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Expert Reviews 1 of 14
By Joe Wiesenfelder
April 22, 2005
The Cobalt is Chevrolet's long-overdue replacement for the Cavalier. Where the Cavalier was more than a decade old, the Cobalt in sedan and coupe forms is based on a newer platform, one shared with the Saturn Ion. This review covers the sedan, with both a manual and an automatic transmission.
How good is the Cobalt? It depends on what's important to you and to what you compare it. Compared to the Cavalier, it's a quantum leap. Compared to the average compact, it may even excel in some ways. But if you'd hoped this new Chevy model would come along and show the class leaders a thing or two, then your hopes will be dashed. The Cobalt sedan comes in three trim levels: base, LS and LT. Exterior & Styling In its attempt to go upscale, Chevy offers body-colored side mirrors, door handles and side moldings on the two lower trim levels. The bar that spans the grille and bears the Chevrolet logo also is body colored. On the top, LT trim level, all of these elements are chrome. The LT also adds front fog lights.
The base sedan has 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, the LS has 15-inch alloy wheels, and the LT has 16-inch alloy wheels that are available on the LS in a sport option package. A rear spoiler is optional on all trims.
Equipped with both OnStar and XM Satellite Radio, my Cobalt had two conspicuous and unaesthetic black antennae. Some cars have ridiculous shark-fin antennae, but they tend to be body colored. Honda seems to hold the secret to inconspicuous, low-profile, body-colored satellite antennae.
General Motors has been improving its initial quality ratings over the past several years. I've always thought that issues like panel fit the size and consistency of gaps between sheet-metal panels are esoteric, noticeable only to automakers, reviewers and a subset of car nuts. For what it's worth, GM's exterior fit and finish appear to be improving. One exception I noticed on the Cobalt LT is its chrome door handles. They didn't feel quite right to me not substantial enough. Again, a small concern, but when I took a closer look I noticed that the handles themselves don't close flush when they retract. I checked some comparable cars to make sure I was being fair, and neither they nor the Cobalt LS with body-colored handles exhibited this glitch.
On my test LS, the driver's door sounded strange when it closed, like it hadn't closed all the way, even when it had. Such things can be subjective or isolated bugs, so I welcome emails of your impressions of this car. Ride & Handling Looking first at the bottom-line results, the Cobalt sedan's ride quality is good notably more comfortable than that of the current Honda Civic. Handling is only decent. In terms of roadholding, the Cobalt does the job. The drawbacks are a fair amount of body roll and numb, oddly boosted steering.
GM has been experimenting with electric power-assist steering for a few years. The technology's main advantage is improved fuel economy. Unfortunately, GM's execution still doesn't have the feedback and progressive assist of a conventional, hydraulic system. The technology itself isn't the problem; other companies have employed electric steering to better effect.
To put things in perspective, competitors like the Ford Focus and Mazda Mazda3 have excellent handling. In terms of both roadholding and steering, the Focus is unbelievably good. One could argue that it's better than it needs to be, that the performance is lost on most drivers. That's why the Cobalt, in the real-world sense, is fine. It's neither unpredictable nor dangerous.
Likewise, if you look at the equipment you'll see that the Cobalt has a semi-independent rear suspension where the competitors tend to be four-wheel independent. From a market perspective, independent is superior and represents a higher dollar value. In terms of performance, again, the difference in ride and handling is lost on most drivers. Going & Stopping While the Cobalt coupe comes in an SS trim level with a supercharged engine, the sedan currently comes only with a 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder, which is standard in the coupe. It generates 145 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 155 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. These are healthy numbers within the class, though many other factors, including weight, factor into acceleration.
A five-speed-manual transmission is standard on the base and LS trim levels; a four-speed automatic can be had as a stand-alone option for the list price of $850, or by choosing the LT trim level, in which it's standard equipment.
I enjoyed driving the five-speed Cobalt LS. The gear ratios are well matched, and the clutch pedal is linear and trouble-free to operate. The gearshift, with its longish length and medium-long throws, could be more direct, more precise, but it's not an anomaly in this car class. With this transmission, the Cobalt is definitely quicker than the average compact. Some of the competitors' engines are more advanced technologically, but the Ecotec's relatively high torque output yields nice off-the-line launches and reasonably consistent pull most of the way up the rev range. It is the Cobalt's torque rating that's substantially higher than most of the competition's.
