2006 Chevrolet Cobalt Expert Review:Autoblog
Chevy has a lot riding on their new compact sedan. The Chevy Cobalt replaces the relatively ancient Cavalier in the company's line-up. It's also an attempt to move beyond just the economy car title to something more upscale. The $20,600 price tag on our test LT Sedan certainly makes it seem like we're talking upscale, but the Cobalt probably shouldn't try to aim so high.
Before I get a chance to test out the speed sensitive power steering, four-wheel antilock brakes and traction control (in a fresh batch of snow), I have to sit in the thing. Wearing a winter coat, I feel like I’ve just been wedged into a sub-compact. The seat must need adjusting. Wait…my hand can barely fit between the seat and the door to get to the lever to lower it. OK, now I’m a bit lower and the headroom doesn’t bother me but I am still struggling for hip room here.
This will be one of the few times I bust out statistics to prove my point. Because the space squeeze is so prominent, I have to check the interior space against the competition. The Ford Focus is .2 inches less in front hip room but a half inch better in shoulder room. But I’m still thinking this is too tight a squeeze to be identical to the competition. The Toyota Corolla bests the Cobalt in hip room by 2.3 inches and shoulder room by just .1 inch. Compared to the Mazda 3 the Cobalt has 5.3 inches less front hip room and almost two inches less shoulder room.
So I am now satisfied in feeling a bit tight. The interior doesn’t thrill me as much as it does in the SS with all the black and metal highlights. Faux wood just shouldn’t be used in cars of this class. It doesn’t help anything look more expensive. It also takes away from the style of the single bar going across the entire dash. On first look, the vents stick out as the cheapest aspect of the interior and are just flimsy, almost unfinished plastic.
Luckily, the colors are pleasant and all the buttons, steering wheel and other essentials are nice to the touch. I genuinely like the exterior look of the Cobalt, but it is a bit derivative of the Mazda3 and last generation Jetta. We’ll have to see if more time in the Cobalt improves on its first impression.
The Chevy Cobalt might be a little tight inside but it sure is peppy around town. The 145 horsepower engine seems almost powerful for the class. The speed sensitive steering excels on twisty city roads, but is a bear during parallel parking. Isn't there a way to implement this type of steering where it doesn't add an extra revolution of the wheel to turn sharply enough for parking maneuvers?
The engine does make a bit of a light buzzing noise that intrudes in the cabin, but it isn’t horrendous. Luckily, the seven speaker stereo is surprisingly capable and our test vehicle was completely equipped with XM radio, so there are tunes aplenty to cover that engine noise.
During a thorough day of city errands, the Cobalt handled itself competently and with no real complaints. When I pushed it to make the fleeting yellows, it responded with a healthy growl and lurched forward like you’d expect. And even when the rare bus pulled out from a stop unexpectedly, the brakes came to the rescue. That doesn’t mean I still don’t feel cramped in the car. I drove without my heavy winter coat and that seemed to help, but the Cobalt’s cabin still didn’t feel spacious.
I’m enjoying the Cobalt for its ride but the rest of the package hasn’t won me over yet.
There are some interesting contrasts inside the Chevy Cobalt. The color schemes are pleasing and the majority of the plastic that makes up the dash and doors is above par. But in the end, the little things that deal with ergonomics stick out more than the looks.
The best example of the poor layout resides in the three buttons to the right of the gauge cluster. The hazards button, along with the trip info and reset buttons, all reside spread out in this area, shown to the left (click on picture for larger image). Now this isn’t a bad location necessarily, but if you’re driving there’s this thing called the steering wheel that completely blocks the view of these three buttons. Sure, it’s not hard to feel around for them. But hit the reset button instead of the info button by mistake and you lose your trip statistics. Plus, every car I’ve been in recently has a huge hazard button, while the Cobalt’s is tiny and hidden. Not really a safety feature.
The lighting controls on the left side of the steering wheel are similarly hidden but easier to adjust. In an odd twist of fate the easiest controls, radio volume, are also set in the steering wheel. I’ve been using the old fashioned knob on the deck instead though. The rest of the stereo functions are simple enough as are the climate controls.
Cup holders are predictability shallow. No ability to grasp a water bottle here. Sigh.
Buttons, like in the Mercury Montego, for the windows and other controls offer a nice resistance to the touch and don’t feel flimsy. Unlike the Montego, I like the small and curvy door handles. At least they attempt to blend into the door’s shape.
The worst offenses of the entire interior are the five cent air vents. Could Chevy have spent any less attention to a feature? Most of today’s new vehicles, even the Chevy Aveo, have distinctive vents. These are the lamest I’ve seen in anything I’ve tested in memory.
