In many of its forms, power intoxicates. In a car, a preponderance of power can intoxicate to the point that you don't realize the car is otherwise lame. This ploy is time-tested, and GM has pulled it as much as any automaker — possibly more. That's why I was dubious of the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS and its 260 horsepower, which I tested in its new four-door version. (For the regular Cobalt, click on the Next Review link above). To be blunt, the regular Cobalt isn't our favorite compact car, and it's far from being one of GM's strongest products. Its features and quality were already behind the class leaders when it replaced the Cavalier in 2005, and it hasn't been significantly redesigned since. What gave me hope for the Cobalt SS were fond memories of the 2005 Dodge SRT4 — the first SRT model, based on a compact that was more outdated than the current Cobalt: the disastrous Neon sedan.
Like the Cobalt SS, the SRT4's turbocharged four-cylinder packed a powerful punch at a record-low price. To my surprise, it was also a far more capable, well-rounded performance car than a Neon had a right to be — certainly good enough to justify leaving the Neon name off the car entirely, as Dodge had done. Does the SS transcend the regular Cobalt to such a stunning degree? It does in some ways, but not in all ways.
At a glance, the styling doesn't really impress. The Cobalt is inoffensive, and Chevy's SS sport enhancements, including lowered bumpers and rocker panels, can only do so much. Thankfully, what they don't do is go overboard and make it look silly. The standard rear spoiler is tasteful; a larger one is optional.
The SS gets its upgrades where it matters, starting under the hood. For 2008 Chevy replaced the supercharged four-cylinder engine with a turbocharged version — a 2.0-liter with direct injection. The combination of turbo and direct injection is such a winning formula it's clear why some manufacturers are moving toward it for their entire line. We were knocked out by Volkswagen's application in the GTI — also a 2.0-liter four, which produces 200 hp. The maximum horsepower isn't the sole selling point; Volkswagen had already squeezed more than 200 hp out of the turbocharged 1.8-liter in the Audi TT, but that was an engine from which most of the fury came at higher rpm. In contrast, the GTI's power plant delivers prodigious torque at low revs with negligible turbo lag.
The Cobalt SS is the same story. Along with lots of horsepower come 260 pounds-feet of torque, which is hard to reconcile with the engine's small displacement and cylinder count — especially because peak torque comes at 2,000 rpm on a 6,300-rpm range. All the low-rev grunt makes the manual transmission's five speeds less of a problem than you'd expect — though a well-matched six-speed would still be better. You have to slip the clutch a little more on launch than you otherwise might, and thankfully the clutch has nice, even takeup. The shifter is precise, with reasonably short throws.
To help with 0-60 mph sprints, the Cobalt SS has a selectable launch-control feature that manages torque so you don't spin the tires or torque steer too much. It comes on when you turn the standard electronic stability system to its Competition mode, which allows more wheel spin and sliding about. Introduced years ago on the Corvette, Competition mode has been added to other rear-wheel-drive cars, but this is the first time I've seen it with front-wheel drive. My car had the limited-slip differential, a $495 option, and I can't imagine driving this car without it. I suspect that sustained aggressive driving would either put you in a constant state of understeer or promptly roast your front brakes as they tried to provide traction control. Possibly both.
Along with the other torque management comes a "no-lift shift" provision that lets you stay on the gas pedal while shifting, and the computer handles the transition. It's a neat trick, but if you're more interested in driving than in improving your trap speed (or improving your trap speed through your driving), this feature just makes a manual more like an automatic, and that's something to be ashamed of.
Even with the LSD and other provisions, torque steer did occur, but it's unavoidable in a front-drive car with this much torque, and it's not outrageous. Overall, the handling is damn impressive. When in gear, the throttle response is reasonably quick, so you can manipulate the car's attitude easily when cornering. For a front-drive car, the SS is very controllable, if not balanced, to the extent that you can rotate it on its axis and bring the tail around with no undue surprises. This is particularly notable because the rear suspension is a semi-independent torsion beam, which is theoretically inferior to the independent design some competitors have. Further proof that you have to focus on the results, not necessarily what's under the surface.
