2005 Chevrolet Cobalt Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
January 2, 2005

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The concept of a truly “American” small car may finally be dead. Take Chevy’s new supercharged Cobalt SS. Its tires come from Italy, the 18-inch wheels from Taiwan, the engine is screwed together in Germany, the transmission is shared with a Swedish Saab, the “Delta” platform upon which it is built also underpins Opels and Saturns, and the whole thing is assembled in the same Lordstown, Ohioplant that once built the — GACK! — Vega. The Cobalt SS is American mostly in the sense that, like American culture in general, it shamelessly steals from other cultures to make itself better. Hey, the name Chevrolet itself is foreign — a French corruption, it’s rumored, of the words for goat’s milk.

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Having said all that, it’s also true that even with all that international content, the Cobalt drives more like an American car than any other small performance coupe. Go figure.

Exactly what you think it is

There’s absolutely nothing startling about the Cobalt’s engineering. Of course it’s built around a unibody structure. Naturally there’s a MacPherson strut front suspension and a semi-independent torsion beam in back. As usual, a four-cylinder engine sits transversely in the car’s nose. As with virtually all of its competitors, buyers have a choice of either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transaxle. And when was the last time a new car had something other than rack-and-pinion steering?

Some of the Cobalt SS’ features though do have a premium quality however. That includes the four-wheel disc brakes with ABS (lesser Cobalts make do with rear drums and ABS is optional on the base car), and the hood and trunk lid both stay open with hydraulic struts. The most immediately apparent premium element, however, is the SS’ 18-inch wheels inside P215/45R18 Pirelli PZero tires.

But for a small car, the Cobalt SS is pretty big. At 180.5 inches long overall, this coupe is a 5.1 inches lengthier than a Honda Civic Coupe even though its 103.3-inch wheelbase is a scant 0.2 inches longer than that other car. At 68.4 inches the Cobalt is also 1.3 inches wider than the Civic.

That relatively large size also results in a relatively high curb weight. Chevy claims the Cobalt SS crushes down with 2806 pounds of mass compared with a Honda Civic EX Coupe’s 2579 pounds. However, the Cobalt SS is 124 pounds lighter than Saturn’s ION Red Line coupe which is also built on the Delta platform and has the same drivetrain, but carries around two additional doors.

Blown away

Anyone familiar with the Saturn ION Red Line is already familiar with the Cobalt SS’ powertrain. While less ambitious Cobalts use a 145-horsepower, 2.2-liter, normally aspirated version of GM’s DOHC, 16-valve, all-aluminum Ecotec four, the SS Ecotec displaces 2.0 liters, has an Eaton Rootes-style blower heaving into it, and makes 205 horsepower. That’s a decent output, but it pales in comparison to the 230 horsepower Dodge’s turbocharged Neon SRT-4 has on board. Of course the Dodge will be quicker, but it’s a rip-snort machine that’s nowhere near as civilized as the Cobalt SS in daily driving.

The five-speed manual transmission and shifter mechanism for the SS (no automatic is offered with the supercharged engine) comes straight out of the Saab 9-3. Since the Saab is powered by a turbocharged version of the Ecotec, adopting this transmission for the supercharged Ecotec makes perfect sense and the gears feel well chosen for the task. The shifter can be a bit numb and indistinct, but it’s no worse than in many (and better than some) directly competitive vehicles.

An utterly necessary option is a limited slip differential that’s offered only in a package that also brings with it Recaro-designed front seats. What do the seats and the limited slip diff have to do with one another that makes it necessary to bundle them together as one option? Not much beyond the fact that no right-thinking human should even consider buying a Cobalt SS equipped without both items.

With excellent low-end torque production and a surprisingly eager-to-rev personality, the supercharged Ecotec is a sweet everyday companion. There’s a hint of blower whine under hard acceleration; potential Cobalt SS owners probably want that sound. But they’d probably also appreciate a more distinct exhaust note too.

Good, bad and heavy

The Cobalt SS is not a point-and-shoot lightweight like a Civic or Acura RSX, but a punching welterweight that needs some heavy thumping to move around the ring. This car drives big — as if it weighed 600 pounds more than it does and was four inches wider.

That’s not to say the Cobalt SS suspension isn’t well tuned. In fact it’s among the very best handling small cars out there with a firm ride and only moderate understeer at the car’s limits. And with the limited slip diff aboard, it pulls through corners with confidence and impeccable manners getting more from those Pirellis than a front-driver has any right getting. Much of the credit should go to GM suspension engineer Mark Stielow, who led much of the ride and handling development. For anyone who subscribes to Hot Rod, Car Craft or Popular Hot Rodding, the answer is, yes, that’s the same Mark Stielow who’s home-built, heavily modified, classic Camaros and Chevelles are renowned as among the best hot rods ever built.

The steering, though, is quite heavy. Some of that is likely attributable to the sheer rotating weight of the jumbo 18-inch wheels and the relatively wide cross-section of the Pirelli tires. But it also seems that someone has digitized the responses of a 1991 Camaro Z28 1LE’s steering and programmed the resulting algorithm into the Cobalt SS’ electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering. The well-controlled ride is better than that old racing-oriented Camaro’s ride, but do small car shoppers really want a small car that steers and turns like a bigger car?

Inside good, inside not so good

Compared to the old Cavalier’s interior, the Cobalt’s is a quantum leap improvement. But milk crate seats, a plywood dashboard with Magic Marker instrumentation, rope door handles and a harmonica would be an improvement over the Cavalier.

The Cobalt’s optional Recaro-designed seats (go back six paragraphs for a previous mention) aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough and easily the star element of the interior. The instrumentation is straightforward, ringed brightly, and easy to read. And the Pioneer seven-speaker sound system includes an XM radio option and sounds great. One neat addition is a boost gauge, clearly marked as a product of the AutoMeter company, burrowed into the A-pillar.

But there are still some easy-to-spot stumbles in interior quality. The pieces of the dashboard don’t seem to align perfectly and some plastic pieces still have flash from their casting stuck on them. Plus the plastic trim that’s pretending to be metal trim lacks credibility. Still, just the fact that the controls and switches work with some grace and precision is a big step forward for GM small cars.

The most agonizing element of the Cobalt SS however is the standard rear wing. Standing too tall, looking too weird and doing nothing for actual aerodynamics, all the wing really does is block rearward visibility and give the car an adolescent appearance that doesn’t reflect the car’s relatively mature manners. Chevy should off the wing as an option, and let the kids who want it pay for it. They can even throw in a tube of Clearisil as a bonus.

The Cobalt SS Supercharged couple starts at $21,995 and that’s a price competitive with other vehicles in its high-performance class, but no clear bargain either. If they tossed the wing off though, they could probably add five bucks to the price and get the full $22K. And wouldn’t be nice if it were available as a sedan too?


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2005 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged
Base price: $21,995
Engines: 2.0-liter supercharged four, 205 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 180.5 x 68.4 x 55.6 in
Wheelbase: 103.3 in
Curb weight: 2806 lb
EPA City/Hwy: NA
Safety equipment: Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes (base model ABS is optional), front airbags
Major standard equipment: A/C, seven-speaker AM/FM/CD player, power windows, cruise control, power mirrors
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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