It’s too bad such a feature was overlooked. Besides the lame fake wood, that is optional, poor button placement and those vents the interior is not so bad. The black design with the brushed steel is actually pretty sleek.
We sure hope Bob Lutz doesn't write a rant about our test in the Chevy Cobalt. We know we're not the Wall Street Journal or anything, but we like to think we have some weight in readers' minds when we review a car. Whether that's true or not is a completely separate matter. There was just one drawback we could find with the Cobalt that was sufficient enough to prevent people from actually plunking down cash to buy one.
That drawback is simply the amount of cash you’d have to plunk down to buy one. In all respects, the Cobalt is a fine little economy car. It doesn’t outdo any of the competition, but it sure doesn’t fall flat either. By holding its own in the categories that count — handling, acceleration, steering, fun to drive factor — the Cobalt wins us over. The cramped cabin got us off on the wrong foot and would lead me personally away from the car, but perhaps perception differs among buyers.
Space will also be a huge factor for those who have extra passengers as the rear legroom is very limiting as shown in the image here. I wouldn’t recommend a rear ride-along for more than a short drive.
Positives were definitely the overall fit and finish, superior stereo and performance. The 24/32 mpg figure is also nothing to sneeze at. The price of the LT without Onstar and XM still pushes close to $20,000 and that just doesn’t compete with everything else out there. I know everyone hates it when I say this, but the Mazda 3 still offers the best value and performance for the money and is considerably more stylish. The Corolla and Civic are more affordable. If the Cobalt could be had for the price of the Corolla, you’d still be facing the quality issues of GM versus Toyota. This is such a tough segment to be in that the Cobalt had to totally blow us away. Instead it shot itself in the foot from the first glance of the sticker.
New Car Test Drive
Chevy's in the game with this solid compact.
With its expressive styling and general all-around competence, the Chevrolet Cobalt competes effectively against the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Ford Focus, an impressive achievement, considering how long the competition has dominated this game.
The Cobalt is the quietest, most refined small car GM has ever built. It's based on a strong, stiff platform, a key element for crisp handling and as smooth ride. The SS models use this to maximum advantage resulting in a dynamic driving experience. If you're looking for inexpensive, high-value transportation with a new-car warranty, the Cobalt is worth a look.
Premium features are available like heated leather seats, XM Satellite Radio, MP3, and OnStar.
Driving the supercharged SS model is an absolute hoot. Quick, responsive handling and brisk acceleration performance along with a sporty sounding exhaust note make the supercharged coupe entertaining to drive, a sport compact that can more than hold its own in the class.
New for 2006 are SS sedan and coupe models with normally aspirated engines. These new SS models fit between the LT and SS Supercharged models. Their price, power and performance and body work are all toned down from the SS Supercharged coupe, but they're sporty cars and possibly the best choice in the lineup, boasting 171-horsepower engines and sports suspensions.
The 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt is available in an array of distinctive trim levels in two body styles: two-door coupe and four-door sedan. Three different engines are available with suspensions tuned to match.
The LS, LT, and LTZ models are powered by a 145-horsepower 2.2-liter engine and use the FE1 suspension.
The LS ($13,900) sedan and coupe come standard with air conditioning, automatic headlights, electric rear defogger, tilt steering column, CD player, and a driver information center. They have wind-up windows, manually operated mirrors, and cloth upholstery with height-adjustable front seats and a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat. LS models have a body-color grille and door handles and come with front disc/rear drum brakes and 15-inch wheels and tires. LS comes standard with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic ($850).
The LT ($16,200) sedan and coupe get power windows and door locks, anti-lock brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels. LT comes standard with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. The LTZ sedan ($18,400) is a premium model that comes standard with the automatic, upgraded audio and premium trim.
SS ($18,200) coupe and sedan get a 171-horsepower 2.4-liter engine, the FE3 sports suspension, 17-inch wheels and high performance tires. It also gets upgraded cloth, special body-color trim and other upgrades. SS models are available with the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
SS Supercharged coupe ($21,400) features a 205-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, the high-performance FE5 suspension, and 18-inch wheels with high-performance tires.
Options include power sunroof ($725); OnStar ($695); XM Satellite Radio ($325), a rear spoiler ($275), a radio upgrade to MP3 ($150). The Sport package ($595) includes a brushed metal trim package for the dashboard, white-faced gauges, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels with Pirelli tires.
