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2009 Chevy Cobalt SS Turbo – Click above for high-res image gallery

The first-gen Cobalt SS failed to deliver with a supercharged 2.0L Ecotec four-cylinder producing 205 horsepower and a cast of supporting components that did little to hide the Cobalt's rental car roots. But then something entirely unexpected happened. The GM Performance Division completely reworked the Cobalt SS for 2008, swapping in a more powerful turbocharged engine, upgrading the rest of the mechanicals, and tweaking the entire package on the world's most demanding race tracks, including the famed Nürburgring in Germany.

The result is – and we're not kidding here – the most impressive performance car to wear a bow-tie badge on sale today*. Exactly how General Motors turned a bottom-of-the-pack, front-wheel-drive econocar into a class-leading sport compact is revealed after the jump.

*My colleagues thought it best to explain this statement. There's not a bow-tie badge to be found on the Corvette and you can't find a Camaro SS on a dealer lot anywhere yet.

Photos Copyright ©2008 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

The heart of the Cobalt SS Turbo is its engine, a turbocharged, direct-inject version of the same 2.0L Ecotec in the first-gen car that now produces 260 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. It is the Alpha and Omega of the Ecotec engine family and a marvel of modern engineering. Available since 2008 in the Cobalt SS Turbo and HHR SS, and also in the Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line, the turbo DI Ecotec does now what Ford promises its EcoBoost engines will do in a few years. That is, produce V6 power with four-cylinder fuel economy. Case in point, the Cobalt SS Turbo returns 30 mpg on the highway.

Though peak torque arrives early on at 2,000 rpm, this engine pulls the Cobalt SS Turbo like Usain Bolt dragging a Little Red Flyer for 200 meters. Turbo lag is scant, with a torrent rush of power coming on early and building linearly until the tach needle begins bouncing against its 6,250 rpm redline. Chevy claims the Cobalt SS Turbo will hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, which must be conservative considering how fast the trip feels.

Driving a little car with a powerful engine can be unsettling if the balance isn't restored by a tuned suspension, bigger wheels, better brakes and, most importantly, improved steering feel. The old Cobalt SS didn't go far enough to equalize its Yin and Yang, but the new one feels like the Tao of Speed.

You just don't expect what you get when you sit behind the wheel of the Cobalt SS Turbo. The first sign you haven't mistakenly gotten in a Cobalt LT is that the clutch pedal is firm and pushes back hard against your left foot, while the chunky five-speed stick follows a very precise path into each gear. It feels nothing like the cream puff clutch and sloppy shifter you would expect in a Yankee-built economy car, but like a strict German couple adopted the Cobalt SS and raised it as their own.

The new SS Turbo also gets wider P225/40ZR18 tires mounted on a set of flattering 18-inch, Corvette-inspired wheels with five split-spokes and larger brakes wearing one of the biggest names in the business of battling inertia: Brembo. The front stoppers are 12.4 inches in diameter and clamped by four-piston calipers while the rears are 11.5-inches large and get single-piston pressure.

Individual components aside, it's how these parts all work together that makes the Cobalt SS Turbo better than the sum of its spec sheet. Out and about it won't let you forget its purpose, as the act of driving takes more effort from your left leg and right arm than most cars. You best hold the steering firmly at all times, too, since all that power going through the front wheels will try to wrest it from your hands while powering out of a turn at any speed.

The ride is not as painfully hard as you'd expect, however. A Mazdaspeed3 will leave bruises on your back compared to the Cobalt SS Turbo, which has a stiff enough structure to let the suspension do its damping work when just motoring around. And the seats are actually quite comfortable, at least for front passengers, with manual controls to adjust the seat angle and lumbar support. This thing is perfectly livable as a daily driver, and for 2009 you can order the new sedan version for the same price as the coupe.

But toiling around is not what the Cobalt SS Turbo was designed for. It was designed to embarrass more powerful and expensive cars on the track. That's why it's got things like a limited-slip differential to keep one of the front wheels from spinning during a corner, and a super trick "no-lift shift" feature that allows you to change gears without lifting your foot off the gas. It even has a launch control mode for perfect, repeatable launches that will hold the revs at 5,000 rpm and use traction control to keep the front wheels at the precipice of wheel spin.

