Review: 2009 Chevy Cobalt SS Turbo

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.

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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:
(Click here for each car's actual lap time at, 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.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

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