Many cars are so middle-of-the-road in so many ways that nothing about them, good or bad, is memorable. You know they’re out there, somewhere, carrying on in quiet servitude. Some of them even have sport packages and/or sports appearance packages in a failed attempt to lift them above the mundane. And then there’s the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, a vehicle from the same school that somehow manages to rise above its station in life. If only just.
The Cobalt isn’t a bad-looking car…if you stand 50 feet away and view it with 2004 eyes from an angle that doesn’t include the front end. Unfortunately, it’s necessary to get much closer to drive the car, and you can’t always approach it from the rear quarter, where the coupe’s clean sweep of a roofline comes off to best effect. Once you’ve seen the wide, uneven gaps around the googly headlamps, it’s hard to forget them. At least the “look at me I’m 17” rear wing is off the standard features list.
Every time you get in the Cobalt, the hard plastic oval door pulls will answer “Can the interior of the Mk IV Jetta be reproduced for half of VW’s cost?” with “no, no it can’t.” The other interior surfaces don’t rise much above the dime store door pulls. If you coat cheap plastic with silver paint, it still looks cheap. Cheaper, in fact.
Every penny saved on the interior went into the engine. The original Cobalt SS’ supercharger has been dumped in favor of a turbo abetted by direct injection. Literage remains 2.0, but peak horsepower jumps from 205 to 260. And this power isn’t all up high: torque reaches 260 foot-pounds at 2,000 rpm, and stays there until just before the 5,300 rpm power peak.
This isn’t the best engine— or car— for doing what most Cobalt’s do best: toodle around town. Get on the throttle, then change your mind, and the engine gives a little kick when the boost you requested a second ago— but no longer desire— arrives anyway. The manual shifter is better than GM’s usual stick-in-a-bucket-of-balls. But smooth shifts aren’t effortless in casual driving. Road noise is on the high side, and the ride can get busy. (Much more livable than a late model Evo or STI, though.)
But who buys a track-tuned 260-horsepower compact for grocery runs? Go for big numbers on the goofy-looking but addictively entertaining pillar-mounted “Performance Display” and good stuff happens. From the engine, there’s none of the on-off behavior that once defined high-pressure turbos. Boost comes on smoothly, with a clearly audible whistle but no sudden surges and little lag. This refinement isn’t all for the best: the Cobalt’s 2.0 doesn’t deliver the midrange punch of the larger turbo fours in some competitors, and as a result the car doesn’t feel as quick as it is. But make no mistake; with this much power in a 2,975-pound coupe, the Cobalt SS is very quick, and it’s easy to end up well over the posted limit. Which is where the firm, fade-free Brembos come in handy.
The Cobalt SS is a relatively light compact with 260 foot-pounds of torque shunted entirely through the front wheels. So of course there’s torque steer. But not too much. GM firmed up the electric-assist steering, and then firmed it up some more. So, when you lay into the throttle, the steering merely takes a set a few degrees off center rather than yanking the car towards the curb. Traction is aided by an optional limited-slip diff (you want it).
The steering isn’t chatty— the war against torque steer has a price— but natural weighting and an urge to turn (when not at WOT) compensate. The chassis’ balance and composure belie its nose-heavy weight distribution and twist-beam rear axle, while roll in turns is minimal. The grip of the tires on asphalt is only exceeded by that of the heavily bolstered, faux suede-trimmed buckets on your…torso. Instrumented tests reinforce these impressions: on a curvy track the Cobalt SS can shame any other U.S.-market sport compact, even the Evo and STI.
But you don’t need a track to enjoy this car. There’s a non-monetary benefit to cheap: the Cobalt SS team was free to pursue the visceral thrill of driving in a way that the developers of BMWs (and wannabe BMWs) are not, post-Lexus. Simply put, the Cobalt SS is fun.
If you’re willing to forgive the SS its residual Cobaltness (you won’t be able to forget it). you can take home the top-performing sport compact for a price in the lower twenties. If you can’t, the Cruze is coming.
But the Cruze will be heavier. And it will still be WWD (Wrong Wheel-Drive). Which makes one wonder: if GM’s track addicts can make a Cobalt handle this well, what could they do with a compact rear-wheel-drive chassis unencumbered by BMW envy? Put the turbo 2.0 into that chassis, avoid aesthetically off-putting trim, price the combo in the mid-twenties, and you’d have a compact that wouldn’t need to be renamed with every redesign. We’d all forget that the Corvair, Vega, Cavalier, and Cobalt ever existed.