Chevrolet Cobalt SS – a well behaved pocket rocket

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We drove the future of affordable automotive entertainment a few weeks ago.

The future we think is a small four-door sedan with the ability to comfortably transport four adults and cargo with an out-the-door price of under 25 grand rated at 30 miles to the gallon (on the highway with accelerator in a normal position), capable of neck- snapping adrenaline-elevating 0-to-60 time under six seconds and the necessary suspension setup to carve up winding blacktops.

That’s the future for people who love to drive, but don’t have a BMW pocketbook.

That’s the kind of frugality we want, the kind that will keep daily driving entertaining and not just another chore in the rather boring green zone.

We were admittedly a bit surprised to find this rewarding package in Chevrolet’s compact economy nameplate, the Cobalt.  But there it was, sitting in front of the office, always ready to deliver a new, exciting and mostly economical driving adventure.

Chevrolet has delivered this neat four-door package — called the Cobalt SS — using a turbocharged 2.0-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine making 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. To create great quickness the sedan weighs in at an anorexic 2,995 pounds.

To get the most ‘bang for the buck,’ the SS comes with only a short- throw five-speed manual transmission.

We know the proof is in the driving. But here are some numbers to crunch before giving the Cobalt SS sedan a few whirls around the block:

• Performance has been measured at 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds when shifted expertly, 13.9 seconds at 104 miles per hour in the quarter mile, and with an excellent stopping distance from 60 mph, of 121 feet.

• Base price, which is also a well-equipped price, is an affordable $23,435 including destination charge.

• Gas mileage is 30 mpg on the highway, 22 in town. Don’t expect that kind of frugality in hard driving, but consider it very possible while taking the wife and kids to the mother-in-law’s house on Sunday afternoon. Chevrolet says premium gas is recommended, but not required. That means the Cobalt will probably live on a steady diet of regular quite nicely.

• Trunk space, important for a small family, is a healthy — for a compact car — 13.9 cubic feet. Competitors such as the Ford Focus sedan have 13.8 cubic feet and the Honda Civic only 12. Like most sedans in the segment, the rear seatbacks fold down 60/40 adding to hauling usability.

• Passenger space is adequate and rear headroom is good at nearly 38 inches. As with all compact sedans, some compromise may be needed between rear passengers and long-legged front passengers.

Passenger room and cargo space is the same for the garden-variety Cobalt, so let’s concentrate on the things that make the SS special including its rewarding driving dynamics.

A footnote here; the Cobalt SS has come in coupe and sedan format for several years, and last year the two-door got the new 260-horsepower engine. If you like a sportier look and don’t need the utility of four doors, the SS coupe also starts at $23,435.

 In 2008 the SS coupe featured a 205-horsepower turbocharged engine. There was an SS sedan package as well in 2007, but don’t confuse it with the 2009 edition. It came with a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter engine making 171 horsepower.

The new Cobalt SS has been elevated into a class with the Mazdaspeed3, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, and Subaru Impreza WRX. While performance is nearly equal, the Cobalt comes in at several thousand less.

Not only did we find the Cobalt fast, it was especially rewarding when kicked back into third gear for lightning-like passing on a two-lane highway. We found it surprisingly composed with little body roll running through tight turns on our favorite stretch of law-enforcement- deprived back-country asphalt. Make sure you check off the $495 limited slip differential option to get the best possible cornering setup.

The SS was also impressive on a couple of pedal-to-the-medal starts with traction and stability control shut off. There was only a hint of torque steer from the front-wheel drive Cobalt and there was very little steering wheel tug to the left or right. Chevrolet has successfully dialed out the problem that afflicts front drivers rippling with torque.

We applaud Chevrolet for putting in up-to-date safety equipment at no extra charge. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes (Brembo up front), head-curtain side airbags, stability and traction control, and tire pressure monitoring are part of the SS package.

So you’ve invested in this very entertaining car, but you want your neighbors to know that what’s in the driveway is not the run-of-the- mill economy sedan. Although there’s not a lot to differentiate the SS, your neighbors will notice the sporty 18-inch forged aluminum wheels wrapped with low-profile performance rubber. There’s also a spoiler on the deck-lid and SS badges on each side.

Inside, we liked the performance cloth seats with color-keyed inserts and a big SS badge stitched into the seatbacks. The dashboard layout is standard Cobalt meaning easy-to-read gauges, but large expanses of hard plastic that make it plain ugly. We could have used a center arm rest for a tad more comfort.

Also missing are a decent selection of storage cubbies. The Cobalt, strangely for a 2009 car, has little useable storage space up front. There is a pull-open area to the left of the driver good for coins and big enough for a small cell phone.

There are few options available. The two biggest in terms of price are limited slip, as noted above, and a sunroof for $750. Navigation is not offered, but General Motors’ OnStar system with turn-by-turn navigation is available.

Standard equipment includes a complete power package, air conditioning, cruise control and a high-performance audio system with seven Pioneer speakers including a subwoofer mounted in the trunk.

We like the fact you can get a domestic branded car that delivers rewarding pocket rocket performance for a very competitive price. Not only is the Cobalt SS a good car, we think it is every bit the equal of the best the competition has to offer.

Base price: $23,435; as driven, $24,105
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 260 @ 5,300 rpm
Torque: 260 pound-feet @ 2,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.3 inches
Length: 180.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,995 pounds
Turning circle: 39.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 22 city
0-60: 5.4 seconds (Road & Track)
Also consider: Mazda Mazdaspeed3, Subaru WRX, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

The Good
• Exceptional bang for the buck
• A true sports sedan
• Good gas mileage with regular fuel OK

The Bad
• Not differentiated enough from standard Cobalt

The Ugly
• Cheap interior plastics