The Truth About Cars
By Chris Paukert
The word “cobalt” comes from ‘kobolt’, variant of the old German word ‘kobold’, meaning ‘goblin.’ As the story goes, German silver miners of yore believed that goblins would come and steal their booty, leaving worthless cobalt in its place. Not exactly an auspicious choice of names for a car, then.
Still, one can hardly fault the General for wanting to distance the Cobalt from the Cavalier it replaces. What with everyone from Toyota to Hyundai producing far more interesting econoboxes than the august Cavalier, Chevrolet knew that the Cobalt had to set a new, higher standard for its low end products. It had to ‘bring the noise’ to capture sales from parties other than Alamo and Enterprise.
Enter the noise, or, as the ads say, Chevy’s ‘new commotion.’ From the outside, the Cobalt’s design is as novel as a snowflake in Aspen. It isn’t unattractive, mind, but it lacks any hint of the brash American flair that Chrysler is currently deploying in their successful campaign against the imports. At least the Cobalt Coupe's a tastier morsel than the Saturn Ion, with which it shares its mechanical underpinnings. The Chevy’s aggressively raked roofline (almost 7/8ths Mustang in execution) and characterful dual-element tail lamps add a bit of interest to an otherwise uninspiring shape.
The Cobalt’s interior reflects the General’s ongoing campaign against acrid cheapness; the Cobalt’s plastics rank several orders above the outgoing Cavaliers’ (and the Ion). Still, the cabin’s overall quality won’t worry VW’s Golfers or Toyota’s Sciontologists. As always, the devil’s in the details. For example, the Cobalt’s seat bottoms ratchet up and down, but the action is uncultivated, and the seat coverings themselves are more Stainmaster than stylemeister. The Cobalt’s urethane steering wheel rim is suitably thick, but feels like a discount replacement part, and fails to telescope.
On the plus side, the Cobalt is a seriously quiet automobile. Noise from the drivetrain, tires, wind and traffic are all suppressed far more effectively than they are in a comparable Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Better still, despite the frigid temperatures and epic potholes on our test loop, the Cobalt’s interior trim uttered nary a squeak or groan. Reliability freaks have every reason to be hopeful.
Over the road con brio, the Cobalt proved largely free of unwanted ‘commotion’. In situations where a Cavalier would’ve staggered about like the oenophiles in Sideways, the Cobalt remained firmly planted to the pavement. Enthusiasts could be forgiven for wanting to pass on anything employing a twist-beam trailing arm rear suspension, but the reality is something of a pleasant surprise. (Transitional responses are sharpened by standard anti-roll bars front and rear.) Admittedly, the Cobalt doesn’t inspire the same handling confidence as the Ford Focus, but it doesn’t slur about like the skinny-tired Mitsubishi Lancer, either.
The Cobalt’s variable-assist electric power steering lacks true precision, especially at the straight-ahead, but it’s not unbearably artificial or over-boosted. The Chevy’s brakes are more effective than any disc/drum setup has a right to be (you’ll have to plump for the SS if you want discs all ‘round), providing tremendous stopping power with minimal fuss or fade. A little more braking feel would be welcome, but the stoppers’ safety is beyond reproach.
Despite a large-for-the-class 2.2L Ecotec four-cylinder with 145 horses, the Cobalt is a decidedly reluctant revver, with general smoothness being notable by its absence. Although we can only hope that Chevrolet will find some people who will, thrashing an entry-level Cobalt is both unpleasant and pointless. Doubtlessly, the shortly-promised 2.4L 175hp will improve matters, as will the 205 ponies in the force-fed 2.0L SS variant. But for now, file the Cobalt’s go-power under: ‘Competent, not inspiring.’
And there you have it. The Cobalt, for all its improvements in quality and engineering, is yet another boring automobile. The ‘new commotion’ ultimately lacks what Chevy’s admen so desperately want us to believe it has-- something to get excited about. Sure, GM has come up with a perfectly competent car capable of going ply-to-ply with Honda and Toyota’s current (albeit dated) offerings. But the Cobalt stumbles badly next to the dynamic soul of the Mazda3, and the abrasive charisma of the Dodge Neon SRT-4.
Given GM’s sliding market share, the Cobalt’s lack of ambition is particularly troubling. Name change or no, the Cobalt started from the back of the pack, inheriting the Cavalier’s reputation for low residuals, suspect quality, and a ‘rent me/beat me’ persona. Whether through novel styling, breakthrough technology, scandalously low MSRP or stupid amounts of power, the Cobalt needed something to help it stand out from its ancestor AND a field crowded with viable alternatives. To stem the tide of imported low-cost, high quality sedans, the Cobalt had to be a game-changer. What GM delivered is a solid setup man. Back to the mines boys, back to the mines.