2009 Chevrolet Cobalt Expert Review
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
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.
New Car Test Drive
Now more powerful and economical.
The Chevrolet Cobalt is a good option for inexpensive, high-value transportation. The Cobalt is quiet and refined for a small car and it delivers crisp handling and a smooth ride, all benefits of its strong, rigid platform. With its all-around competence, the Cobalt compares well with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Ford Focus. That's an impressive achievement, considering how long those three have dominated the compact car market.
For 2009, Cobalt's standard 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine has been upgraded with variable valve timing, for about 5 percent more power along with improved fuel efficiency. This engine when equipped with the five-speed manual is being marketed as the Cobalt XFE for 2009. Economy is further enhanced by new 15-inch low rolling resistance tires, and by a longer-legged (3.63:1, vs. 3.84) final drive ratio on manual transmission models. The Cobalt LS is EPA-rated at 37 mpg on the highway when equipped with a manual transmission, beating comparable Civic, Corolla, and Focus models.
Cobalt earned Best Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Premium features such as heated leather seats, a sunroof, a seven-speaker Pioneer sound system, and a remote vehicle starter are available.
The 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt is available in two body styles: a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan. All three come in LS, LT, and SS trim levels. The base engine, which comes in LS and LT models, produces 155 horsepower and qualifies the Cobalt as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle; these models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission and offer a four-speed automatic as an option. The new SS coupe and sedan are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four rated 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A heavy-duty five-speed manual is the only transmission available.
We find these cars enjoyable to drive and their economy makes for a compelling package.
The Chevrolet Cobalt LS sedan and coupe ($15,660) come standard with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, height-adjustable driver's seat, 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, automatic headlights, electric rear defogger, tilt steering column, PASS-Key III Plus theft deterrence, driver information center, two 12-volt power outlets, and a four-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with a new USB input jack and XM Satellite Radio. These are basic models with wind-up windows and manually operated mirrors. Tires are low-rolling-resistance 195/60R15s on 15-inch steel wheels. Options are limited, but include an automatic transmission ($925).
Cobalt LT ($16,460) sedan and coupe get upgraded upholstery, adjustable lumbar support for the driver, power windows and door locks, and other amenities, including woodgrain trim. Options include cruise control ($275), sunroof ($750), seven-speaker Pioneer audio ($295), remote vehicle starter ($190) for automatic models, heated leather seats ($795), and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls and Bluetooth wireless connectivity ($245).
The 2LT option package ($2,500) bundles ABS; StabiliTrak; the automatic transmission; color-keyed bodyside moldings; 205/55R16 tires on more stylish, plastic-faced wheels; cruise control; and a trunk cargo net. The Sport Appearance Package ($995) includes a rear spoiler, larger body-color fascias and rocker moldings; 17-inch polished aluminum wheels with performance tires; chrome exhaust tip; fog lamps; white-face sport gauges; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob; and steering wheel audio controls. A Chrome Exterior Package ($395) includes a chrome grille, bodyside moldings and door handles.
Cobalt SS coupe and sedan ($23,425) are powered by a 260-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and come with upgraded suspension and brakes, sport seats with suede-like inserts, additional gauges, fog lamps, and spoilers and air dams all around. A heavy-duty five-speed is the only transmission offered. Tires are 225/40R18 summer-performance Continentals on 18-inch forged aluminum wheels. A configurable LCD display ($295) for the SS Coupe allows the driver to select from a variety of performance measurements, including 0-60 mph and quarter-mile acceleration, braking performance and cornering grip (g load).
OnStar comes standard on all models. It's a good safety feature because operators will direct emergency crews to your exact location should your airbag go off and you fail to respond. It also includes the General Motors Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) system, making crash data available to participating 911 centers to help them dispatch the appropriate live-saving personnel and equipment.
Safety features include dual-stage front air bags, front seatbelt pre-tensioners, rear center shoulder belts, and the LATCH child seat retention system. Head-curtain side airbags are standard on all models, as is a tire pressure monitor. SS and 2LT come with StabiliTrak electronic stability control. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard on SS and 2LT, optional ($400) on LT and LS; the system includes traction control on Cobalts with automatic transmission.
The Chevy Cobalt is built on GM's Delta platform, which it shares with the Saturn Astra and European-market Opel Astra. But with its single-bar grille and bowtie emblem, Cobalt looks like a proper Chevrolet small car right down to its shoes and socks.
Body panel fits are extremely tight. So tight, in fact, that there are no rubber trim gaskets around Cobalt's compound complex headlamps.
The coupe weighs about 50 pounds less than the sedan, an insignificant amount.
Cobalt is longer, wider and lower than most of its direct competitors. Its interior dimensions and trunk capacity are comparable for the class.
The Cobalt SS is distinguished by its front fascia with integrated air dam and projector-beam fog lights. Upper and lower grilles both sport a specific diamond-mesh texture. Rocker extensions are also unique to the SS, and a rear deck-lid spoiler is standard. The standard spoiler can be replaced with big wing. Of course the rear view is finished off with a bright-tip exhaust outlet.