Since the Autoblog Proving Grounds is still under construction (in my mind), we can't tell you what it's like to drive the Cobalt SS Turbo at 11/10ths. Fortunately, the latest issue of Car and Driver includes a massive comparison test called the Lightning Lap in which 22 cars ranging in price from the $22,995 Cobalt SS to the $282,306 Ferrari 430 Scuderia are raced around Virginia International Raceway. The list of cars slower than the Cobalt SS around VIR tells the whole story:
  • Mitsubishi Lancer EVO MR
  • Lexus IS-F
  • Audi S5
  • Honda S2000 CR
  • Dodge Challenger SRT-8
  • Lotus Elise SC
  • Subaru Impreza WRX STI
  • Dodge Caliber SRT-4
  • Volkswagen R32
  • Honda Civic Mugen Si
(Click here for each car's actual lap time at CARandDRIVER.com, look for the "Results Chart" link in the lower-right corner.)

The Cobalt SS Turbo is clearly outgunned in the engine department by a few of these vehicles, besting only the Civic Mugen Si, R32, S2000 CR and the Elise SC with its 260-hp engine. But c'mon, is the Cobalt SS Turbo really quicker than the legendary Lancer, the 416-hp IS-F, and the 425-hp Challenger SRT-8 around VIR's 4.2-mile track? Apparently so says C&D, who were just as stunned as were by the Chevy's particular brand of canned whoopass.

It's just unreal how well the Cobalt SS Turbo does its thing, particularly considering the wet noodle on which it's based. However, there's no place where its roots show more than the interior, which has certainly been SS-ified, but still looks and feels like an Avis special. The dash is hard plastic craptastic, with the lower half colored a bright silver to match the door panel and faux suede seat inserts. The HVAC knobs feel like they could break off in your hand and everything else has been nicked from the GM parts bin, except for one bit.

That would be the small LCD screen mounted at the base of the A-pillar. Standard Cobalt SS Turbos feature an analog boost gauge there, but with the coupe you can opt up for the reconfigurable performance display. The little telly gets fed info from the car's sensors and can display a dizzying array of data like boost pressure for the turbo, coolant temperature, inlet air temperature, fuel pressure, air/fuel ratio, cam phaser angle and overlap for both the intake and exhaust, spark advance and knock retard, engine horsepower and torque, g-forces and your speed in miles per hour. While it looks tacked on, has a bad user interface and doesn't play re-runs of Seinfeld, true tuners will appreciate the granularity with which they can monitor the car's internals.

We haven't mentioned at all how the Cobalt SS Turbo looks because it's a sleeper – you're not supposed to notice. To that end, we'd recommend deleting the obnoxious $150 aero spoiler. A few subtle additions remain that should go unnoticed by authorities looking to meet their quota. The front fascia features integrated fog lamps on either side of a reasonably sized center air intake that nicely frames the turbo's intercooler, while the rear valence has got a cutout for the Venti-sized exhaust tip. That aside, the Cobalt SS Turbo will attack unsuspecting sports cars like a spider monkey because they'll never see it coming.

The best part is the price, which starts at just $22,775. Our tester with the optional limited-slip diff, reconfigurable LCD performance display, and rear wing rang in at just $23,890 plus a $660 destination charge. For our money, we'd pick the sedan for its practical advantages at no extra charge. It almost was our money when some late night window shopping on the web turned up a bloated inventory of 2008 Chevy Cobalt SS Turbos at a local Cleveland dealership going for $19,775 brand new, which were very hard to resist.

Our conclusion is that the 2009 Cobalt SS Turbo is freakishly good at going fast and the best bang-for-the-buck value below $30,000. The GM Performance Division has salvaged this era of small cars for Chevy by taking the Cobalt so far beyond what it should be capable that we scratch our heads wondering why the base model is so bad.

The Cobalt name will have been around for just six years when the new Chevy Cruze comes on-line in late 2010. It would have been remembered as an incentive-laden rental return were it not for this exceptional variant. The SS Turbo not only ends the Cobalt's run on a bright spot, but also brings back some shine to that SS badge on its trunk.

Photos Copyright ©2008 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      I don't hear any SRT4 owners complaining about their interior, I'm sure it will be the same for this car.

      Faster to 120mph, more lateral-Gs, and better mileage than a WRX, all for thousands less.

