Chevrolet Cobalt – worthy of attention

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Sad to say, but perhaps the best small car to ever come out of a General Motors assembly plant may not get the customer attention it deserves this year.

The all-new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt is the compact car Chevrolet should have built several years ago to replace the aged Cavalier. But the Cavalier soldiered on until last fall with only one major upgrade — in 1995 — and minor improvements here and there through nearly 25 years of production.

Customers who have given up on General Motors — and based on sales through the first five months of ’05 there are a lot of them — and others who think the Cobalt is just a name GM slapped on a warmed-over Cavalier are missing an opportunity to own a decent American-made compact sedan.

We found the Cobalt a refreshing addition to the Chevrolet lineup.

We were a bit skeptical ourselves before taking possession of our test car because the Cobalt has the same underpinnings as the Saturn Ion, one of the shoddiest cars to come from the world’s largest automaker when it was introduced in 2003. The 2003 Ion, built on the all new Delta global architecture, was plagued by poor fit and finish and astonishingly cheap materials.

The transformation is amazing. The Cobalt is Chevrolet’s Dr. Jekyll to the Ion’s Mr. Hyde. The Ion monster has been transformed into a well-attired gentleman with proper fit and finish, quality-looking fabrics and trim pieces, sound-deadening materials in the right places and a solid structure that is agile and fun to drive.

On our Cobalt LT test car, all the seams fit properly. Nothing was out of line. The dashboard is pleasingly simple and just simply pleasing to look at with nice touches such as chrome surrounds on the speedometer, tachometer and gas gauge; an attractive black face on the center stack, chrome trim on the climate control knobs and chrome door handles.

Our top-of-the line test car came with good-looking splashes of faux wood trim and nice-feeling leather seats. It’s much easier to feel good about a car if you feel good inside the car. And we felt very content inside the Cobalt. 
The new Chevy comes in coupe and sedan formats. The sedan comes in base, LS and LT trim levels and the coupe in base, LS and SS trim.

With the exception of the SS, all Cobalts are outfitted with GM’s 2.2-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder engine generating 145 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Even though the 16-valve engine does without the sophisticated variable valve timing of some of the competition’s 4-bangers, it acquits itself quite well. In fact, it easily fits into the top echelon in performance, capable of 0 to 60 runs in 8.4 seconds mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission.

Since we first drove the Ecotec a couple years ago, we’ve found it a little buzzy, but certainly not unacceptable.

Factor in gas mileage of 24 city and 32 highway, and GM has got a winning combination of performance and fuel economy. And fuel economy will definitely be a bigger factor in a family’s buying decisions as the price of gas escalates.

The SS coupe will give performance-minded people an opportunity to purchase a hotrod at an affordable price. It comes with a supercharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine making 205 horsepower.

We got the opportunity to spend some time behind the wheel of a SS a few weeks ago in Atlanta, and we found the hot coupe very fast and very entertaining; all for under 25 grand.

Prices reveal the Cobalt’s elevated status from the Cavalier with the three sedan trim levels starting at $14,190, $16,485 and $18,195.

But even the base model is solidly equipped with air conditioning, stereo with CD player, driver-seat height adjuster and split-folding rear seat.

Like many cars in the segment, the mid-trim level offers the best combination of price and standard equipment. The Cobalt LS adds cruise control, power windows, keyless entry, upgraded seats and antilock brakes.

Our LT tester added leather seats, an astounding Pioneer sound system, exterior chrome trim and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The Cobalt felt solid on the road with well-weighted steering that allows the driver to point and shoot. Chevrolet has reportedly recalibrated the electric power steering, also used in the Saturn Ion, for better feedback.

The brakes have a good feel with foot pressure matching stopping ability. The little car is agile in tight situations, very maneuverable. We did notice a slight wind noise coming from the front driver’s window when speeds reached 60 miles per hour, but overall the cabin was extremely quiet for a car selling for under $20,000.

The front seats seemed a bit stiff at first, but it appears the seats are firm in all the right places, and after an hour-and-a-half behind the wheel, we stepped out of the car as fresh as when we entered it.
Perhaps the same can be said of the back seats, which we sat in for a few minutes and also noticing the same firmness as the front seats.

The Cobalt does have some drawbacks one of them is tight rear-seat quarters. It will take cooperation with front seat passengers to gain comfortable legroom in the back.

Next to fuel economy, safety may be the next concern of families buying a new car. And the Cobalt has earned some terrific bragging rights. The little Chevy, with optional side curtain airbags ($395), scored well on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety side-crash tests. The Cobalt and Toyota Corolla, equipped with side airbags, are the highest-rated small cars in the industry.

In addition to the large amount of standard stuff on our test car, it came with a few options including sunroof, side-curtain airbags, XM Satellite radio, rear deck-lid spoiler and an upgraded stereo with MP3 player bringing the bottom line to $21,325 including destination charge.

GM officials stressed when we talked to them in Atlanta a few weeks ago that the Cobalt will not have to accomplish the same mission as the Cavalier, which served as Chevy’s entry-level car while trying to compete with the more upscale Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

The Chevrolet Aveo now has to do the entry-level chores leaving the Cobalt to take on the more premium brands.

And the Cobalt is up to the task. Chevrolet’s biggest problem is to convince prospective buyers, who may otherwise skip the Chevy store, to take a test drive in the new Cobalt.