MILFORD, Mich. -- Near Milford Proving Ground, the automotive research and testing facility for General Motors in suburbs of Detroit, we're scooting along Slobart Road in a most unusual low-rider muscle car from Chevrolet.
With its fat-lip fascia hugging the pavement and a spherical stepped hood protrusion concealing a turbo-charged propulsion machine, the 2008 HHR SS - "SS" as in Super Sport -- is one souped-up crossover utility vehicle (CUV).
Consider it the latest evolution of the Chevrolet HHR compact-class wagon.
The HHR (those initials signify "Heritage High Roof") is itself a unique vehicle, looking like some shrunk-down and retro-styled homage to Chevy's Suburban wagon of roly-poly fender and bulging roofline vintage, circa 1949.
Or maybe it's a mutational mixing of the vintage Suburban and Chevy's more recent SSR pop-top convertible pickup due to the forward fenders articulated in edgy bulges and a spherical stepped hood protrusion blunted in front by an in-your-face grille.
And HHR's distinctive silhouette for a curvaceous little wagon with three sets of windows etched into flanks also remind us of a woody wagon borrowed from those '60s beach-blanket movies with Frankie and Annette.
Yet the lines -- a boxy but rolled body with exaggerated fenders and that chin-out grille plus a roll of sheetmetal wrapping around the top-heavy rear -- suggest both old and new forms, as if a gigantic blender, filled with assorted automotive concepts as diverse as a beach buggy, panel truck, hot rod and even a minivan, whipped up a concoction that's fresh and clever and too-cool.
Whatever cross-breeding may have occurred in the design progress, the resultant styling for HHR clearly stands out.
But the HHR SS goes even further in the styling department as decked out with a bulging dam-style front fascia with foglamps and curvy rocker extension moldings plus the suspension slammed like a low-down street 'rod.
Engineers at GM's Performance Division developed the HHR SS by adding those wild-style body add-ons, then installing a performance-tuned sport suspension system, 18-inch high-polished aluminum wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport tires, plus a turbo-charged and inter-cooled four-cylinder engine tied to a quick five-speed manual gearbox produced by GM Powertrain Sweden.
All of the dynamic mechanical systems -- suspension, steering, brakes -- were revised to complement the SS's turbo-charged muscle.
For instance, the suspension -- consisting of independent front elements via MacPherson struts and a semi-independent twist beam axle in back -- employs SS-specific stabilizer bars, spring rates and damper tuning to deliver a tight, road-hugging ride quality with minimal body pitch when cornering.
In front, there are gas-charged twin-tube struts, 28-mm linear coil springs with specific damper tuning, stiffer bushings and a direct-acting 23-mm solid stabilizer bar.
In back, the change list includes monotube gas-charged shocks, multi-rate coil springs, taut axle bushings and a 24-mm solid stabilizer bar.
An electric power steering (EPS) system for the rack and pinion mechanism scores special tight tuning with a faster (14.8:1 ratio) rack and pinion gear.
HHR SS upgrades brakes to a big disc at each wheel with front vented rotors and 54-mm single-piston calipers plus solid discs at the rear with 38-mm single-piston calipers.
Brakes tie via electronic links to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with a standard traction control system (TCS) and GM's electronic skid controller, StabiliTrak.
Standard safety content extends to frontal air bags for driver and passenger, with available side curtain-style air bags concealed in the ceiling above front and rear outboard seats as a stand-alone option.
Engine for the HHR SS is a 2.0-liter Ecotec DI (direct injection) four-pack fitted with the turbo-charger and air-to-air inter-cooling system.
When tied to the "no-lift shift" five-speed manual transmission, the turbo plant delivers 260 hp of juice with 260 lb-ft of torque.
With the optional four-speed electronic automatic transaxle (GM's Hydra-Matic 4T45-E), the engine's output drops to 235 hp.
HHR's flat-floored passenger compartment with a high ceiling and voluminous space contains two rows of seats, with twin buckets in front of a bench for three.
Special treatment applies inside the SS edition, such as sport bucket seats up front with side bolsters and the center section in sticky suede to keep your body pinned in place during hard-corner turns.
Also, there's a boost gauge set on the A-pillar and a new gauge cluster for the instrument panel with the speedometer pushed to the 140-mph notch.
The HHR when stripped of SS-specific paraphernalia still consists of two trims -- LS and LT -- and each employs a different four-cylinder Ecotec engine.
HHR LS carries a twin-cam 2.2-liter Ecotec four-in-line, which produces 149 hp at 5600 rpm plus 152 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
The upgraded 1LT trim also uses this engine but shows a 2.4-liter Ecotec four-pack on the option chart, while top-level 2LT gets the 2.4-liter engine exclusively.
The 2.4-liter version makes 172 hp at 5800 rpm with torque rising to 167 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
Standard transmission for both plants is a five-speed manual by Getrag of Germany.
The Hydra-Matic 4T45-E four-speed automatic shifter also works across the board.
Cabin gear for LS trim includes air conditioning, an audio kit with CD deck and six speakers, power controls for windows and locks and mirrors, cruise control and a remote keyless entry device.
The 1LT edition adds power controls for the driver's seat, an up-level audio system with CD/MP3 player and new 16-inch spoke wheels painted Sterling Silver. HHR 2LT goes further with the 2.4-liter engine, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, 260-watt Pioneer sound system, sporty FE3 suspension tuning with StabiliTrak plus 17-inch aluminum wheels and chrome exterior trim elements.
Standard HHR gear for 2008 includes StabiliTrak, OnStar telecommunications and a tire pressure monitoring system, with leather upholstery, a power sunroof and XM satellite radio service on the list of options.
MSRP points for the 2008 HHR begin at $16,515 for LS trim and stretch to $22,375 for new SS.