Safety features include dual-stage front air bags, front seatbelt pre-tensioners, rear center shoulder belts, and the LATCH child seat retention system. All but the LS models come standard with anti-lock brakes (ABS). Head curtain side air bags ($395) designed to provide head protection are optional. OnStar's operators can provide assistance after an accident and will direct emergency crews to your exact location should your airbag go off.
The Chevrolet Cobalt is built on GM's Delta platform, which it shares with the Saturn Ion and Chevy HHR retro truck as well as the Opel Astra in Europe. But with its single-bar grille and bowtie emblem, it looks like a proper Chevrolet small car right down to its shoes and socks.
Body panel fits are extremely tight. So tight, in fact, that there are no rubber trim gaskets around the compound complex headlamps.
The Cobalt coupe bears a resemblance in its shape to the old Cavalier it replaced, while the sedan features a more modern roofline sweep. The SS coupe and sedan models have a small rear spoiler, while the SS Supercharged coupe carries a huge, tall rear spoiler than says it's a serious sport compact.
Cobalt is longer, wider and lower than most of its direct competitors and its interior dimensions and trunk capacity are comparable for the class.
Inside the Cobalt, the design theme is simple and straightforward. Materials are decent and the fit and finish is good and comparable for the class. There's just enough chrome trim here and there on knobs and instruments to brighten things up without a lot of glare from the shiny parts. Instruments are large, well placed, and easy to read, with nice graphic treatment throughout.
Cobalt uses different seats in the different trim levels, each with detail changes in foam, padding and trim. We found plenty of fore/aft and rake adjustment for a 6-foot, 4-inch driver, plus seat height adjustment with a ratcheting handle. The LT seats were very comfortable and grabbed us in the fast corners exactly where we needed to be grabbed and held. Even better were the leather-trimmed seats in the SS Supercharged.
The available Pioneer seven-speaker sound system with the Delphi AM/FM/CD and XM Satellite Radio delivers good sound and includes a huge subwoofer mounted on the left side trunk wall.
The heating, ventilation and defroster system worked quickly and intuitively.
The LS comes with manually operated windows. We don't mind this, but it takes a lot of cranks (about four and half) to wind the windows up. The urethane steering wheel that comes on LS and LT models feels cheap. The leather-wrapped wheels on LTZ and SS models are much nicer.
The sedan trunk is wide and deep with a low liftover height, and almost 14 cubic feet of capacity, more than competitive in the class, though the opening to the trunk seems relatively small. Cobalt does not use space-eating gooseneck hinges on its decklid, opting instead for simple outside corner hinges and two hydraulic assist struts. The coupe has a very small trunk opening, making it difficult to fit a thick suitcase. A 60/40-split, fold-down rear seat with a trunk pass-through feature adds utility to both sedan and coupe.
The Chevrolet Cobalt is quite pleasant to drive, especially the SS models. It's quiet for a car that retails for less than $20,000. Chevrolet put considerable effort into special door seals, sandwich steel panels, thick carpets and pads, noise blockers and noise absorbers throughout the front, middle and rear of the car. As a result, normal front-seat conversation is possible at speeds above 90 mph.
If you want enjoyment in your driving you'll have to step up to the SS models.
We drove an LT with ABS and four-wheel disc brakes and found them to be powerful, and progressive, with a good ratio between pedal travel and braking action. The brakes seemed a little mushy on the LS, which comes with rear drum brakes.
The 2.2-liter engine, which is rated at 145 horsepower, was a bit of a disappointment. It was smooth, but never felt truly powerful until it was revving very high. The four-speed automatic doesn't help, with kickdown that reminded us of a rental car.
The supercharged engine in the Cobalt SS Supercharged was another story. We like the way it sounded when it revved and, paired with the manual gearbox, it offered responsive performance.
The Chevrolet Cobalt will satisfy the needs of drivers looking for economy of price, economy of operation, and a nice, quiet ride. We think it's a handsome, well-equipped car. The standard engine could offer more responsive low-end power, however. The Cobalt LS and LT models are the epitome of driving excitement, however. They're not made for that. They deliver four people comfortably, five only in a pinch, on a minimal outlay for fuel and monthly payments. The SS models are fun to drive, particularly the Cobalt SS Supercharged coupe.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw is based in Dearborn, Michigan; Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.
Chevrolet Cobalt LS ($13,900); LT ($$16,200); LTZ ($18,400); SS ($18,200); SS Supercharged ($21,400).
Options As Tested
heated leather front bucket seats ($695); side-impact head curtain air bags ($395); OnStar ($695); XM Satellite Radio ($325); rear spoiler ($275).
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