A couple of weeks ago, grainy images portending GM's bright, small-car-driven future "leaked" onto the Web. "All hail the new Cruze!" shouted the GM Kool-Aid Klub, apparent fans of intentional misspelling. A compact come-to-Jesus from the higher-ups quickly followed, delivered by GM's Design Chief. "In North America, we never did a good small car," Ed Welburn mea culpaed. So things will be different this time, right? Just like they were going to be different three years ago, when the Cobalt was released? The Cobalt I rented this weekend? Bah, humbug, I say.
The Cobalt, you'll remember, was launched to similar fanfare in 2005. According to the buff-book bluster, "Lutz told engineers not to hold back on the good stuff and… they'll get that money back and more in reduced rebates." Another gem: "Lutz says being competitive isn't enough. The Cobalt has to be better than competing small cars to get the market to notice."
If you need a refresher course as to how that turned out, head down to your local Enterprise office and ask for the basic $20/day buzz box. Doing so got me a four-door Cobalt LS, resplendent (kind of) in Victory Red with plastic hubcaps, devoid of high mileage stress. It's an appropriate venue to meet the Cobalt; everything about it suggests that it was engineered so badly it Hertz.
So, where do renters go first? To the trunk, of course, to dump off their suitcases. There, they'll find 13.9 cubic feet of space (way more than a Honda Civic's rear cubby) and dainty gas struts, (which won't crush your luggage like the gooseneck hinges on a Corolla).
Slam it shut and run your eyes along the sheetmetal, and… well… you won't notice anything. The Cobalt's soft, flavorless lines are designed to be as inoffensive to Walter from Topeka as they are to Kelli from the Tenderloin. The only interesting design element is the… nope. There isn't any.
Step into the driver's bucket, and- hey, lookitthat!- the cupholders for your airport coffee are located ahead of the shifter, so you needn't bend your shifting arm around your java. Punch the "Info" button on the steering to cycle through MPG, distance-to-empty, outside temperature and tire pressure stats. Tourists will like the turn signal: it finishes each blink regardless of when you release the stalk, so you don't make amateurish half-blinks in traffic. Not bad for twenty bucks a day.
Trouble is, aside from these isolated attempts to surprise and delight, the Cobalt is the sort of relentlessly, oppressively average product that you couldn't possibly imagine buying on your own dime. The interior of my rental wasn't "sand beige," or "balsa beige;" it was waiting-room beige or linoleum beige. The Cobalt's dash is simple as dirt, with gauges scripted in the same font as my long-lost 1984 Cavalier. Once you've sat in the driver's seat, you'll never again wonder what burlap stretched over concrete feels like.
The "latch" for the driver's side dash cubby deserves special mention. It's a molded-in fake, concealing a raggedly-cut thumb hole underneath. Hey, if that's not sincerity, what is?
Okay, enough parking-stall pedantry. Let's put this puppy in motion.
"Do you want to purchase the optional insurance?" With 148 horsepower, no thanks. Twist the key and the 2.2-liter, four-cylinder Ecotec settles into a muted, liquid-smooth idle. Really. Rest your fingers on the wheel and give it some gas. While the noises get Kitchenaid thrashy, absolutely no vibration filters through.
The high-friction shift lever feels as though it spent a day at the beach and came back covered with wet sand. Clunk it into "D" and the four-speed automatic pleases with timely, seamless shifts. Unfortunately, it's still a four-speed, and its Bunyan-tall gearing smothers the Ecotec's wholly agreeable pep. I averaged 25 mpg, and that was driving like a grandma.
Insert handling joke here. Actually, the Cobalt is a fairly surefooted little piece, pouring steadily into turns with weighty, firm-feel electric power steering. The helm still has the foamy, spring-loaded feel endemic to electric-assist setups, but it's far better than earlier models' helmsmanship (the ultimate GM metric). Too bad enthusiastic cornering still scores you a one-way ticket to Understeer City.
The opinions of those who desperately want to believe in something are exceptionally malleable. How else to explain GM fans' short-term memory loss re: the Cobalt's already-broken promises? And now, once again, the Next Big– I mean, small thing are dangled before them..
When the Chevrolet Cruze arrives in 2011, it'll no doubt compare well with the generations of Civic and Corolla on sale during its gestation, just as the Cobalt did in 2005.