Cobalt shows some mettle, but donít expect a lot of flash
February 18, 2005
Even if you never owned one, you might have driven a Cavalier as a rental, as I have. It was a popular offering in the fleets.
Chances are you weren't expecting much from it and that your expectations proved correct. The Cavalier sedan wasn't much to look at, certainly not sporty in its acceleration or handling, but it got you there with no unpleasant surprises.
Well, the Cavalier's successor, the Cobalt, is here and, while it seems an improvement overall, you'll be happiest if you don't expect too much from it, either. It'll get you there.
An entirely different vehicle that shares basics with the Saturn Ion, the Cobalt has a fairly noisy four-cylinder engine that, nevertheless, has sufficient get-up-and-go. The interior is finished in rich-looking materials, unlike its predecessor. The ride is firmer than some of you will like. The handling is competent for this price range, and once the engine has settled to cruising speed, the interior is quiet.
The Cobalt is available with curtain-type, head-protection air bags, which weren't offered in the Cavalier.
The sedan is nearly identical in length and width to the Cavalier sedan. A comparison of Cavalier and Cobalt interior dimensions, though, yields some disappointment. While the Cobalt is 2.4 inches taller than the Cavalier, it offers slightly less headroom up front - though more in the rear than the Cavalier. It also offers less shoulder and hip room in the front and rear and slightly less rear-seat legroom.
A step backward there, it would appear. When I asked Chevrolet about it, a spokeswoman said, "The perceived interior roominess [of the Cobalt] is greater even though dimensionally it's smaller."
I guess it's done with mirrors.
Anyway, interior room, including rear-seat legroom, is adequate for normal-sized adults.
Cobalts come in two- and four-door styles. The coupe is available in the sporty SS equipment level with a 205- horsepower, supercharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine and four-wheel disc brakes. That version, though, begins at almost $22,000 with freight.
Other Cobalt coupe and sedans start at $14,190, including a 145-hp., 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine, air-conditioning, automatic headlamp controls, a split folding rear seat, a stereo with CD player, tilt wheel, a tachometer and a five-speed stick shift. Add $850 for an automatic transmission. At least until March 31, GM is offering $750 cash rebates on non-SS variants of the Cobalt, with a cut-rate financing alternative.
Note, though, that the tester was an LT - the higher of two equipment levels - and that it had a sticker price of more than $20,000 with the curtain air bags, automatic transmission and options like OnStar and XM satellite radio.
Competitors to the Cobalt that are worth considering include the Ford Focus, Honda Civic (being replaced in the fall by a new model, however), Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra and Suzuki Forenza. Although it's available with the most power in this class, the Dodge Neon is getting rather long in the tooth to seriously compete. So is the Nissan Sentra.
The Corolla, the Focus, the Mazda3, the Elantra and the Forenza offer more rear-seat legroom than the Cobalt.
If you'd prefer a larger Chevrolet than the Cobalt, note that the 2005 Malibu is available with a $2,000 rebate. The Malibu begins at $19,825. It shares the Cobalt's engine (with a V-6 option available) but the Malibu is 8 inches longer than the Cobalt, 2 inches wider and offers about 5 inches more rear-seat legroom.
Like the Cavalier, the Cobalt comes with a three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and five years or 60,000 miles of coverage on the powertrain.
Neither the federal government nor the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has published crash test results yet for the Cobalt. Nor is there any publicly available data yet on quality.
My tester ran flawlessly, but my time with it was cut short by an ignition switch that absolutely refused to budge one day from the locked position. GM spokesman Michael Albano said later that the dealership to which the car was towed believes the problem was a defective lock cylinder.
I was more disappointed though, with the inability of Chevrolet roadside assistance to get a tow truck to the car until the following day. Yes, it was 6p.m. on a Sunday evening when I called, but there were no blizzards or other cataclysmic events in progress and the location was in a heavily populated area. Twenty-four-hour roadside assistance should mean 24 hours, seven days a week. "We'll get to you tomorrow" is just not good enough.
The Cavalier was deemed average in mechanical reliability by Consumer Reports, which otherwise hated the car, by the way. The magazine has nothing yet on the Cobalt.
Chevrolet and its dealers scored just above average in the most recent customer-service survey by market researchers J.D. Power and Associates.
So, the Cobalt probably is a safe bet and one worth considering.