The automatic is a workmanlike unit with no frills and no drama. (Some would like the frill of a clutchless-manual mode, but it isn't included.) The transmission kicks down appropriately and quickly. If anything distinguishes this transmission, it's a glorious lack of hesitation or lag. While I'd rather drive a well-behaved four-speed than a mediocre five, small cars have begun implementing five- and even six-speed automatics. The Cobalt's closest competitors aren't there yet, but they will be, and probably in short order. A five-speed theoretically would give the Cobalt an even quicker launch and/or better fuel economy.
At 25/34 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 24/32 mpg with the automatic, the Cobalt sedan's fuel economy is average to slightly below in this class. The winner, excluding hybrids, is the Civic, almost all versions of which rate at least 30 mpg in city driving and closer to 40 mpg on the highway. On the other end of the spectrum excluding souped-up sport variants is the Subaru Impreza sedan with an optional automatic transmission at 22/28.
Pollution is a separate matter. In the EPA Green Vehicle Guide's emissions rating, in which 10 is the best, the Cobalt scores a respectable 6. Some versions of the Focus, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra and Volkswagen Jetta sold in California and the more restrictive Northeast states (excluding hybrids and non-gasoline-powered variants) score 9.5. On the bottom end are certain versions of the Scion tC and Mitsubishi Lancer with a 2 rating.
Another disappointment is the engine noise especially because the cabin is admirably low on road noise, even at highway speeds. To be clear, the engine isn't exactly loud; it and its exhaust are just noisy. GM Powertrain makes some good drivetrains; why should people get a different impression from their sound?
The Cobalt's front disc and rear drum brakes are adequate. The pedal is a bit numb and doesn't give as fine control as I like, but I've experienced much worse. The Inside If expectations for the Cobalt are high, General Motors has no one to blame but itself. The General spoke of raising its compact offering into a more premium space, one occupied by the likes of the Jetta. Now, targeting the Jetta with a new product is like throwing down against the biggest guy in the prison yard. Yeah, if you come out the winner, you've established yourself in the eyes of all. But really, how good are your odds? Most automakers, including luxury brands, freely cite VW and Audi as the standard bearers for interior quality or "perceived quality."
Perceived quality describes the impression occupants form, not any measure of materials cost or underlying craftsmanship. In other words, it's about how you feel about the look, feel and sound of the interior in the showroom, not whether the wood trim is real or plastic or whether the armrest comes off in your hand. This happened to me. In a VW.
I'll have to reserve judgment on the stripped-down Cobalt trim level, as my experience is mainly with leather-festooned versions of the Cobalt LS and LT. In these trims, the interior is definitely among GM's best. The color pallet makes more sense, the plastics are less glossy, and the dashboard and controls are simple but sophisticated. The ceiling and sun visors are even finished in a woven-fabric headliner not the cheap way to go. Where the environment falls behind the best in class is in touch. The surfaces don't feel as rich as they look. The seams on handles and other objects molded from plastic are better than in the past but still too rough. Then there are the ventilation and seat heater controls, which feel and sound terribly cheap.
I'm afraid seat comfort is an art GM as a whole hasn't mastered. The driver's seat looks good on paper, with a standard manual cushion-height adjustment and, on all the higher trim levels, a manual lumbar adjustment. But when I sat with the small of my back against the backrest, where it arguably belongs, I found myself sitting on something hard at the rearmost section of the cushion. When I called their attention to it, others were able to detect it, though they didn't otherwise notice it. You might not, but I never adjusted to it.
Overall ergonomics are decent. In a car at this level it's nice to have a standard trip computer that displays things like average fuel economy and oil life, but the controls for it are hidden behind the steering wheel and wiper stalk. The remote trunk release is hidden in a dashboard drawer by the driver's left knee.
One thing not worth copying from VW was the center armrest, which comes with the automatic transmission: A swing-down affair that hovers above the hand brake, it's just wide enough for a CD box but not nearly as deep as a floor-mounted storage console would be. My LS test vehicle with a stick shift lacked the armrest altogether, leaving little covered storage. The glove box is a decent size but doesn't lock.
In terms of interior room, the Cobalt breaks no ground. Compared to the Civic, it has less front-seat headroom, legroom and hip room. Its shoulder room is slightly better. There's more than 2 inches less backseat legroom, and the hip and shoulder room are also lesser. The Cobalt has one-half inch greater backseat headroom.
