EXPERT REVIEW

The Sacramento Bee's view

You can get jaded in this car-testing business.

Get into enough 400-horsepower road-burners or another $60,000-plus car dripping with luxury features, and before you know it, you can start losing perspective. Fortunately, a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LT can come along and snap you – make that, me – back into reality.

Not all motorists are buying high-priced hardware these days. Plenty of folks need basic, affordable, reliable transportation. That’s the Cobalt’s niche.

So, if you have Lexus intentions, this might be a good time to turn to another section of the newspaper. But if you’re thinking value, read on.

The Cobalt is all-new for 2005 – a replacement for the Chevy Cavalier that did admirable duty in the entry-level passenger car segment for years but was looking decidedly dated as we entered 2005.

As value-priced compacts go, the Cobalt covers lots of bases: the front-drive car can be had in six trim levels of both coupes and sedans. My time was spent in the LT sedan starting at $18,195 – a nice compromise between the base $13,625 coupe/sedan and the $21,430 Cobalt SS Supercharged Coupe.

As a first-year, new-model effort, the Cobalt is mostly a winner. But there is room for improvement.

On the positive side, the Cobalt is a decided improvement over the Cavalier. The Cobalt’s steering and handling are more responsive and precise than its predecessor. And the new car’s interior does not have the cheapish look of the Cavalier.

The 145-horsepower Cobalt was peppy and scooted nicely along congested surface streets.

However, Chevrolet has touted the Cobalt as a “premium compact” capable of holding its own with Asian and European imports. I was not getting that level of sophistication from the Cobalt.

Perhaps it’s simply an unfair comparison. I view the Cobalt as a fine first-new-car choice or a smart, economical second car for a household that already has a pricier vehicle for everyday use. Putting the Cobalt up as a competitor against long-established foreign models seems a bit of a reach.

Chevrolet engineers also touted the Cobalt’s “Quiet Steel,” which translates to laminated sheet metal. Problem was, the tested model made substantial noise when asked to work hard; engine noise easily penetrated the cabin on hard accelerations and uphill runs.

And on the tested LT, there was a rattle high in the driver’s door. That might be a one-time glitch, but not one you like to hear on a test car.

Perhaps the best news on the Cobalt: Fuel economy ratings of 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the open road. At a time of gas-pump-price shock, those are welcome numbers from an internal combustion engine.

From the cockpit, the Cobalt was comfortable, and controls were easy to operate. Passengers taken on test runs seemed similarly pleased, although three adults said they felt crowded in the back seat.

Outside the car, the Cobalt LT’s exterior styling came off as understated, but attractive. The car looks a little too chopped at the back, but it’s easy on the eyes viewed in profile or straight on.

The list of standard features on the Cobalt LT was lengthy and included items I once regarded as costly extras on a value-priced sedan. That included battery rundown protection, power exterior mirrors, fog lamps, leather-appointed seats/steering wheel/gear shifter and cruise control.

Available options are also impressive: an OnStar communications system, XM Satellite Radio and a rear spoiler. If you’re looking at a Cobalt, shop carefully. Little extras include tire/wheel sizes varying from 15 to 18 inches.

I must confess that I longed for a taste of the supercharged, 2-liter, four-cylinder power plant that comes with the SS Supercharged Coupe version of Cobalt. Like I said, the 145-horsepower in-line 4 on the tester was peppy; the supercharged engine with 205 horsepower must be an absolute blast.

Overall, Cobalt is a nice effort from a company trying to please people who have been buying Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas by the thousands. Engineering-wise, Cobalt is a quantum leap ahead of the Cavalier and a near-peer of those wildly popular compact imports.

What does that mean? If your test-drive list includes only the Civic and Corolla, you need to add the Cobalt to that list.

2005 Chevrolet Cobalt at a glance Make/model: 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LT.

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, front-drive, four-door, compact sedan.

Base price: $18,195 (as tested, $20,600).

Engine: 2.2-liter in-line 4 with 145 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 155 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 24 miles per gallon city; 32 mpg highway.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic with overdrive.

Steering: Power rack and pinion with speed-sensitive feature.

Brakes: Power-assisted front discs and rear drums with anti-lock.

Suspension: Independent strut-type on front; semi-independent torsion beam on rear (stabilizer bars front, rear).

Interior volume: 101 cubic feet.

Cargo volume: 13.9 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 13.2 gallons.

Curb weight: 2,989 pounds.

Track: 58.7 inches on front; 58.1 inches on rear.

Height: 57.1 inches.

Length: 180.5 inches.

Wheelbase: 103.3 inches.

Width: 67.9 inches.

Tires: P205/55R16 touring tires.

Final assembly point: Lordstown, Ohio.

About the writer:

* The Bee’s Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or mglover@sacbee.com.

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