The design theme inside the Chevrolet Cobalt is simple and straightforward. Materials are decent and the fit and finish are good. Overall, it's comparable for the class. There's just enough chrome trim here and there on knobs and instruments to brighten things up without a lot of glare from the shiny parts. Instruments are large, well placed, and easy to read, with nice graphic treatment throughout.
Cobalt uses different seats in the different trim levels, each with detail changes in foam, padding and trim. We found plenty of fore/aft and rake adjustment for a 6-foot, 4-inch driver, plus seat height adjustment with a ratcheting handle. The LT seats were very comfortable and grabbed us in the fast corners exactly where we needed to be grabbed and held. Even better were the optional leather-trimmed seats, which come with electric heat.
Inside the SS are sport seats embroidered with the SS-logo and enhanced with suede-like UltraLux inserts. A specific gauge package includes an A-pillar-mounted turbo boost gauge.
The available Pioneer seven-speaker sound system with the Delphi AM/FM/CD delivers good sound and includes a huge subwoofer mounted on the left side trunk wall. And all Cobalts come with XM Satellite Radio.
The heating, ventilation and defroster system worked quickly and intuitively.
Cobalt LS comes with manually operated windows that take a lot of cranking (about four and half times around) to wind the windows up. The urethane steering wheel that comes on LS and LT models feels cheap. The leather-wrapped wheel that's optional on the Cobalt LT is much nicer.
Rear-seat passengers pay a price for the coupe's sporty looks. Headroom, legroom, and hip room are reduced by 2 inches, 1.5 inches, and 3.5 inches, respectively; enough to make the difference between a comfortable place for adults and one best left to pre-adolescents. Up front, the coupe actually offers more head and legroom than the sedan, but only by fractions of an inch. Therefore, the coupe is a good choice for drivers who are usually alone or with a friend, while the sedan is the better choice for drivers who often find themselves with two or three passengers.
The trunk in the sedan is wide and deep with a low lift-over height, and almost 14 cubic feet of capacity, more than competitive in the class, though the opening to the trunk seems relatively small. The trunk lid uses outside corner hinges and two hydraulic assist struts instead of gooseneck hinges that can squash groceries when the lid is closed. The coupe has the same trunk volume but an even smaller trunk opening, making it difficult to stow a thick suitcase. A 60/40-split, fold-down rear seat with a trunk pass-through feature adds utility to both sedan and coupe.
The Chevrolet Cobalt is quite pleasant to drive. It's quiet for a car that can be bought for less than $20,000. Chevrolet put considerable effort into special door seals, sandwich steel panels, thick carpets and pads, noise blockers and noise absorbers throughout the front, middle and rear of the car. As a result, normal front-seat conversation is possible at speeds above 90 mph.
We found the 148-hp engine used on 2008 models lacking in low-rpm power. For 2009, the rated horsepower is up slightly, to 155 hp, but more important the new variable valve timing system should fatten the torque curve considerably, making this 2.2-liter engine feel more powerful through wider range of speeds.
EPA-estimated fuel economy with the 2.2-liter engine, manual transmission, and standard low-rolling-resistance tires is 25/37 mpg City/Highway. With any of the larger tire options that slips slightly to 25/35 mpg, which is still within 1 mpg of any of the ratings for the base-level, manually shifted Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, or Ford Focus. With automatic transmission, Cobalt is rated 24/33 mpg.
The brakes seemed a little mushy on the LT and LS, which come with drums in the rear.
The Cobalt SS coupe and sedan are powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled Ecotec four-cylinder that uses direct fuel injection to balance performance with fuel efficiency. With direct injection, fuel is delivered directly to the combustion chamber to create a more complete burn of the air/fuel mixture. Compared to a conventional port-injection system, less fuel is required to produce the equivalent horsepower, especially at normal cruising speeds. The Cobalt SS is rated 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, so we anticipate exciting performance. Chevrolet claims a quick 0-60 time of approximately 5.7 seconds. EPA-estimated fuel economy is a decent 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway.
Chevy developed an all-new FE5 Sport suspension specifically for the SS, including upgraded stabilizer bars, spring rates and damper tuning, for a claimed cornering grip of 0.9 g. Front brakes are from Brembo and have a performance-oriented fixed-caliper design, which resists fade better than floating calipers. Rear discs are vented for better heat dissipation. This combination enabled the Cobalt SS to set a new class record of 8 minutes, 22.85 seconds at the famed Nurburgring racing circuit.
The Chevrolet Cobalt offers a low price, economy of operation, and a nice, quiet ride. We think it's a handsome, well-equipped car. It carries four people comfortably, five only in a pinch, on a minimal outlay for fuel and monthly payments. The new SS model promises exciting performance.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw reported from Dearborn, Michigan, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles and John F. Katz from Pennsylvania.
Chevrolet Cobalt LS ($15,660); LT ($16,460); Sport ($23,425).
Options As Tested
2LT package ($2,500) includes automatic transmission, ABS, StabiliTrak, body-color side moldings, 205/55R16 tires, fascia spoke wheels, cruise control, trunk cargo net; heated leather front bucket seats ($795); rear spoiler ($275).
Chevrolet Cobalt LT sedan ($16,460).
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