When our now-grown sons were preschoolers in the early 1980s, we shopped carefully for an affordable small family car and settled on a silver Chevrolet Cavalier that had all the fun of a Puritan sermon.
Settled was the operative word back then when it came to our entry-level Chevrolet.
The Cavalier was functional, but lackluster, with a less-than-memorable exterior and a bland, cheap-looking cabin that didn't measure up to European competitors like the Volkswagen Jetta.
So we were eager to check out the all-new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, General Motors Corp.'s long-awaited successor to the Cavalier.
Would this be a vehicle that would please dollar-conscious adults and still appeal to fussy young buyers?
The answer is maybe.
With the Cobalt, GM has finally created a modern compact car that is affordable and appealing.
That achievement is noteworthy, if somewhat belated, considering that the Cobalt's antediluvian predecessor, the Cavalier, is more than 20 years old, and that GM's previous small-car attempt-the ill-conceived and poorly executed Saturn Ion - was a disaster and an embarrassment for the brand and its parent company when it debuted in late 2002.We just wish GM and Chevy had reached a little higher. The Cobalt is pleasant and competent, but not groundbreaking, in a segment populated by one strong contender after another, including the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Volkswagen Jetta and Kia Spectra.
While it is miles ahead of the Cavalier, which is finally being put out to pasture, the Cobalt is by no means the segment leader.
In fact, Cobalt not only is late to the party, but it lacks some of the features and punch of its competitors.
Nor does it stand out in a crowd.
The design is fresh, but not particularly distinctive (tucked away in the parking garage, a relative asked if it was a new Volkswagen).
In its favor, Cobalt has a comfortable, compliant ride and exhibits excellent chassis dynamics.
Unlike many of its GM siblings, this new Chevy also boasts a tastefully designed cockpit with high-quality materials - a dramatic departure from too many of the General's current vehicles.
We spent a week in late December driving around southeastern Michigan in the new Cobalt sedan, a top-of-the-line LT version with leather upholstery and wood trim, priced at $20,465 including destination charges.
We put several hundred miles on the car and appreciated a number of the car's attributes, notably its comfort, responsiveness and ease of operation.
About that price. If $20,000 seems a bit stiff for a compact, consider that you can get a well-furnished mid-size sedan - a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry - for about the same price. Hyundai will throw in a V-6 engine on its mid-size Sonata for even less money.
For buyers who may be more financially challenged, the standard Cobalt sedan and coupe start at $14,190, including destination, which is competitive with the class leaders.
That price includes such features as air conditioning, a CD player, split folding rear seat and battery rundown protection. But to get standard antilock brakes, traction control, power windows and other amenities on a Cobalt coupe or sedan, you'll have to move up to the mid-level LS, which starts at $16,485.
The LT sedan is priced from $18,760, while the racy Cobalt SS stickers for $21,995. Cobalt sedans already have begun arriving at dealerships while coupes should reach showrooms later this month.
Chevy's new small car has been a long time in planning and gestation. The development group started with GM's sturdy Delta architecture, which underpins the Ion.
To the basic chassis formula of a strut-type front end and twist-beam rear axle, the Delta engineers added front and rear stabilizer bars and made provisions for tire sizes from 15 inches to 18 inches.
GM's speed-sensitive, variable-assist electric power steering has been tuned to provide relatively good feedback and response, and the front disc/rear drum brakes with four-wheel antilock provide decent grip.
The standard engine on most Cobalts is an all-aluminum, twin-cam 2.2-liter four-cylinder and the Cobalt SS gets a more potent, supercharged 2.0-liter unit. On paper, the 2.2 looks like a winner. It makes 145 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque, which beats Toyota, Honda and Ford.
Chevy offers buyers a choice of a Getrag five-speed manual transmission or a Hydra-matic four-speed automatic.
Here's where the anomalies begin. Despite its impressive specs, the 2.2-liter engine often sounds like it's laboring to produce that power, especially under full throttle, even with only two adults on board.
The driveline noise is not pleasant, sounding vaguely agricultural.
Our test car had the four-speed automatic, which is smooth enough, but some competitors like Mazda and VW are offering more efficient five-speed automatics, with six-speeds just around the corner.
Curiously, the automatic transmission enables better fuel economy than the manual. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the 2.2/automatic combination at 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 on the highway while the 2.2/manual gets only 23 in the city and 29 on the highway.
In comparison, Corolla's twin-cam, 130-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine carries EPA ratings of 32 in the city and 41 on the highway.
Our test Cobalt was loaded with features, including a fancy Pioneer audio system and keyless entry, as well as such desirable options as XM satellite radio ($325). Yet surprisingly it lacked some basic items.
The driver-information center in the instrument binnacle includes an outside-temperature display but there's no engine-temp gauge, so you can't tell how quickly your engine is warming up on a frosty winter morning.
And while the comfy front bucket seats were heated and trimmed in leather, there was no power adjustment. Nor did our fancy wood-and-leather cockpit have lighted visor vanity mirrors.
Perhaps our biggest disappointment, after the lengthy buildup from GM executives about the company's renewed efforts to improve quality, was the apparent lack of attention to tight trim fits on the Cobalt we tested.
The passenger-side windshield pillar displayed a noticeable gap behind the plastic, with a piece of cloth headliner sticking out ahead of the pillar.
Antilock brakes cost extra on the base Cobalt. They're standard on up-level models and come bundled with traction control on vehicles equipped with automatic transmission. Side curtain air bags are a $395 option on all models.
After our introduction to the Cobalt, we felt much better than we did in our old Cavalier. There was little sense that we were doing automotive penance for not being able to afford something a little better.
Bottom line: Cobalt may not be the most thrilling new entry in this segment, but overall, it's a solid offering that lives up to its tough name.
Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Joe Wiesenfelder||Cars.com National||April 22, 2005|
|Jim Flammang||Cars.com National||June 23, 2005|
|Dan Neil||Los Angeles Times||August 17, 2005|
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit Newspapers||June 29, 2005|
|Mark Glover||The Sacramento Bee||June 10, 2005|
|Steven Cole Smith||Orlando Sentinel||June 8, 2005|
|Tom Strongman||KansasCity.com||March 19, 2005|
|G. Chambers Williams III||Star-Telegram.com||March 3, 2005|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||February 27, 2005|
|Royal Ford||Boston.com||February 12, 2005|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||January 30, 2005|
|Steven Cole Smith||Orlando Sentinel||January 20, 2005|
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit Newspapers||January 5, 2005|
|Jason Stein||January 30, 2005|
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