      This car makes me want to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

      USA! USA!
      Patrice Viens
      • 8 Months Ago

      I have this car and i have broke my transmission, i have the option limited slip (opt G85) and i cant find another one used to put back in, i would like to know if i buy a transmission without this option (G85) can i fit the differential of my (G85) transmission in?

      • 6 Years Ago
      this car is butt ugly, who designs this crap?
        • 6 Years Ago
        Thank you, J... but one post by you is more than enough.
      • 6 Years Ago
      "There's not a bow-tie badge to be found on the Corvette"
      Actually there is. http://www.cartype.com/pics/1644/full/corvette_c6_logo.jpg
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'm just floored by this thing's track results. As a proud MS3 owner, I am a tad jealous that this is a whole 3 seconds faster on the track...that is damn impressive. And they say its ride is not as harsh! I still prefer the MS3's looks by far, and the interior is a lot nicer in the Mazda, but again...damn. This no-lift shifting sounds heaven-sent too. Can even the mighty upcoming Ford Focus RS top this as the next FWD king?
      • 6 Years Ago
      You don't have to order the high wing- you can get a regular rear deck spoiler.

      The interior is plain, but it isn't bad. It's ergonomics are actually very good and everything falls easily to hand so you can concentrate on driving. For instance, the stereo isn't wonderful but it's easy to use without taking your hands off the wheel. And because the ergonomics are good, you don't find yourself sweating the dash material. A honda accord is a perfect example here: a nice interior with poor ergonomics on the stereo and such that make it harder than it needs to be to use.

      I recently purchased one- I'm 39 and definitely no ricer. I bought it because I needed a reasonably high mpg car as a year-round DD that didn't bore me to death. I have to say it really is an amazingly fun car to drive. I can't say enough about the chassis set up. As far as it being FWD, for me- it will only be driven on the roads-occasionally in the snow- so FWD is not a bad thing. I really don't plan on stepping out the rear end on the way home from Wal-mart.

      The surprising thing is the number of comments and such I get. People who aren't "in to cars" tell me how nice it looks. People who are "in to cars" pull up to me at the car wash to ask me questions. I was actually really surprised by this, I'm a long time reader of car mags and such and I really expected everyone just thinks the way car reviewers do.

      • 6 Years Ago
      "The first-gen Cobalt SS failed to deliver with a supercharged 2.0L Ecotec four-cylinder producing 205 horsepower and a cast of supporting components that did little to hide the Cobalt's rental car roots."

      The above paragraph is beyond idiotic. The old SC model was a great car that put up numbers ALMOST as good as the new car. WTF is autoblog talking about? did they ever drive the old car? The SC model did a bang up job at Lightning Lap two or three years ago and whipped the Civic Si on the track. All GM did was tweak and improve the old model and add more power. It's not like the turbo SS is an all new car. Also, someone should tell Autoblog and the rest of the lemming like Cobalt bashers that the base car isnt even that bad. It has best in class hp and acceleration and competitive fuel economy. The styling is plain and the interior has some hard plastics but the same could be said for the Corolla and it sells just fine. You cant say a particular model is crap except for the top trim. The SS trim is part of the Cobalt lineup and when you include that trim the Cobalt is one of the better all around small cars on the market. No other model has as wide a range of performance and body styles. The crap about the interior bits feeling like they will fall off is a total lie and shows how simple minded and biased Autoblog is at times. We have one at my job and the knobs and buttons feel as solid as anything in the 3. I should know since my brother has a 3.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Agree. The SC model was /is a fun car and by no means as bad as some people would like to think. The new car is a improvement yes , but the SC still puts up numbers that are right there with the turbo car. It must be a turbo thing cause the SS/SC was beating cars out of it's price range in prior lightning laps and it didn't get the press . The SC posted a faster time at VIR than the 08 srt-4 , R32, and mugen SI . In 07 it beat the mustang GT , SI ,GTI and mini S. They can hate the SC all they want , it makes it even more of a sleeper , especially with stage 2 installed 241 hp.
      • 6 Years Ago

      Go look at the Corvette emblem before saying a Corvette does not have a bowtie on it!

