At last, Chevrolet has come up with a genuine Toyota and Honda small-car fighter with its new Cobalt coupe and sedan.
The Cobalt replaces the automaker's Cavalier coupe and sedan, which bowed fully 23 years ago and will be phased out this year.
The $10,325-$17,710 Cavalier got an update for 1995, with such things as a longer wheelbase, slicker styling and a new interior. But old is old, and the Cavalier has long ceased being a viable competitor against newer, more polished rivals.
However, the $13,625-$21,430 Cobalt promises to be a strong player in the compact car market. Much unlike the Cavalier, it feels very refined and surefooted -- and more expensive than it is, with an impressively quiet interior thanks to extensive sound insulation. Rigid construction allows above-average ride and handling.
The Cobalt sedan comes in base, LS and LT trim levels, while coupes offer base, LS and SS Supercharged versions. It shares GM's front-drive Delta platform with the Saturn Ion, but is a much better car.
The standard engine is 2.2-liter dual-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder with 16 valves and 140 horsepower. Chevy has made this General Motors "Ecotech'' engine remarkably smooth and quiet, which is somewhat miraculous if you know how less refined it is in other GM small cars.
Powering the $21,430 SS Supercharged coupe is a "fast and furious'' supercharged 16-valve engine, with such exotic items as oil-jet piston cooling, steel crankshaft and sodium-filled exhaust valves. It's a dual-overhead-cam 2-liter four-cylinder. The smooth, modified engine has 205 horsepower and lots of torque so it's no surprise that it lets the Cobalt hit 60 mph just in six seconds.
The SS Supercharged Cobalt also comes with a modified sport suspension developed at race tracks and wide 45-series tires on large 18-inch wheels -- along with anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, Pioneer AM/FM/CD/MP3 player sound system and a huge rear spoiler that surely will draw the attention of many young drivers. Optional are Recaro front-bucket seats.
The SS Supercharged Cobalt's spoiler, large tires and slightly lower height make it stand out, but the regular Cobalt models have attractive but rather innocuous styling.
I tested a more mainstream Cobalt -- the $18,195 LT sedan with the 2.2-liter four-cylinder. It provides lively in-town acceleration and good 65-75 mph passing times -- although the four-speed automatic transmission upshifts at 72 mph and thus doesn't hold passing gear until 75 mph is reached.
The automatic is standard in the LT and an $850 option for base and LS Cobalts, which have a standard five-speed manual gearbox. The LS adds traction control when the automatic is ordered. The manual gearbox is the only transmission offered for the SS Supercharged model.
Estimated fuel economy with the base engine is 25 mpg city and 34 with the manual gearbox and 24 and 32 with the automatic. It's 23 and 29 for the SS Supercharged engine. Both engines only call for 87-octane gasoline.
The base $13,625 Cobalt has a fair amount of equipment, including air conditioning, rear defroster, AM/FM/CD, height-adjustable driver's seat, tilt steering column, console, intermittent wipers, tachometer and a folding split-bench rear seat with a fairly large pass-through area to the trunk to increase cargo space. However, it only has average 60-series tires on 15-inch wheels.
One must move up to the LS, LT and SS Supercharged versions to add standard cruise control, anti-lock brakes and power windows, mirrors and locks with remote keyless entry.
The LT adds leather upholstery, leather-wrapped wheel with radio controls, heated front seats, traction control and wider (55-series) tires on 16-inch wheels. The SS Supercharged model has no heated-seat feature.
Options include $400 anti-lock brakes for the base Cobalt, $395 side curtain and front side air bags for all trim levels, $695 OnStar assistance system, $695 leather upholstery for the LS and a $725 power sunroof for the LS, LT and SS Supercharged versions. The base, LS and LT also can be had with upgraded sound systems.
One need not get the racer-style SS Supercharged Cobalt to have driving fun. The variable-speed steering on my test LT was fast and accurate, with little of the artificial feel gotten with some versions of this GM electric power-assisted steering.
Handling is sharp, although the base and LS versions probably aren't quite as agile with their slightly smaller wheels and tires. The ride is supple, and stopping distances are short, with good brake pedal feel.
There is comfortable room for four 6-footers -- or for a third rear passenger if he doesn't mind a hard center seat area. Rear windows don't roll all the way down, but the interior definitely is a cut above previous Chevy small car interiors, despite the use of some hard plastics.
The front seats provide good support, and gauges can be quickly read, although they should be a little larger. Sound system controls are small, but climate controls are fairly large. Cupholders are nicely placed and easy to reach.
The trunk is fairly roomy, but has a high opening. Its lid even has sound insulation material and raises on hydraulic struts instead of space-eating manual hinges. Rear seatbacks flip forward for more cargo space but should sit flatter when moved forward.
The Cobalt is a good sign that GM no longer is settling for a "just good enough'' car.
Nifty Cavalier replacement. Rigid construction. Good acceleration. Sizzling with supercharged engine. Fairly roomy.
Rather innocuous styling. High trunk opening. Rear seatbacks don't sit flat when moved forward.
BY DAN JEDLICKA AUTO WRITER