It’s strange what eventually convinces you that a good car is a very good car. It usually comes from discovering it has an extra, surprising talent that makes it a more rounded car than you expected. My epiphany with the Cobalt SS coupe came when it completed a 300-mile round trip, three up – three adults that is – and only once did it cause discomfort, when I accidentally piloted it over a sunken drain, mid-corner. My point is, carrying more than two adults for long journeys is not what this car is about, but it did it with aplomb.
It also goes to prove that there is more than one way to provide satisfactory comfort for passengers: it’s not all about long wheelbases, soft suspension and pillow-like seats. A good set of dampers, firm but supportive chairs and flat cornering can leave you just as refreshed at journey’s end. Had our Cobalt been the four-door sedan version, my 5’11” rear-seat passenger would have had better headroom, too.
The upside of the coupe variant is that it looks good – albeit dated – particularly in Victory Red or Imperial Blue (as ours), while the four-door looks a little Kia-like. In either form, though, you wouldn’t look at it and assume that this diminutive front-wheel-drive two-liter turbo car is capable of 0-60 in 5.7sec, and 0-100 in 12.8. Nonetheless, for the sake of good taste, please don’t go for the $150 aero spoiler, which reminds everyone of the promise-more-than-it-delivers supercharged ’07 Cobalt SS, and brings too much attention to the rear of the car which is, without question, its most unconvincing and dated aspect.
No less significant than the 55hp increase under the hood is the improved handling thanks to the GM Performance Division, whose team has so radically revamped the SS that it now has a chance to punch at the MazdaSPEED3. The limited slip diff is an option in name only: no-one is going to want to be without this $495 extra, for it prevents the inside front 225/40ZR18 Continental smoking itself into oblivion while you’re on the power mid-turn.
In fact, GMPD have done rather better than revamp the car. Check out Car and Driver
’s Lightning Lap feature
at Virginia International Raceway last year to see just what kind of prestigious company the Cobalt SS can beat on a handling course. Just to give you a clue, the Mitsubishi Lancer MMR and Subaru Impreza WRX STI fell to the SS sword.
Once you try out a Cobalt SS, that startling result is suddenly a whole lot less surprising. I have never experienced a narrow-track car that can carry so much speed into an apex while keeping the rear end so planted and secure, allowing you to keep on the power, spinning the turbo up to catapult you down the next straight. Big and clumsy throttle adjustments mid-turn are emphasized, as ever, by a turbocharger, with abrupt nose tuck-in on throttle lift-off, or mild understeer on hitting the gas. But the Cobalt’s chassis prevents your lead-footedness from becoming a major moment. Anyway, there’s no excuse for driving it like a fool – not when the maximum torque (260 lb ft) is available from as low as 2000rpm and with negligible turbo-lag.
There is a cautionary note, however: I have also never driven a car that required so much time with both hands on the wheel. This car torque steers under acceleration, it squirms around on poorly finished road surfaces, and it tramlines under braking, following every contour of the road. The first trait you won’t encounter if you’re just cruising from stoplight to stoplight, the second is a constant, and the third is something you get used to – and is compensated for by its excellent brakes that are strong, fade-free and easy to grade. None of these are characteristics unfamiliar to a driver of a MazdaSPEED3, which sends a similar amount of power through the front wheels, but they are something to bear in mind if transferring from a more docile car, or upgrading from a less powerful one.
The five-speed gearbox is notchy, and getting it to work smoothly when doing the “no-lift shift” from standstill – which allows you to keep the throttle planted to the bulkhead while changing cogs – is something that takes an age to perfect. Not convinced I ever did. But once you get the car up to fifth, it is a relaxed cruiser. In fact, despite having one less forward gear than the MazdaSPEED3, it will sit at 60mph in top spinning only 2200rpm, compared to the Japanese car’s 2400.
With an MSRP of just $23,435 (same for the four-door sedan), the Cobalt SS appears remarkable value for money, given its potency. The price is, inevitably, the car’s build quality. There’s nothing wrong with it structurally – government safety ratings give four stars for driver/ five stars for passenger in the event of a frontal crash, and four stars for side crash and rollover. But you don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you get out, shut the door firmly and see the whole roof jump, or when you’re inside, gently pushing home the glovebox lid, fearing it may splinter like balsa-wood, so thin and frail does it feel.
And yet there’s not a whole lot wrong with the interior. It’s uninspired, but not unattractive, it’s plain, but not underspecified. The boost-gauge in the A-pillar is a neat addition, the Bluetooth phone button is a commendable safety feature (as is the OnStar facility, which automatically calls for help should the car be involved in an accident), the seven-speaker Pioneer stereo is excellent in quality and for ease of use, and the air conditioning works well (but does have a very noticeable effect on engine power and throttle response). As an alternative, the power sunroof is a welcome ($750) addition.
The seats are comfortable, though the driving position will be compromised for some drivers because the steering wheel only adjusts for height rather than reach, while the trunk-opening is small enough to put off a lot of people who need the tailgate of a Mazda 3 or VW Golf. A split folding rear seat isn’t a satisfactory alternative.
Frankly, the Cobalt SS as a whole won’t be the answer for everyone, but a lot of those people are so prejudiced they won’t give it the chance. Obviously, GM wasn’t going to throw a whole lot of money at this car considering its Lordstown, Ohio production line is going to be churning out its replacement, the Cruze, in little more than a year’s time. But I feel Chevy is going to pay the price for not making the 2008-’10 Cobalt SS more visually different from its mechanically unconvincing predecessor. Or, put another way, GMPD should have gotten on the Cobalt’s case a lot sooner.
So all those who bought Civics, Golf GTIs, Mazda 3s, Imprezas or Evos pre-’09, without even considering the Cobalt – I understand your reasoning. Neither the performance nor the interior measured up to class standard, and parts of the interior still don’t. But the mechanical bits have been transformed, so don’t be surprised at your next track day when a well-driven final generation Cobalt SS beats your lap times. It won’t be a fluke; the car really is that good.
In years to come, the Cobalt won’t be remembered fondly, despite there being a real gem added to the range in its sunset years, and that’s sad for Chevy. The SS is now a great driving tool, and anyone that invests in one can honestly wear his Bow-Tie with pride.Words by David MalsherPhotos by Lesley Ann Miller/LAT