The cars we loved.
The Cobalt just couldn’t get any respect. As the long overdue replacement for the Cavalier, it offered fans of American compact cars something to look forward to besides the Neon. Although a drastic improvement, over the 20+ year old J Car platform that the Cavalier was based on, it ended up being an overall disappointment for those looking for a true Civic fighter from Lordstown OH. Interestingly the Lordstown factory was the home of GM compact car production including the Vega, Monza, Cavalier and a host of their forgettable clones. This was their chance to finally get it right. In many ways they succeeded, but ultimately low sales figures told another story. In SS form the Cobalt might have been one of the most underrated performance bargains out there.
When introduced in 2004, if was GM’s answer to critics who had long complained that the it’s small cars suffered in the wake of all the attention given to trucks and SUVs. The Cobalt represented all the current thinking at GM, and showed that it was serious (to some extent) in making a genuinely competitive compact car. Replacing the Cavalier and Prisim meant that the Cobalt had big shoes to fill. Anything would be better than a Cavalier, but the high expectations that came with a replacement for the Prisim suggested that the new car would have fit and finish standards close to Toyota’s.
In reality what rolled out to dealers in late 2004 was a line of competent but unassuming two door coupes and a sedan based on the GM Delta platform. In Europe, the Delta platform formed the underpinnings of the Opel Astra. Here it was also shared by the Chevy HHR, Pontiac G5 and Saturn Ion. As a coupe, the Cobalt was attractive enough, but somehow did not look as sleek as the old Cavalier. The sedan was just downright frumpy looking. A version of the 2.0 liter 4 cylinder ECOTEC that had appeared in late Cavaliers was the base engine.
Unlike the Cavalier, the Cobalt had a modern fully independent suspension, even in the base models. Later in 2004 a sporty variant called the SS was launched. Chevrolet often used the SS label for its highest performing cars so the model created much anticipation among the tuner car crowd that GM was hoping to lure out of their Hondas. After all, Chevrolet could have just called it a Z24 and expectations might not have been so high. SS cars went through many major changes, almost one for each model year, usually under the hood. In essence there are three types of SS Cobalt distinguished by their engines as in normally-aspirated, supercharged or turbocharged.
The first SS Cobalt used a supercharged version of the standard 2.0 L engine. It had been used in Saturn’s ION Redline the previous year and was happy to find a new home. It produced 205 hp and was good for a 5.9 second dash to 60 from a stop light and had a top speed of 158 mph, all while getting about 30 mpg on the highway. The transmission was a Sabb 5-speed or an off the shelf GM 4-speed automatic. Not too bad for a compact car, but still not to Subaru WRX standards. The Cobalt’s numbers looked better than the less powerful Civic Si and matched or exceeded the mighty Dodge SRT-4 in overall handling. The main difference between those cars and the Cobalt boiled down to the quality of the interior.
The Cobalt, like the Cavalier, looked cheap inside – even in loaded SS models. The need to cut costs where most people experience it most made the Cobalt the receptor to high praise and scornful criticism – sometimes all at once. Most of the press agreed that it was a good car with a cheap looking interior. Even the Dodge SRT-4 got higher marks inside. More problematic, was the torque steer and wheel hop, a condition of relatively high power in a front wheel drive car with a short wheel base car. All of the Cobalt SS’s competitors seemed to have whipped this problem with either all-wheel drive or limited slip differentials.
Oddly, Chevrolets responded the following year with a naturally aspirated SS car with a 2.5 L 171 hp 4 cylinder engine. The original supercharged car was still available, but the new model suffered less from the documented ills of the original. All SS cars had a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission, although most cars were sold with the automatic.
The third and final iteration of the SS car was the best. Although Chevrolet never fully addressed the interior issues, it did resolve all the problems pertaining to wheel spin, torque steer and other handling quirks of earlier cars. The competition had upped the ante in horsepower and Chevrolet responded with the most powerful Cobalt yet in 2008: a 2.0 turbocharged intercooled inline 4 version of the ECOTEC pumping out a lag free 260hp. 30 more hp than Dodge’s SRT-4, its closest competitor.
Not only was there more power, there was better control too. Handling from the FE5 suspension was improved with tuning at Nurburging. The modifications paid off handsomely when the Cobalt SS was pitted against its competitors. In a 2008 Road & Track article the Cobalt SS beat the SRT-4, Mazdaspeed 3 and Lancer EVO X. A more recent Car and Driver test from 2009 saw the Cobalt place third behind a GTi and ahead of the Civic Si, Mini Cooper Works and the lancer Ralliart.
Even though the Cobalt began to get lukewarm if not positive reviews, there were still nagging issues with the quality of materials in the interior. It was improved with multi-color surfaces to dramatic effect in the SS cars. Publications like Consumer Reports (who rated cars like appliances )was not so kind to the Cobalt, not recommending it at all during its production run to date. Sales were far below projections and trailed the Cavalier. Rumors of the demise of the Cobalt in 2009 ended up being false, with only the axing of the G5 due and Ion due to restructuring being the only change at the factory.
The Cobalt made regular appearances at SEMA shows in an attempt to reach out to the tuner boy market. Amongst performance minded consumers, the Cobalt SS is still over looked for higher profile cars like the Honda Civic Si. Chevrolet might have learned its lesson that good engineering; was not enough. Compact car customers were becoming more accustomed to greater attention to detail and more exciting designs. Although the Cobalt will be sold alongside the new savior of Chevy small cars the Cruze for a few years, it will be replaced by the new sub compact eventually. In time it is hoped that the Cruze will make customers finally forget the legacy of the Cavalier, although the Cobalt did it’s best to and failed.