2009 Chevrolet Cobalt
"I tell ya, I'm all right now, but last week I was in rough shape, ya know! Are you kiddin'? I got the worst car in the world! Why just once, I'd like to see somebody pass me without pointing to one of my tires. No matter what lane I'm in, it ends in 500 feet. Ya know, the other day, I bought the perfect second car... a tow truck. I mean, every Sunday, I take my family out for a push! I tell ya, I get no respect... no respect at all".
Thank you, Rodney Dangerfield, my hero. He was one of the few comedians to make fun of himself or his fictional family, which made his humor so special to me. I sort of met him one time; he did a performance at The Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, and we were so exhausted from laughing that we could barely talk on the way home. As his encore, he took questions from the audience; I was lucky, he heard and responded to mine. It was instantly forgettable for him, but I'll remember that moment forever!
When we talk about a car getting little or no respect, next to the Trabant, the Chevy Cobalt (and its lesser-known twin, the Pontiac G5) usually comes up. Why does this happen? Is the Cobalt deserving of the bad rap? Does it spend so much time on a service rack that it has more miles on it vertically than horizontally? I thought maybe it was time to mosey on down to the local Chevrolet dealer to find out.
First I checked out the official Chevrolet web site to read what Chevy had to say about the Cobalt and then to virtually "build" one or two. I was immediately impressed that there is no price difference between the 2-door and 4-door models. Prices start at $16,330 for a base LS and soar to $24,095 for the SS. Options and accessories like the Sport Pedals and Performance Air Intake will obviously cost you more. You may also want to buy the $75 Spare Tire option; otherwise the best-case scenario is a can of inflatable tire repair stuff the next time you have a blow-out.
Introduced in 2004 as a 2005 model, the Cobalt is built on GM's Delta platform, which also underpins the Chevy HHR, Saturn Ion, Saturn (Opel) Astra, and Daewoo Lacetti. It has electric power steering, which takes a bit of getting used to. It's not good, not bad, just ... different. The standard 2.2-liter I-4 ECOTEC engine puts out 155 horsepower, same as a 2001 Miata, and the Cobalt SS turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-litre I-4 ECOTEC is a fantastic performance bargain with 260 horses.
The 2009 Chevy Cobalt print brochure says the "Cobalt comes with a great selection of interior fabrics and colors." What? According to the same brochure, only gray and ebony are offered, and they are both just lighter shades of black. There are gray cloth, gray Sport Cloth, gray leather, ebony Sport Cloth, and ebony leather choices. That's all, folks, unless you go with the Cobalt SS. The 1LT and higher models have power windows (No more busted knuckles, Nathan!), power door locks, power mirrors, and Sport Cloth seats. The 2LT adds cruise control, 16-inch wheels, ABS, a 4-speed automatic tranny, and remote start.
The Cobalt dash is as hard and hollow as today's plastics can make it, and the one-piece plastic door panels follow suit, with either a cloth or vinyl insert swathing your elbow with luxury. It's very reminiscent of Vegas and Chevettes decades ago. There aren't any door pull handles; your fingers grab a cup on the unforgiving door panel. The poor folks back in coach have it even tougher; there is virtually no arm rest at all and, again, rock-hard panels. Maybe this car should include a first-aid kit for bruises. "Ooh, my arm, it's broken!"
The LS Coupe I sat in had two remote control outside mirrors, both cable-operated, with a rubbery feeling of uncertainty. There is no way the driver could safely, if at all, reach over and adjust the passenger's mirror while driving.
I think a paragraph or two has to be dedicated to the Cobalt SS. If somebody truly wants a sleeper, this is your car, available in two doors or, this year, four. In addition to the 105 extra ponies, you get stability control, ABS with Brembos up front, an upgraded suspension, stainless steel exhaust with a chrome tip, 18-inch wheels, a body kit that includes a spoiler and fog lights, and a 228-Watt, seven-speaker Pioneer sound system.
