This afternoon, I had the opportunity to drive the new Chevrolet Cobalt. Before I did, though, the salesman showed me a lot of the features of the new car, such as the sound deadening materials under the hood. The car I tried was a Arrival Blue Cobalt LS four door, with an automatic transmission, MP3 player stereo with the Pioneer 7 speaker system. Actually, by the time I decided to test drive the car, I showed him how the new stereo system handled mp3 files.
Even that, though, is getting ahead of the story, which began with the saleman getting the keys to the car, and me putting the seat all the way back, as usual. First thing to say, is that this was one of the less expensive cars in the lineup. Remember that the wood look dash is reserved for the LT and the satin finish aluminum look is for the LS sport (one of those, in red, was in the showroom). That part of the dash was covered in a dark grey plastic. Here's where I get to the pointlessness of fake textures in car interiors. The gearshift knob had two textures on it to look like two different types of surfaces. On this part, one would have looked plainer, but more honest. That was one of two things I disliked about the interior. The other was that driver information center doesn't display oil pressure or instantaeous fuel economy. That's it. I spent a brief moment looking at the MP3 stereo system, and was able to reason that the system would play random tracks on a disc, would go from one folder to another on the disc, and the frequency knob allows you to find exactly the track you are looking for. The sound was impressive while dealing with either downloaded files from sites such as ampcast.com or music.downloads.com, files I had ripped as variable bit rate files, or one of two files I've ripped from vinyl (i.e. The Rascals "Singing the Blues Too Long" from their 1968 album "Once Upon A Dream"). Also, the display shows the title of the song you're playing, or at least the file name. Even on this relatively basic car, it took a bit of time to observe some of the subtler details of the interior, such as the chrome on the speedometer and tachometer needles. The headrests on this car are just about right after a click up. The seats are comfortable and not confining, and the dead pedal is well placed.
Time, then to fire up the engine, which sounds much like any other four cylinder twin cam, but better than some. Until you get back behind the wheel, close the door and realize that the engine is barely audible at idle. However, there was the accompaniment of a pleasant exhaust note at full throttle.
It was during the extended rush hour that I ended up driving this car, but did get to do so at a full range of speeds, anyway. First thought still concerns the engine. The way it dropped rpms at each gearshift left me wondering what the manual will be like to drive. I suspect that will be highly entertaining. It had pretty good acceleration, and could stay ahead of the local traffic. The handling was confident, the ride supple, yet firm, and the few occasions I had to bend the car fast into a corner ended with me climibing the back of yet another SUV. It also hanled quite well when I found out that when they said 25 mph on that off ramp, the were, for once, not kidding. I might further comment that the brake pedal had a decent feel to it, which was something not usually said about its predecessor. So, at this point, I was impressed with Cobalt's dynamics. Later, down the road, I was cutting through traffic in it like it was mine.
After some discussion on what I'd like in a Cobalt (LS coupe, sport package minus the spoiler, stereo just like the one in the test car, sunroof, in Arrival Blue), I found out that the coupes aren't expected out for a few months and it'll likely be June before the supercharged SS debuts. I also found myself seriously considering this as my next car.
Afterward I stopped at a local Honda dealer. In the showroom were a Civic Si and a EX special edition, which comes with many of the amenities I'd want in a Cobalt, such as the MP3 player stereo. First of all was the shocked reaction of the salesman when I told him I'd never owned a Honda. I'll also say that when you find a method of deflating or devaluing the selling point of Japanese reliability (I bring up the Sebring's Nippon Denso A/C compressor, its only major repair), they're at a momentary loss for words. I mentioned that I'd just drove the new Cobalt, which he referred to as a toy car, in the sense that it's something to enjoy playing with. More on that later. After looking at the EX in the showroom, we went to look at a similar car, with a 5 speed, on the lot. Where Chevy uses Pioneer speakers, Honda uses a Pioneer head unit. Simply stated, it's not as good. I found the controls not to offer the features the Chevy's stereo did, and if Pioneer provided the speakers, too, then why are the mismatched enough that they cause distortion at high volume? If there was one thing I was impressed with about the Civic interior, it was the low slung feel of it. I may be past 40, but I have no problem with dropping myself into a car, particularly one I'll enjoy driving. I was also impressed with the Civic's maneuverability, as I was guided out of a space I'd have figured I couldn't get out of.
Driving the Civic, however reveals how time has marched on. It was louder on the road, and the brakes felt softer than in the Cobalt. However, while firmer riding, you realize that the Civic is still a highly responsive car otherwise, and provides a good feel of the road. It seemed not all that fast, a reasonable expectation when if you ask for more than the EX's 127 horsepower, you're pointed in the direction of the Si hatchback, and it costs over 19 grand. Brilliant. There's rumors that the next Si will be a coupe, incidentally. http://www.vtec.net/news/news-item?news_item_id=306430
Jennifer, the girl that Car and Driver referred to as the target customer for the Civic coupe in their road test of it must be slimmer than I am, and thinner of frame. I found the seats on this car to be on the tight side, and after a while, they tended to dig into my ribs. They were otherwise comfortable.
What it finally boils down to is this. The Cobalt is definitely a better car than the current Civic. I called this article blatantly unfair because I compared a Civic that was equipped as I'd want, pretty much, with a Cobalt that was nowhere near the car I could imagine myself owning. Yet, that Cobalt made a better impression on me.
A president of McDonnell Douglas once said that the time to think about your next aircraft design was while watching the maiden flight of your latest one. I hope that Chevrolet is thinking about the Cobalt's replacement now. Being already in the process of planning in will prevent it from becoming as moldy a design (and name) as the Cavalier ended up being. The Cobalt shows that Chevrolet (and GM) can pull ahead. It will take constant work to stay there. Good luck.