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Auto Test Drives
Cobalt SS Supercharged Provides Fantastic Four-Banger Fun
By Andrew Gardner; photos by the author
Mar 21, 2006, 17:08 PST

 

The Cobalt is a nice economy car. It provides good equipment and decent interior quality - great for a starting point of $21995 with destination charge - and is a huge improvement over Chevys like the Cavalier which have preceded it. It drives and operates well. The motor has some strength to it and is fun when manual transmission equipped, though the automatic transmission really makes the car feel sluggish. So what would happen if you were to treat this like a classic American 2+2 and give it some love? What if you tore off the stock intake manifold and bolted a blower package to the heads? You would end up with a much quicker car, yet ceremoniously take a dive in refinement.

 

Well, what if you take a step forward in technology and keep the refinmenet - eat your cake and have it too? And what if you could make the car look more aggressive and attractive and handle a lot better?

 

You would have the new Cobalt SS Supercharged. This is GM's answer to import sport compacts, and even to another domestic sport compact. This is one of nine SS vehicles. It's not the first we've driven, but it is certainly the most impressive and the most enjoyable. It is well put together, although with certain aesthetic design touches seems almost more of  SEMA show car than an OEM production vehicle. The two-door Cobalt body is stripped of the standard plastic bumper covers and enhanced most notably with an aggressive front fascia. A large opening at the bottom-center lets plenty of cool, fresh air to the heat exchanger, oil cooler and large radiator, which keep excess heat from the ramped up powerplant at bay. Large openings at the lower corners further the performance aura. Cut lines near the bottom make a strong, jutting chin, and dynamic lines carry from the hood and "V" through the front of the fascia down towards the bottom. The rear fascia maintains the standard Cobalt's attractive round taillights but adds some more aggressively carved lines to compliment the font fascia - the plastic piece that makes the rear fascia is impressive in that it is far more than just a bumper cover - it encompasses a majority of the rear (except the trunk lid) and it fits perfectly to the metal fenders. A wing on the decklid strongly identifies the Cobalt SS with the import sport compact crowd.

 

 

The interior feels much more driver oriented than the economy car on which this hotrod is based. An Altimeter boost gauge is mounted on the A-pillar, and the instrument cluster gauges are designed to match. Great Recaro seats with SS embroidery strongly cradle and support both the driver and front passenger in all directions.

 

A turn of the key wakes up a pretty healthy yet normal-sounding 4-cylinder. Throttle response is good, and clutch engagement is smooth and linear. Moving the car gently off the line is an easy and seamless process with light or medium throttle. Blasting the car away from a stopsign is an easy process with medium-high to tons of throttle and a quick clutch release. The wheels can be spun for a couple of seconds before violent wheel-hop kicks in, but the Pirelli Rosso tires and optional limited slip differential do a great job of laying down grip and even power whether you travel in a straight line or launch the Cobalt SS in a 90-degree turn. With 205hp and 200lb-ft of torque, much available down low, one could certainly expect torque steer and other ill-effects of a "wrong-" (ie front-) wheel drive vehicle. But torque steer is mostly absent from this driving experience. Truly, wheel hop is the only issue, albeit a big one for drag runs.

 

SUPERCHARGED

 

Acceleration is simply impressive. This little 2.0-liter ECOTEC - that's right, the same family of engine that moves the underpowered Solstice really moves this 2+2 along very nicely. What a difference forced induction makes. With little delay from a standing start, this four banger produces ample torque above 2000rpm and pulls straight through the early 6000 rpm redline with much gusto. We bounced the Cobalt off redline several times because of the strong pull right up to the fuel cutoff. The power just doesn't die, the tone of the engine doesn't hint at a weakening of power, so you have to keep an eye on the tach. We are disappointed at Chevy's decision to set redline there because this motor is just ready to rip. By 3000 rpm the small Eaton roots-style supercharger is producing the max 12 psi of boost and this motor is just pulling hard. In first, second, and third gears you quickly reach the limit of engine revolutionary velocity, and post 100mph speeds are reached with great ease. An early redline may be an effort to enhance durability, but GM took the necessary steps of stepping down the compression ratio a bit to 9.5:1, and upgrading the internals with a forged crank and rods.

 

Shifts are effortless, smooth, and fairly short thanks to a short-throw Getrag 5-speed manual. All the driving interactions with this car are positive, thought the brakes could use a little more of that super sport attention that the engine certainly got.

 

 

The Cobalt seemed especially eager to pass what we thought was 120, but found a striking inaccuracy in the speedometer reading. We know that speedometers are not 100% accuarte through the entire speed range of the car, but this particular model seemed trustworthy only under freeway speeds. It seemed Thanksgiving Day traffic was moving along at 90mph, a rather interesting phenomenon, but a calibration check showed the real culprit. Perhaps our test ride was simply calibrated for the wrong size wheels.

 

 

The handling, on the other hand, was well dialed in and very precise. Turn-in on the Cobalt is quite sharp, and the handling is predictable. There is moderate feedback through the wheel, and the whole chassis gives a well-poised impression to the driver. The suspension is compliant, keeping body roll pretty low but being very difficult to disturb with bumpy or undulating corners. The front suspension features gas charged struts with an anti-roll bar. The rear is semi-independent, with a torsion beam, coil springs, and gas-filled shocks - and an anti-roll bar. The supercharger and extra cooling equipment do add a few pounds to the way front of the car, but understeer is assuredly very mild. Responsiveness is high and handling is pretty neutral.

 

 

This car is a big pair of thumbs up, even a few extra fingers. By itself, this car seems very worth the $22000-ish base price. The limited slip diff is certainly worth a few extra bucks, and our test ride had this and some other goodies which brought it up to about $24,000. This puts the Cobalt SS between the Mustang V6 and GT. It's about on par (a bit slower) with the Dodge Neon-based SRT4, the Acura TSX Type-S, and the Honda Civic Si. This is a choice option over the V6 Mustang, as it sounds better, handles better, looks (your choice) and feels nicer. But it is not a Mustang GT, an Evo, or an STi. The quality of the interior and platform surpass those of the SRT-4, but that model is at the end of its day. It remains to be said how the new Civic Si will leave this impressive package looking. Right now it looks good. 

 

 

The Cobalt SS is far and away Chevy's second best performance vehicle (we haven't yet taken a crack at the Trailblazer SS) - and soon, with some easy to install Stage 1 and Stage 2 kits from Chevy, anybody will be able to take their SS Supercharged up to 246hp and 240 lb-ft of torque in the comfort of their home garage. The application of the SS badge to just about every Chevy offering is a good idea if done right, and the Cobalt SS demonstrates that Chevy knows what the right ingredients are. This is one moist, flavorful, savory cake of a car. It is a truly engaging and satisfying, and affordable driver's car.

 

 

 

 

Just hanging out: GM is as thoughtful (or just heads up about the competition) as VW, it appears, as they offer the same hanger for the trunk liner as the Jetta, one of those little touches that make the car mroe user-friendly and more worthwhile.

 

Even autumn leaves can't help but fall for the Cobalt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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