Getting into the backseat is a bit challenging for an adult. There are no "grab" handles above the side windows, which doesn't help. Chevy says this is because the optional side curtain-type airbags disallow them, but I've driven many a car with both curtains and handles. At 6 feet tall, I found the Cobalt's backseat barely workable. The center position is hampered by a tall center floor hump and the front seat's center console, which extends rearward. There are definitely roomier options out there, such as the Focus, and those with flatter floors, like the Civic. Safety As of its introduction, the Cobalt's claim to fame is its crashworthiness rating. It rates at the top of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Small Cars category with scores of Good, the highest, for frontal and rear crash tests. When equipped with the optional side curtain-type airbags, it scores Acceptable in the side crash test (no car in the class rates Good). Without the side curtains, it rates Poor, the worst, so I recommend highly the airbag option, which lists for $395. (Don't miss our Guide to Interpreting Crash Tests and Rollover Ratings.)
The front airbags are dual-stage types designed to deploy at one of two intensities depending on crash severity. There are head restraints for all but the center rear seating position. A bonus, especially for a car this small, is that there are three sets of LATCH anchors in the backseat. This allows the use of a compatible child-safety seat in the center position, which is the safest in the vehicle but usually lacks the LATCH feature. Cargo & Towing At 13.9 cubic feet of volume, the Cobalt's trunk is more than generous. The lid opens high, the exterior hinges don't interfere with the storage space, and the trunk opening is a good size and shape, with a low liftover height. The optional premium stereo's dedicated subwoofer fits neatly into the left-hand quarter panel. Folding either side of the 60/40-split backseat is a one-step process. The head restraints are fixed to the deck, so there's no need to remove them before folding the backrest.
Chevrolet says the Cobalt is not intended for trailer towing. As for hauling, my Cobalt LS test vehicle's Tire and Loading Information placard cited a maximum weight of 891 pounds for occupants and cargo combined. (Never ask your passengers' weight. Estimate it. Trust me.) Features All of the Cobalt's standard and optional features, and their prices, are available by clicking on the buttons above and to the left. Though some option packages are available, kudos to Chevy for making many of the options especially the safety-related ones available individually.
All trim levels come at least with an AM/FM/CD player stereo. What's missing, and will certainly be missed, is a multi-CD changer. Standard on the LT trim and optional for $150 on the LS is a Pioneer premium stereo with a trunk-mounted subwoofer. The performance is well worth the money, though I was disappointed by one aspect: The bass fades when you move the sound to the front speakers. This is typical in many cars, but there's no reason for it when a dedicated subwoofer is present. "Non-fading bass," employed on other car stereos I've tested, keeps the subwoofer level constant even as the rear speakers are turned down, preserving the overall tonal rendition. Cobalt in the Market Out of the chute, the Cobalt sedan isn't selling as quickly as hoped and already comes with incentives (see the incentives resource). Though a vast improvement over the Cavalier, the Cobalt comes into a brutally competitive segment where the Cavalier name has negative equity and the Cobalt name is an unknown. The competitors have long-standing names (Civic, Corolla) with a stellar reputation, or have replaced models that were well regarded (Mazda3 for the Protegé). Meanwhile, Hyundai and Kia are fielding cars loaded with standard features and selling them cheap.
We've come to a point in automotive history when styling seems to be more important than ever before. People want their cars to make a statement, and it doesn't matter if others are turned off by that statement; so long as there's some emotion on both sides, the model in question will do well. Surveys of the best- and worst-looking vehicles in America would invariably include some of the same models.
The real losers in today's market are the cars that elicit no strong emotion in either direction. Though it's a nice enough looking car, the Cobalt seems to fall into this class. For what it's worth, the class leader, Honda's Civic, also is fairly bland, but its coming redesign will make more of a statement. The Mazda3 and Focus already are more distinctive.
There was a time when an inoffensive design was the safe way to go. I contend that it's now riskier than "taking a chance" on something bolder. The Cobalt is a good, competitive car overall, but it's hard to imagine Chevrolet beating the Japanese brands at their own game, and the Korean models have nothing to apologize for. A standout design would have been enough to put the Cobalt over the top. Unfortunately, the styling isn't a standout, and exterior styling is a very difficult, expensive and unlikely thing to change.