, the budget-conscious masses could be left with a vehicle closely resembling the HHR SS. It’s no Corvette, although it wasn’t until 1992 the venerable sports car carried the power ratings of the ’08 HHR SS.

Nor is it as capable as a Chevy Tahoe. But the CUV does execute in a manner befitting its SS badge without all the guilt of overindulgence.

Outfitted with a manual transmission, the front-wheel-drive HHR SS will zip from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 6.3 seconds, GM says, placing it ahead of some rear- and all-wheel-drive sports cars. It will cover the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds and reach a top speed of 150 mph (240 km/h). But under more modest driving, it still achieves combined fuel economy of 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km).

It also starts at a rather thrifty $22,995, including destination charges, so leaving a few toys at home on that weekend getaway might not seem such an inconvenience.

Motivation for the Chevy HHR SS comes via GM’s Ecotec 2.0L 4-cyl., optimized through gasoline direct injection, variable-valve timing and a BorgWarner Inc. intercooled turbo. It’s the same powerplant GM drops into its Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line roadsters and that will make its way into the ’08 Chevy Cobalt SS this spring.

Built alongside higher-volume Ecotec mills at GM’s Spring Hill, TN, plant, the 2.0L receives a number of special components, including a more robust steel crankshaft, continuous oil-spray piston cooling to reduce friction and a high-pressure fuel pump to accommodate its direct-injection system.

Although the turbo boost is available across a wide power band, it doesn’t arrive as quickly or as authoritatively as one might expect. Test vehicles here devoured steep, mountainous grades and chunks of interstate without reservation, but on the track at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Firebird Raceway the engine leaves us longing for a spikier delivery.

The 2.0L overall is a bit unruly – mash the throttle and it rattles off a response like a teenager reminded to be home by 11 p.m. But perhaps GM wants it that way. For example, the auto maker could have eliminated the afterburn that causes a “pop” as unburned fuel ignites during aggressive driving, but engineers say that’s what gives the vehicle its character.

’08 Chevrolet HHR SS
Vehicle type front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger wagon
Engine turbocharged 2.0L 4-cyl. direct-injection gasoline
Power (SAE) net (manual) 260 hp @ 5,300 rpm
Torque (manual) 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual; optional 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase 103.6 in. (263.1 cm)
Overall length 176.5 in. (448.3 cm)
Overall width 69.1 in. (175.5 cm)
Overall height 62.5 in. (158.8 cm)
Curb weight 3,280 lbs. (1,488 kg)
Fuel economy (manual) 21/29 mpg (11/8 L/100 km)
Competition Dodge Caliber SRT-4, Chrysler PT Cruiser GT, Subaru Impreza WRX, MazdaSpeed3, Volkswagen GTI.
Pros Cons
Sports car-like performance Unruly 4 cyl.
Tons of cargo space Boy-racer exhaust tone
Darn good fuel economy Requires premium fuel

The powerplant is mated to either a sturdy 5-speed manual transmission that dates back to the ‘93 Saab 9000 or a 4-speed automatic. Although 70% are expected to pick the automatic, that transmission waters down power ratings to 235 hp and 223 lb.-ft. (302 Nm) of torque and cuts top speed to 130 mph (209 km/h).

The manual incorporates what GM calls “no-lift shift,” which allows drivers to keep their foot on the accelerator when changing gears. From a dead stop, just drop the clutch as usual but keep the accelerator to the floor through the remaining gear changes. An algorithm in the truck’s control software limits the revs. GM says the feature is worth 7/100 of a second on every shift. It’s a tricky maneuver the first few times through the gears. But once years of trained behavior are overcome, it makes for good fun if not faster lap times.

GM also moves the shifter forward and slightly higher on the HHR SS, which on top of 30% shorter throws further enhances the driving experience.

Also exclusive to the HHR SS is standard launch control, which drivers can access via the traction-control button. It dials back power to the front axle automatically to limit wheel slip at launch.

When coupled with the manual transmission, it still requires drivers to find the perfect spot to drop the clutch. But, like no-lift shift, once mastered it adds consistency to the vehicle’s launch and solves arguably the most difficult aspect of light-to-light racing.

In the chicanes and hairpin turns of the Bondurant school’s road course, the HHR SS demonstrates a tightly tuned chassis, responsive steering and substantial braking power. GM proved the revamped suspension at Germany’s Nurburgring racetrack. The work shows through a number of enhancements, including a lowered ride height, heavier stabilizer bars front and rear, retuned spring rates and specific damper tuning.

GM also steps up the ratio on the HHR SS’ electric power steering system vs. the standard model and adds a smaller diameter steering wheel. Torque steer from the front-wheel-drive setup is minimal.

Brakes feature 11.65-in. (29.6 cm) vented rotors with 2-in. (5.4 cm) single-piston calipers up front and 9.84-in. (27.0 cm) solid discs with 1.5-in. (3.8 cm) single-piston calipers in the rear. Combined with electronic stability control and traction control, the chassis systems help novice racers stay on the track and make for safer everyday driving.

Of course, the HHR would not receive full SS designation without performance-oriented styling cues. A wider, deeper front fascia and lower ride height convey a “slammed” appearance.

Bumperettes have been removed, and GM adds mesh upper and lower grilles and extends the CUV’s rocker panels to highlight the model’s unique colors, such as Sunburst Orange II Metallic, Mystic Blue Flash Metallic and good-old-fashion Victory Red.

The truck’s 18-in. polished forged aluminum 5-spoke wheels are wrapped in Michelin all-season tires specially developed for the HHR SS. Chrome is added to the vehicle’s 3-in. (7.6 cm) rear exhaust tip, and bright SS badges along the front doors and rear liftgate help distinguish the car. The SS also gets a spoiler over the rear window.

GM carries the SS-theme inside the vehicle, stitching the badge into seats that include sporty inserts and extra bolsters. Model-specific gauges and an A-pillar-mounted turbo boost gauge further distinguish the truck as a performance vehicle.

Key optional equipment includes the automatic transmission, a limited-slip differential for manual gearboxes, a premium Pioneer audio system, power sunroof and a performance driver’s seat. Checking all the boxes pushes the HHR SS sticker just over $26,500.

The auto maker expects the model will retain its 55% male ownership and bring the HHR’s average owner age down to the mid-40s from 54.

The ’08 Chevy HHR SS certainly deserves GM’s most vaunted performance moniker, as well as consideration from consumers alongside more popular and equally capable 5-doors, such as the Subaru Impreza WRX, MazdaSpeed3 or Volkswagen GTI.

But the HHR SS, which traces its inspiration to the ‘49 Chevy Suburban, does those imports one better by offering cargo volume on par with some small SUVs. That could indeed be a sign that the future already has arrived.

jamend@wardsauto.com