When gas prices peaked in the summer of 2008, automakers quickly turned out models with improved gas mileage to ease consumers’ concerns. The race to do so brought Chevrolet’s otherwise-underwhelming Cobalt compact car into the spotlight with an XFE (eXtra Fuel Economy) model that bumped the Cobalt’s highway rating to a best-in-class 36 mpg.
For 2009, there are even more XFEs: Manual versions of the base (Value Leader), LS and LT trim levels, with 15-inch wheels, all get the designation, now rated at 25/37 mpg city/highway. Compare the 2009 to the 2008 model here. As Chevrolet’s commercials want you to recognize, the Cobalt’s 37 mpg is better than manual versions of the Honda Civic (34 mpg), Toyota Corolla (35 mpg) and Ford Focus (35 mpg).
The Cobalt only manages to hit that mileage mark with its manual transmission, however; fuel economy takes a big hit with the optional automatic that most buyers will choose. While the XFE’s gas mileage is impressive, and the Cobalt does have competitive features, its interior refinement and ride quality aren’t up to par with the competition. As an overall package, it leaves something to be desired.
I drove an XFE Cobalt LT. The Cobalt is also available in a high-performance SS version, which is reviewed here.
Though GM has competitive interiors in some models, the Cobalt is a great example of the flaws that gave the company a bad reputation. The cheap materials and jagged plastic edges inside the Cobalt radiate an aura of cheapness. Those looking solely for a fuel-efficient, no-frills car, however, may not be put off by that.
More problematic than panel gaps or rough plastic is how little adjustability there is in the seats — so little that long drives were uncomfortable for my 6-foot, 175-pound frame. In its fixed position, the seat base was so flat I slid forward during braking. A telescoping steering wheel, which the Civic and Corolla include as standard equipment, would have helped with overall comfort. So would a tilting front seat.
Chevrolet added a more efficient engine for all Cobalts for 2009 that adds variable valve timing for more power and better mileage. The XFE comes with low-rolling-resistance tires on 15-inch wheels and different manual transmission gearing to reach 37 mpg. The XFE treatment doesn’t leave the car unaffected, though, as the skinny tires make the car skittish on the highway and require constant steering correction if you want to keep it pointed straight. That’s unfortunate, because the car’s best mileage is achieved at highway speeds. If you opt for 16-inch wheels, the manual Cobalt’s mileage drops to 25/35 mpg.
With the optional four-speed automatic transmission ($925), the Cobalt loses its XFE designation and is rated 33 mpg on the highway, far from the XFE’s mileage and lower than many automatic-equipped competitors. The automatic Civic and Corolla, for example, have 36 and 35 mpg ratings, respectively.
I consistently averaged in the low 30-mpg range doing about 40 percent city driving and 60 percent highway. Considering I was also evaluating the car — which can sometimes be a fuel-consuming process — the average mileage was pretty impressive.
Going 70 mpg on the highway, the instantaneous gas mileage readout read 37-38 mpg.
Just because the Cobalt XFE is fuel efficient doesn’t mean it’s a stick in the mud in terms of acceleration. The 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission combine to move the Cobalt impressively on highway on-ramps and make passing easy.
The Cobalt’s manual transmission is extremely easy to drive smoothly, with a clutch that doesn’t require much work to use. That was appreciated when I was stuck in traffic.
Even though the highway ride is uneasy at times, the Cobalt otherwise rides very smoothly for a compact car. At slower speeds, the Cobalt isolates outside noises well, and the interior is relatively quiet. On the highway, however, wind noise is more prevalent than in the Corolla or Focus, but it’s about equal with the Civic.
Antilock brakes are routinely included as standard equipment on many new cars, but the Cobalt’s ABS is still a $400 option. Granted, it’s not a very expensive option, but the Corolla and Civic both include the feature standard; ABS is a $745 option on the Focus. You can find a list of the Cobalt’s standard safety features here.
Entry-level Cobalts start at $14,990 for Value Leader models with the XFE treatment. These models don’t have air conditioning or antilock brakes, even as options. We couldn’t find many Value Leader models in our listings; most were LS or LT models.
Of the XFE LS and LT models, the LT is the more fully featured car, including power windows and locks, keyless entry, a security system, lumbar support and interior lighting.
When you add the optional antilock brakes and automatic transmission, the Cobalt loses its edge over the competition in both MSRP and fuel economy. An automatic Cobalt LS sedan with ABS is $16,985 and gets 24/33 mpg, while a similarly equipped Corolla sedan with standard ABS is $16,150 and gets 27/35 mpg. As of publication, there were cash-back and financing incentives available on the Cobalt that made its pricing more appealing, but incentives are always changing, and there were also incentives on the Corolla and Focus.
Despite the Cobalt’s disappointing interior, one impressive feature that many automakers haven’t quite gotten right did stand out: An easy-to-use USB input for iPods. For $100, the feature can be optioned on LT and SS models. Using this input, I was able to navigate through an iPod better than is possible in many of the Cobalt’s competitors, though it doesn’t top Ford’s Sync system — and Sync works with more players than just iPods.
If you simply want the car with the best mileage rating and don’t mind a manual transmission or cheap-feeling interior, then the Cobalt makes a competitive case over other compacts, both automatics and manuals.
But the truth is, you don’t have to make sacrifices like the Cobalt asks of you to get good gas mileage; it can be done in a contemporary package. The Civic and Corolla offer their best mileage with an automatic transmission, which most buyers will want, and even the Focus has a better-executed interior and makes do with 35 mpg on the highway with a manual transmission.