http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB1...?mod=autos%5F3 (Sub. Req'd)
By JONATHAN WELSH
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 11, 2005; Page W11C
How hard could it be to replace the Chevrolet Cavalier -- a clunky, 23-year-old design some regard as one of the worst cars on the market?
For Chevrolet, the answer seems to be "pretty hard." The Cavalier's compact-sedan replacement is the Cobalt, the car maker's latest compact aimed at the now-decades-old goal of recapturing some of the legions of entry-level buyers who have steadily migrated to Japanese and European models. But in its first few months in showrooms, the Cobalt's sales haven't met expectations.
It's no surprise because there's little about the Cobalt that makes one look twice -- or even once. While it is better than the Cavalier in just about every way, that isn't really saying much. More importantly, the Cobalt doesn't raise the competitive bar among rivals such as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Its styling isn't distinctive (it isn't slick like a Mazda 3 or cute like a Mini Cooper), and some of the components the Cobalt uses should have been put out to pasture 30 years ago.
So, is there anything redeeming about the Cobalt? The test car we drove for a week was indeed nicer than the Cavalier. Our test car was better looking, with body panels that fit tightly together. Inside were the plastic dashboard and door panels expected in a car that starts at about $16,000, but again, the parts looked good and were neatly assembled. Loaded with options including heated leather seats, automatic transmission, side-curtain airbags, satellite radio and a chrome exhaust-pipe tip, our tester cost $19,625.
Securely Planted, if Hefty
On the road, the Cobalt felt securely planted, like a much larger car. We attribute that to its 3,200-pound weight -- several hundred pounds more than the competition. But that heft took away the nimbleness that makes cars such as the Mazda 3 and Mini Cooper fun to drive.
There also are places where Chevy took obvious shortcuts, like with its rear drum brakes. Are we technology snobs for believing, more than 40 years after four-wheel disc brakes first appeared on passenger cars, that every car should have more-efficient discs on all four wheels? For its part, Chevrolet says that rear drum brakes perform fine (and they do, but discs maintain more even stopping power under heavy braking), and help keep the cost of the car down.
The Cobalt's 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out 145 horsepower -- more than the Civic and Toyota Corolla, but those lighter cars manage to come across as more peppy in spite of their lower power. The Cobalt was brisk enough for merging with highway traffic, but the overall feeling from the engine is one of laziness. If attempting to pass while going uphill, the pedal can be to the metal long before the groaning engine really digs in.
Rent to Own
The Cobalt seems like a good buy -- until it's compared with similarly priced models. Just about every other compact car has something the Cobalt lacks, whether it's Toyota's reliability records, Mazda's sporty feel or Volkswagen's solidly built interiors.
The Cobalt comes across a bit like a rental -- the kind of car one doesn't mind using but wouldn't buy. Chevy officials say the car won't become the rental-fleet staple the Cavalier became, but we wouldn't be surprised if, next time we step off the Avis airport shuttle, it will be to step into a refrigerator-white Cobalt four-door.
Chevrolet says it plans to sell at least 10,000 Cobalts a month. A two-door model, including a more-powerful supercharged version, is expected to join the sedan later this year. Only about 7,300 Cobalts found buyers in January, and 4,500 were sold in December. Even at Chevy's projections, the Cobalt won't come close to matching the Cavalier's sales of 195,275 in 2004. General Motors, Chevrolet's parent company, saw U.S. sales fall 12% last month. If GM is trying to attract new buyers, it's going to have to do better than offer just the basics.
Here's what we liked -- and didn't -- about the Chevrolet Cobalt.
+ Large, attractive headlights punctuate a clean, gently wedge-shaped body.
- In profile the rear deck looks too short and the nose too long—an odd cab-rearward style statement.
+ Simple, uncluttered dashboard and door panels flow together well and complement clean exterior.
- Still not as spiffy and stylish as interiors from rivals like Volkswagen and Mazda.
Under the Hood
+ Four-cylinder "Ecotec" engine is related to the one found in upmarket Saab 9-3.
- At 145 horsepower, the engine is too weak to pull the 3,000-plus pounds Cobalt with any real pep.
Behind the Wheel
+ The car responded crisply to steering and was surprisingly maneuverable in tight parking lots.
- Range of steering wheel adjustment never allowed us a clear view of the dashboard gauges.
Over the Top
+ A supercharged hot-rod version called the Super Sport is coming later this year.
- It will still be 25 horses short of the Dodge Neon SRT-4 that has been around for two years.