Omit the spoiler (available on all Cobalts), and it would take practiced eyes to differentiate the SS from the other trim levels. But at least the seats are unique, offering premium cloth with an "SS" logo and color combinations of ebony/gray, ebony/red, and ebony/ebony. Sorry, no ebony/ivory option; Paul & Stevie would be disappointed. Chevy claims a 0-60 time of 5.7 seconds; Car and Driver got a very respectable 70-0 mph stopping distance of 160 feet with the SS. Impressive, though I believe safety features such as better brakes should be available all across the car line, not just for a select model or two. What's next... "Seat Belts of the Rich & Famous?"
Then there's the Cobalt XFE (eXtra Fuel Economy). Introduced in April 2008, just in time for $4-per-gallon gas, this model comes with an engine recalibrated for economy (that nevertheless produces the same 155 horsepower), 15-inch reduced-resistance tires, and a higher top gear in the required manual transmission. This option is available only on the base LS and slightly higher 1LT Trim levels, but not on the automatic transmission-equipped 2LT. The XFE gets 25 mpg city/37 mpg highway, which is better than the Chevy Aveo5 and Honda Fit.
And let me say some great things about the Cobalt's standard Driver Information System. At the touch of a switch on the steering wheel, 15 different pieces of vehicle and temperature info are at hand, including air pressures for each tire. The one item that really impressed me was the "Vehicle Average Speed" readout. Teenagers, beware. Also, the hood and trunk lid were held up by struts, not prop rods or springs.
If anybody reads my bio here, they'll see that I worked at the Nissan plant in Tennessee when it opened. NMMC had a Vehicle Evaluation System (VES) that recorded and scored cars based on quality demerits--the more flaws, the higher the score, like in my golf game. Unfortunately, walking around the outside of the Cobalt raised red flags and points everywhere. Body panel gaps were inconsistent, the front bumper stuck out approximately 3/16ths of an inch from the fender (though we were able to push it back in a bit), and every new Cobalt I saw on the lot had the trunk corner raised higher on the driver's side than the passenger's. On the metallic-paint cars, the bumpers looked as if they had been sprayed using a different color chart. The discrepancy is even visible in the official brochure! The plant manager should be fired for accepting this rubbish from a supplier, unless the problem is an internal one--in which case he or she should still be fired.
This car could have had been named the 2009 Nighthawk and looked appropriate for the name. I saw cues dating back to 1977, like the Coupe's rear side windows. Build quality was similar to the Nighthawk; I almost cut my finger on a metal burr inside the totally unfinished trunk lid's rough edge. The door window frames are too wide to be classy and too thin to be "limousine" style--I think they just look cheap. The headlights are too big, and the rump is too high. I can't understand the optional second tachometer/boost gauge, mounted on the A-pillar, available on the Cobalt SS. All Cobalts have a speedometer, tachometer, and fuel meter. If Chevy wanted to add more gauges, what about oil pressure and engine temp?
I just couldn't drive this coupe. I wanted to get out of it and far away; it evoked too many bad car memories. Since I had no intention of buying one, why waste the time and fuel?
I really, really wanted to see and say more nice things about the Cobalt, but I found the same "build it cheap, and they'll trade up later" philosophy that got GM where it is today. And until GM designs and builds a better car, I just don't have much sympathy for them. Poor design and sloppy craftsmanship do not a good car make. I actually preferred the older Cavalier.
But there is hope on the horizon. Within the year, we should see the 1.4-liter, 140-horsepower turbocharged Chevy Cruze start to replace the Cobalt. However, the challenge is just beginning, since the Cruze will be built on the new Delta II platform at the same Lordstown, Ohio, plant that makes the Cobalt (and that infamously built Cookie the Dog's Owner's Monza Wagon). I hope build quality and attention to details are improved. And can you puhleeze! take those little GM badges off of the cars? Then maybe ... just maybe ... you'll get a little more respect.
--That Car Guy (Chuck)