While its fortunes in the high-volume Everyman-sedan market have been ever so sketchy lately, the world's biggest car company definitely has some mojo in male-enhancement products, limited-production cars such as the Corvette C6 Z06, the Pontiac GTO -- now with hood scoops! -- and our test car, the 2005 Chevy Cobalt SS Supercharged Coupe, which is a very fine little car despite its resemblance to a cheese slicer.
A factory-tuner version of the Cobalt coupe, the Cobalt SS-SC -- pronounced sick to the yo-boys? -- makes a case-closed argument for the wisdom of letting professionals build your car, instead of ordering a bunch of aftermarket junk out of a catalog and having Shane with the tattoos bolt it on. Sorry, SEMA.
It's also more economical. If you tried to buy all the performance bricolage yourself -- stuff like the 18-inch alloy wheels, Z-rated tires, 11.6-inch front discs and 10.6-inch rear rotors (replacing the Cobalt's rear drums) and all the urban-hovercraft rocker-panel extensions and front and rear fascia -- you would easily spend more than this car's base price of $21,995. Ford, Chevy and Dodge have each gamed this segment pretty well, and each has rushed to offer turn-key screamers to the lads, who can finance it all with low, low interest. So, why not? Devoted hobbyists aside, most buyers in the sport-compact segment are too busy Xboxing and pounding down Red Bull to fiddle with their cars.
Despite its be-winged, look-at-me audacity, the Cobalt SS-SC package is far from superficial. In case you missed the badge on the trunk lid, there's a supercharger under the hood, stuffing up to 12 pounds of water-cooled boost down the gullet of a 2.0-liter, twin-cam four cylinder, producing a maximum whoop of 205 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque (compared with the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter's 145 hp and 155 pound feet of torque). If you seek further supercharger enlightenment, look to your left: A racy little AutoMeter boost gauge grins at you from the driver's side windshield pillar.
As for efficiency, the SS-SC's fuel economy is rated at 23 miles per gallon city, 29 highway -- I wonder what it would be without that wing dragging in the windstream? -- and the car prefers 91 octane. Ouch. It will run on regular unleaded, says Chevy, but with diminished power.
The smack from the supercharger is complemented by a more robust five-speed transmission, the same cog-swapper as in the Saab 9-3. This tranny has a larger clutch plate than the one in the regular Cobalt, 1-inch shorter shift throws and a quicker final-drive ratio of 4.05:1. As an option -- and one I highly recommend for this peaky front-driver -- you can also get a Quaife limited-slip differential.
From a standing start, this thing goes off like a bug bomb. Thanks to equal-length halfshafts, which divide power evenly between the two wheels, there's no torque steer to speak of and the car accelerates dead straight. The clutch pedal is nice and heavy, and uptake smooth and progressive through the sweep of the pedal. The final-drive ratio sharpens the step-off acceleration and then the supercharger takes over, pulling a blue streak to the 6,500-rpm redline. This feels like a sub-6-second-to-60-mph car, but it runs out of gears on the top end. The car's resonant frequency -- when wind noise, road noise and all the whirring and chirring from the engine and driveline are at optimum equipoise -- is around 75 mph. Any faster than that and the car starts to wear on your -- or at least my -- aged wits.
The limited-slip diff is worth having if only because it comes as a package with the Recaro performance seats. If I had to point to the fun-driving chakra in this car, it would be these amazing seats, which seem to suck you into the structure of the car. Here's a little secret from your friend the car tester: Great handling is about 80% tires, 10% seat and 10% weight balance. Everything else is negotiable.
Chevrolet never tires of telling people it develops its cars on the Nordschleife, the hilly 13-mile road course at the Nürburgring, Germany's version of NASA's Vomit Comet. Yes, well, so do most companies. But you can't deny the Cobalt SS-SC is extremely well sorted, handling wise. The suspension is a substantially beefed-up version of the GM's multinational Delta platform (under the Opel Vectra and the Saturn Ion) with stiffer springs and struts and thicker anti-roll bars. The front suspension is independent MacPherson strut, and the rear is what Chevy calls a semi-independent torsion beam design.
Its innate dynamics are naturally front-heavy, but with the Z-rated tires you have to push pretty hard before the SS-SC will understeer. Generally, the handling is flat, predictable and well-mannered. The shock tuning is excellent and the car regains its composure readily after big avoidance-style maneuvering or heavy impacts from broken asphalt. The freeway ride is likewise quite settled and comfortable.
The overriding tactile quality of this car is one of heft and weight and substance. The electric steering boost is minimal, giving the car a thick-wristed feel at the wheel. The suspension bushings must be enormous, because -- unlike just about any small GM car I can think of -- there is a real heavily damped quality between the suspension and the chassis.
The clutch and the brake require no small amount of quadriceps to operate, and generally this car -- which weighs nearly 3,000 pounds -- feels caulked and screwed down and bolted up in a way that is quite reassuring. And when it comes to Chevrolet, I need reassurance most of all.
- - -
Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes .com.
- - -
2005 Cobalt SS Supercharged Coupe
Base price: $21,995
Price, as tested: $24,585 (included $565 destination charge)
Powertrain: Supercharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, dual-overhead cam engine; five-speed manual transmission; limited-slip differential; front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 205 at 5,600 rpm
Torque: 200 at 4,400 rpm
Curb weight: 2,991 pounds
0-60 mph: 6 seconds
Wheelbase: 103.3 inches
Overall length: 180.3 inches
EPA fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Pre-fab fast-and-furious