With my previous Chevrolet Cobalt XFE encounter in mind, visiting three dealerships in search of an XFE tester came as no surprise. Ironically, the dealer formerly associated with “Mr. Big Volume” (a.k.a. Bill Heard) had one XFE-badged Cobalt that survived last month’s Cash For Clunkers shopping spree. Like the surprisingly respectful staff at this once-infamous storefront, the XFE was a refreshing breath of recirculated air. It’s still a Cobalt, but it’s the most fuel-efficient car, battery laden Hybrids notwithstanding. Which turns a rental car special into something…well, something more special.
The Cobalt XFE’s claim to fame is the 37 miles per gallon EPA rating, a figure reached from common sense engineering. Which doesn’t explain the (optional) drag-inducing spoiler on our two-door tester: laminar airflow-seekers look elsewhere.
But the rest of the package is mundane Cobalt. Sure, the split grille has a swept back demeanor and the C-pillar verges on being an elegant sports coupe, but there’s nothing to love about a (non-SS) Chevy Cobalt. But, with the XFE in full effect, that’s the point. That little badge reminds all and sundry just what makes GM’s unloved compact so special.
And if there’s a soft spot for a lightly optioned, purely functional mode of vehicular travel in your heart, prepare for the Cobalt LS-cum-XFE to tug at your sensible side. Yes, the interior polymers are made of the same brittle rubbish of GM’s stock in trade, but that dashboard doesn’t look like its crafted from a single piece of plastic. The seat fabric might be crafted from recycled milk cartons, but they put the same stuff on the doors for visual warmth and long distance comfort. The Corvette-worthy tiller and decent gearbox get the job done with Jon Stewart-like modesty. There’s even a CD/MP3 stereo with a decent set of horns at each corner, and XM radio so they’ll never take a coffee break.
And the XFE-tuned Cobalt works, provided you don’t see the perks of spending more for a Honda Civic. Or what you don’t sacrifice at a Hyundai dealership. Items like the missing center armrest, or the bubbling chrome plating on the interior door handles won’t win any friends. And though the “upshift” idiot light gets old after the first mile of traffic, a useful instant MPG-meter makes the pain go away with every drop in engine vacuum.
The most gratifying number arrived on said economy gauge at a steady state cruise at 65mph: 39 miles per gallon. Which is surprising, even if it isn’t: credit the daddy long-legs gearing and low resistance tires. Not to mention the reasonable grunt (a flat 150lb-ft of torque) enabling those low engine speeds (2500 revs at 70mph) in the proud Detroit tradition of turnpike cruising. But don’t forget the iPod: eco-friendly tires turn into the howling hounds of hell on coarse roads.
But there’s fun in those fuel-economy tires: even if the 2700lb Cobalt XFE is not a performance car per se. With 155 horses and a reasonably accurate shifter, there’s plenty of hoonage potential at school-zone friendly speeds. But that’s all, because redlining the Ecotec nets in more four-banger thrash than its competition, giving the impression of an underhood Anthrax concert controlled by one’s right foot.
Also credit the idiot-proof fun to the Cobalt’s pothole friendly (mushy) suspension and tires with less grip than an Iraqi dictator: adequate for daily commutes, but easily surpasses their comfort level at 7/10ths. Think about it: you can drive the XFE to an inch of it’s life (your life?) and still not piss off the neighbors.
More to the point, this bottom-drawer Bowtie is delightfully crude, not fast. But the almost Hybrid-like mileage doesn’t come at the expense of Prius styling clichés, extraneous engineering of rare-earth battery packs and gee-whiz dashboard gadgetry almost mandatory for today’s Eco-warriers. In the Cobalt, there’s a set of chrome rings on the gauges, and a playful stick shift ready to take requests: fuel economy or fun?
And that’s the way it should be. GM channeled their inner Civic CRX HF this time, and hopefully it’ll stick around for the upcoming Chevy Cruze (but with Civic levels of craftsmanship). If “The Civic that Hates Fuel” returns, the Cruze is doomed to the fate of its Cobalt/Cavalier forefathers. It’ll be too little and too late, even with the Chevy Volt’s halo effect: being less than half the (theoretical) price of a GM hybrid counts for something. But not enough.
Back to the present: my (obligatory) price objection to the Cobalt’s near-17k sticker forced an admission that the dealer’s only XFE is a loss leader: ready for weekend advertisement at $13,995. No wonder the window sticker was MIA, taking the all-important EPA numbers with it. Too bad about that: because the Cobalt XFE is absolutely worthy of an economy-minded buyer’s checkbook.
Performance (3 stars): Not as silky smooth as the competition, but it scoots along good enough.
Ride (4 stars): More than compliant for this class.
Handling (3 stars): Light on stick, lighter on roll control.
Exterior (2 stars): There’s a spoiler on a dull, rental car worthy compact designed for fuel efficiency. That makes sense.
Interior (3 stars): Relatively comfortable buckets, inoffensive design, overall feeling of getting what you paid for. Unless you paid MSRP.
Fit and Finish (2 stars): Bubbling chrome accents and lousy polymers mean that GM still isn’t playing to win.
Toys (1 star): Want more than a CD player and A/C? Pass on the XFE and get the nicer models with the thirstier engine.
Desirability (4 stars): Its hard not to love a small car with the basics, a decent gearbox and great MPGs.
Price as Tested: $16,765 (soon to be $13,995)
Overall (4 stars): And you paid how much for your Hybrid?