I can't say the same about the electric power steering. What's under the surface is an electric assist motor. It's a fuel-saving technology that eliminates the traditional hydraulic pump, which robs efficiency whenever the engine is running, not just while turning. Unfortunately, despite having ventured into this technology long before most automakers, GM positions its assist motor on the steering column. The systems I've tested that perform more like conventional hydraulic power steering are ones that incorporate their motors in the rack-and-pinion assembly — or, in a compromise, use an electric hydraulic pump rather than one driven off the engine. Whether it's the motor location or some other issue, GM hasn't gotten it yet.
The main problem is in steering feel and the level of assist. In addition, the Cobalt SS' wheel snaps back to center too quickly after a turn, a distinctly unnatural characteristic. (It's even more frustrating because an electric system's assist level theoretically could be infinitely variable with speed or other factors.) This is all a shame because the steering is otherwise good: The steering ratio is faster than the regular Cobalt's — 14.8 versus 16.6 to 1 — and it's precise and quite well-matched to the car's dynamics.
The SS has substantial suspension mods over the regular Cobalt, including firmer springs, gas shocks, and large front and rear stabilizer bars. The ride is firmer, but I believe performance car enthusiasts would find it perfectly livable for daily driving. The car is fitted with Continental ContiSportContact 2 summer tires on 18-inch aluminum wheels for maximum grip. Chevy offers no winter or all-season tire option, but winter tires of the same size, P225/40ZR18, start below $150 apiece, and all-seasons come in well below $100 a pop, according to TireRack.com. It might be wise to opt for higher sidewalls for winter use — 17-inchers on cheap wheels.
The standard antilock brakes comprise larger discs and decorative Brembo brand four-piston calipers in front. The rear hardware is nothing to look at, but at least they're discs, too, replacing the standard car's rear drums. They do a nice job, with decent but not exceptional linearity and pedal feel. From what I could tell after a few laps on a track, they resist brake fade reasonably well.
The Cobalt SS' interior is a mixed bag. There's a cool turbo boost gauge on the driver's side A-pillar, supplementing a 160-mph speedometer and a tachometer revised with the lower, 6,300 rpm redline. GM Performance Division front seats are also specific to the SS. I like them overall because they set the SS apart from the Cobalt, and they have well-designed side bolsters. The cloth upholstery also helps hold you in place, but that's mainly because it's a bit coarse.
There's a driver's-seat height adjustment, which is very important, but there are two problems: It's practically impossible to reach when the door is closed, and the cushion's upward tilt made me wish for another adjustment. I made it work by lowering the seat overall, but I would have preferred a higher vantage and a cushion I could tilt forward.
The interior quality is a definite downside, as is true of the regular Cobalt. The materials aren't up to snuff in terms of the competition, and they certainly don't represent what GM can do — and has done on more recent models. This one just hasn't caught up yet. I'm not as much of a stickler as some for the "fit" aspect of fit and finish, but some of these trim pieces are downright jagged where they meet, and the drawer by the driver's left knee is flimsy and rough-edged. It screams cheap.
Speaking of screaming and cheap, this is just not a good-sounding engine. It does a heck of a job, especially in this configuration, but the whole Ecotec family tends to sound raspy at higher rpm, and the noise at startup would make a Yugo burst out in laughter.
Another upside of the direct-injection-turbo approach is remarkable efficiency in spite of the high output. A 22/30 mpg EPA rating is something you can live with. Though premium gas is needed to hit the full engine specs, you can drive on regular gas with no trouble, Chevy says.
The SS isn't quite the transformation of the Cobalt that the Dodge SRT4 was of the Neon, but that's partly because the Neon was that much more sad to begin with. In terms of performance, the SS is strong in most areas and highly competitive with other sport compacts in its class, some of which cost a good deal more. It's definitely GM's best effort yet in the performance-compact class, and not just by a little.
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