      On the right flag of the crossed-flag emblem, you can clearly see the bow tie!
      • 6 Years Ago
      This is a great car and most everyone with except badge snobs agree. That said i have some small issues with this car. As great as this car is it feels big. Pocket rocket it is not. Also why are the interior A-pillars tan while the rest is black/gray. How much could some black fabric there cost? Also why not a glass antenna. The fixed one looks cheap. Why put a wing on if right next to it is a cheap mast antenna.
        • 6 Years Ago
        lol, I love my Cobalt SS, but I'll agree with the antenna comment. When I look at my car, sometimes it reminds of a little R/C car and I wonder where the remote is
      • 6 Years Ago
      I am one of those snooty BMW drivers (paid for mine by serving in the USMC by the way) and I am honestly intrigued by this car.

      A set of Recaros, and some body parts from RKsport, could definitely make this car more palatable, and still cost less than its competition.

      Road and track also did a comparo with this car, and it was the overwhelming winner against the WRX, MS3, and Mitsu ralliart.

      Chevy, how friggin' hard could it be to give this car an all black interior? it would go a long way to camouflage the cheapness.
      • 6 Years Ago
      As a Civic Si owner, I take the incessant 'Si' references as a major compliment. There is no denyning the Cobalt SS/TC's ability. It's laid out in plain old black-and-white data. From numerous reputable sources no less. I accept it, and applaud GM's success b/c it means my favorite brand, Honda of course, has to show up to the next round w/ a "bigger stick." In the end, we all win. Your favorite brand can't sit idle and let a car attempting to establish itself walk all over it's best offering.

      As it pertains to 'brand snobbery', however, I see key issues missing from the argument. #1 - The Civic has been in production since 1972. Stop. Read that again. 1972. Its established in this market. Its gone thru all the lumps and bumps all economy cars must weather: its cheap, its ugly, its slow, its Japanese. Remember when "its Japanese" was the kiss of death? These cars literally sat on the back of the lot and rusted away (literally). #2 - We're always going to have our preferences. I love Honda's two-tier dash, but I appreciate the traditional set-up as well. I'm not inspired at all by the Cobalt SS/TC's interior, primarily b/c I've been in a few that appear to suffer from similar pre-mature wear. That, and I just like what I have.

      A car has to earn its reputation. True, there are some genuine badge snobs. Screw em...they were never car guys to begin with. Give the Cobalt (or Cruze) time. If its good, it'll pan out that way. The Civic has earned its reputation. It wasn't just 'handed' to Honda.

      That said, Honda, you've been slayed at that track. Seriously. Multiple times by multiple cars directly in your crosshairs. The class would like to know how you intend to respond?
        • 6 Years Ago
        I never understand the mentality of Honda apologists who argue that badge reputation is more important than actual performance. I really dont care if the Civic has been in production since 1972 because the 2008 Civic has nothing in common with the original outside of the name. If Honda has been doing small cars for so long they should be able to build a better small sport coupe than Chevy. I wouldnt bank on the next Civic leaving Chevy behind because the Cruze will be out by the time the next gen Civic debuts. The fact that GM has done this much damage with their FIRST ever credible small car says a lot about GM and Honda. I dont think Honda should be applauded for having a superior reputation in small cars even though the Si is inferior.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Very well said sir!
        Not a misplaced word in the whole post.

        You should be offered a job at Autoblog for HAVING A POINT, being honest, stating the facts, giving credit, and somehow - in defiance of all that is rampant on the internet - saying it with respect, like a gentleman.

        Honda done an incredible job and continues to do so over the last 37 years of Civics. Makes me wonder what if GM had kept the Nova name for the last 40+ years and it evolved like the Civic, into be the Cobalt we see today. I would enjoyed reading "Car and Driver: Nova vs Civic vs Fiesta: The Yearly Face Off" for the last 20 or so years of compact performance shoot offs.

        Only now are the American auto makers coming to par with the Euro/Asian makes in compacts just as the Asian makes come to par with trucks and V-8's.

        Not a bad time to be a car guy :)
      • 6 Years Ago
      Where'd you get your pricing info? Chevy's website says that it starts at $24,095.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Wow, $24095 is V6 Camaro money. I know the cars are aimed at different targets, but if I come in with an open mind looking for a sporty coupe, which would I choose? I would be willing to predict a deal could be made on the Cobalt SS and not the Camaro...at least not for a while. I am leaning V6 Camaro though...with a 6 speed genuine manual gearbox. Funny that Chevy does not seem to promote the Cobalt SS much given the positive media exposure.
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