The Chevy Cobalt is quiet and refined for a small car. Built on a strong, stiff platform, it delivers crisp handling and a smooth ride. And with its expressive styling and all-around competence, the Cobalt competes effectively against the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Ford Focus. That's an impressive achievement, considering how long those three have dominated the compact car market.
For 2008, the Cobalt offers more value and more safety, than ever. XM Satellite Radio is now standard, along with AM/FM/CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack. Standard safety features now include head-curtain airbags and a tire-pressure monitor. Anti-lock brakes and stability control are standard on some models, and available on others.
The Chevrolet Cobalt offers premium features, such as heated leather seats, a sunroof, and a seven-speaker Pioneer sound system. A remote vehicle starter is available on models with an automatic transmission.
The 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt is available in two body styles: a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan.
The 2008 Cobalt comes in LS, LT, and Sport trim levels. Gone are the premium LTZ and SS Supercharged models, at least for now.
The 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt LS and LT models are powered by a 148-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine and ride on the softer FE1 suspension, which includes a 19mm anti-roll bar in front and a16mm bar in the rear.
The Cobalt Sport gets a 171-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder and benefits from the firmer FE3 suspension, with 22-mm front and rear stabilizer bars, four-wheel-disc brakes, and 17-inch wheels and performance tires.
All models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission and offer a four-speed automatic as an option.
Chevrolet Cobalt LS ($13,675); LT ($14,375); Sport ($18,875)
Body panel fits are extremely tight. So tight, in fact, that there are no rubber trim gaskets around Cobalt's compound complex headlamps.
The fastback coupe bears a resemblance to the Cavalier it replaced in 2005, right down to its high, rounded tail and triangular rear quarter windows; though in fact Cobalt shares little with its predecessor but its looks.
The Cobalt sedan looks less like its curvier Cavalier ancestor, and more like a contemporary small sedan, with a tall roofline and short, chunky tail.
The coupe weighs about 50 pounds less than the sedan, although it's doubtful anyone but a professional race driver would feel the difference on the road. Same for the sedan's slightly better front-to-rear balance: 59/41 vs. 60/40 for the coupe.
Cobalt is longer, wider and lower than most of its direct competitors and its interior dimensions and trunk capacity are comparable for the class.
Cobalt uses different seats in the different trim levels, each with detail changes in foam, padding and trim. We found plenty of fore/aft and rake adjustment for a 6-foot, 4-inch driver, plus seat height adjustment with a ratcheting handle. The LT seats were very comfortable and grabbed us in the fast corners exactly where we needed to be grabbed and held. Even better were the optional leather-trimmed seats, which come with electric heat.
The available Pioneer seven-speaker sound system with the Delphi AM/FM/CD delivers good sound and includes a huge subwoofer mounted on the left side trunk wall. For 2008, all Cobalts now come with XM Satellite Radio.
The heating, ventilation and defroster system worked quickly and intuitively.
The LS comes with manually operated windows. We don't mind this, but it takes a lot of cranking (about four and half times around) to wind the windows up. The urethane steering wheel that comes on LS and LT models feels cheap. The leather-wrapped wheel that's standard on Sport and optional on LT is much nicer.
Rear-seat passengers pay a price for the coupe's sporty looks. Headroom, legroom, and hip room are reduced by 2 inches, 1.5 inches, and 3.5 inches, respectively; enough to make the difference between a comfortable place for adults and one best left to pre-adolescents. Up front, the coupe actually offers more head and legroom than the sedan, but only by fractions of an inch.
The trunk in the sedan is wide and deep with a low lift-over height, and almost 14 cubic feet of capacity, more than competitive in the class, though the opening to the trunk seems relatively small. Cobalt does not use space-eating gooseneck hinges on its decklid, opting instead for simple outside corner hinges and two hydraulic assist struts. The coupe has an even smaller trunk opening, making it difficult to stow a thick suitcase. A 60/40-split, fold-down rear seat with a trunk pass-through feature adds utility to both sedan and coupe.
The 2.2-liter engine, which is rated at 148 horsepower is smooth, but does not feel powerful until it's revving high. The four-speed automatic doesn't help, with kickdown that reminded us of a rental car.
We miss the Supercharged SS. We liked the way it sounded when it revved as well as its responsive performance.
For now, however, if you want driving excitement in a Cobalt, the Sport model will have to do. The 171 developed by its 2.4-liter engine is 16 percent more than the base engine produces. With 167 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm, the Sport delivers only about 10 percent more torque than the base LS/LT. But then the 2.4 has variable valve timing, which the 2.2 does not, so the bigger engine should provide more flexibility across the whole rpm spectrum. That should make it easier to drive around town.
The downside of the Sport's 2.4-liter engine is that its slightly higher compression ratio (10.4:1, vs. 10.0) pushes it over the line to where it needs Premium fuel to perform at its best. It will run on Regular gas, just not as fast. Fuel economy for the big engine with a manual transmission suffers slightly.
Fuel economy with the manual transmission is EPA rated at 24/33 mpg City/Highway for the 2.2-liter engine, and 22/32 mpg for the 2.4-liter. But with an automatic, the 2.4-liter scores the same 22/31 mpg as the 2.2-liter.
We found the Sport's four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS to be powerful and progressive, with a good balance between pedal travel and braking action. The brakes seemed a little mushy on the LT and LS, which come with drums in the rear.
The Chevrolet Cobalt will satisfy the needs of drivers looking for economy of price, economy of operation, and a nice, quiet ride. We think it's a handsome, well-equipped car. It carries four people comfortably, five only in a pinch, on a minimal outlay for fuel and monthly payments. The standard engine could offer more responsive low-end power. The Sport model is more fun to drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw reported from Dearborn, Michigan, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles and John F. Katz from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.