Long overdue for replacement, the decade-old Cavalier is finally being succeeded by not one but two cars--the bargain-basement, Korean-built Aveo and the bigger, better, America-made Cobalt. Introduced as a 2005 model, the Cobalt is GM's most ambitious attempt to date to go fender-to-fender with compact Asian imports. Although it shares the Delta platform with the widely scorned Saturn
Ion, the Cobalt has proved to be an exemplar of what GM engineers can accomplish, staying true to Chevrolet
values while advancing a cost-sensitive product to the center of a hotly contested segment. Solidly built, suitably refined, and attractively priced, it's an American car that can compete with its foreign rivals. The Cobalt is offered as either a coupe or sedan, both available in Base and LS trim. The high-line LT is unique to the sedan. High-performance fans are served by the dramatic SS coupe, which boasts a demeanor worthy of "The Fast and the Furious" through its bodywork, suspension tuning, potent supercharger, and sporty interior touches.
Chevrolet describes the exterior design of the Cobalt as "clean and uncluttered, with a tailored, refined execution." In other words, it's boring. Unfortunately, there's still enough Cavalier in the Cobalt's styling DNA to scream "Avis Vacation Special." But to be fair, the inoffensive sheetmetal is arguably more appealing than that of competitors like the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra. The generously sized wheels and tires--195/60R15s on the Base model and LS and 205/55R16s on the LT--look great. Drivers looking for more visual panache should consider the more-aggressive-looking SS, which rides on low-profile 18-inch tires and benefits from an in-your-face (and in-your-rear-mirror) rear wing that looks like the calling card of a Hot Import Nights car show.
General Motor's interiors have long set the standard for frugality. By this standard, the Cobalt is not merely a revelation but a genuine miracle. Sure, there's a lot of plastic, but it looks and feels good, and the fit and finish are in the hunt with the best in class. Much of the switchgear is a cut above the GM norm. The mostly plain cabin is dressed up with well-intended touches such as chrome trim around the gauges and stereo controls, but don't look too closely--it's plastic and appears cheaply wrought. The seats are upholstered in high-quality cloth, but while the front units are comfortable, rear legroom is a bit cramped even in the four-door sedan. Air conditioning, a rear-window defroster, CD player, and tilt steering are all standard in even the base model. Moving up to the LS gets you cruise control, keyless entry, and power everything, while the LT comes with leather, heated seats, and a thumping Pioneer audio system. The interior motif of the SS is "Speed Racer" Lite, from the leather-wrapped shift lever to an A-pillar-mounted boost gauge. An MP3 player is also part of the SS product mix.
Safety is an area where manufacturers can cut costs in ways consumers often overlook--a common tactic in the small-car wars. The Cobalt is as good as, if not better than, most of its competition on the safety-equipment front. The standard brake configuration puts large vented discs up front and composite drums in the rear. All trims except Base feature four-channel anti-lock brakes with rear proportioning as standard equipment; it's a recommended option on Base. Dual front airbags are found across the board, and side-curtain airbags are available. Typical of this class, stability control is not available. In case of emergency, the optional OnStar in-vehicle safety and security service can provide an extra measure of comfort.
The front-wheel-drive Cobalt is powered by a 2.2-liter version of the competent Ecotec series of engines shared with several Pontiac and Saturn models, as well as overseas GM products. The four-cylinder design features an aluminum block and head, topped with a twin-cam valvetrain. It's rated at 145 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 155 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, which means it packs a heavier punch than most its rivals, particularly noticeable around town. Like most four-bangers in this class, however, the Cobalt tends to thrashiness when pushed. Not so the top-of-the-line SS. Equipped with a Roots-type Eaton supercharger and an intercooler, as well as a steel crank and forged pistons, the SS pumps out 205 horses and 200 lb-ft of torque. Even though it displaces only 2.0 liters, it sounds much bigger thanks to its bad-to-the-bone exhaust rasp. A five-speed manual is standard in all models except the LT, but the vast majority of Cobalt owners no doubt will opt for the acceptable four-speed automatic.
Behind The Wheel
If the Mazda3 is the sportiest car in the compact class, then the Cobalt slots in at the pampering end of the dynamic spectrum. There's nothing exotic about its suspension--MacPherson struts at the front and a twist beam at the rear--but after critics savaged the Ion for its rough, noisy performance, Chevrolet engineered the Cobalt with plenty of sound-deadening and chassis-strengthening material. The result is a ride that's solid, supple, and relatively isolated. Although by no means a driver's car, The Cobalt is quiet and refined by the standards of the class. The SS, however, is different, more-exciting story. To corral the additional 60 horses generated by the supercharged engine, the SS is graced with a sport-tuned suspension that allows it to carve corners like an autocross ringer. A Quaife limited-slip differential and Recaro seats are optional.
The Cobalt is a godsend for "buy-American" small-car shoppers and a legitimate alternative for more broad-minded consumers--especially when Detroit revs up the rebate machine, as it often does when sales wane. In addition to the car's inherent goodness, the Cobalt comes with a generous five-year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty. To minimize service costs, the Cobalt is fitted with the GM Oil Life System (GMOLS) that carefully monitors vehicle use to ensure maintenance is performed only when needed, extending oil-change intervals. The engine also features an innovative cast-in oil-filter housing on the Ecotec engine that eliminates throwaway oil-filter cans. The bad news is that Cobalts have already started flooding into rental-car fleets, which is bound to accelerate depreciation and undermine resale value like the Cavalier before it.
The Cobalt elevates General Motors' entry-level position with a well-conceived, thoughtfully designed coupe and sedan that offers a range of personality and performance.
The Cobalt is all new for 2005, but upgrades already are on the way. Model year 2006 brings an available larger, more powerful 2.4-liter Ecotec inline-four rated at 170 horsepower.
The LS and, in particular, the LT, come well equipped. But because package choices are limited and most options are priced on an a la carte basis, expect to pay a premium to upgrade. Would-be street-racers should consider the SS Performance Package, which bundles the Quaife LSD and Recaro seats.
Others to Consider
Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla