But the Cobalt SS has a few tricks up its fenders. For one, there is a USB port in the faceplate of this head unit that can work with an iPod or a USB thumbdrive. The interface for finding music on a USB drive is pretty intuitive, as long as you realize that the folder icon button lets you browse folders on a drive. There is a single CD slot that can read MP3 CDs, and, like other GM cars we've tested, you can have the system scan an MP3 CD, letting you choose music by album, artist, and genre, just like you would on an iPod. But this scan process takes a little too long for it to be a great feature.
The Cobalt SS' second trick is the standard Pioneer audio system, which includes six speakers and a big subwoofer. Although the highs can get shrill, we were generally impressed by this audio system. Music with heavy bass played cleanly, with little distortion even when cranked up, although we did get some door rattle. The audio quality can be adjusted using the standard treble, mid, and bass levels, or with equalizer presets for different types of music. We would have liked a separate control for the subwoofer level.
According to Chevrolet, Bluetooth will be available on the Cobalt, although it wasn't present on our test car and didn't seem to be a selectable option on the Chevrolet Web site. We expect it to be generally available early next year. For now, it seems OnStar is the hands-free calling solution, one that we don't favor. The problem with OnStar for calling is that the car has a different phone number than your cell phone.
Similarly, navigation is handled by OnStar. Again, we prefer an in-cabin unit, as OnStar requires you to be in a cell phone covered area. That's fine if you are in a built-up area, but poses a problem if you are lost on a country road.
Under the hood
The cabin tech features on the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS can be had in the standard model. What sets the SS model apart is the suspension and power train. As mentioned above, the car is powered by a 2-liter turbocharged direct injection four cylinder engine with variable valve timing. The tech on this engine lets it get 260 horsepower at 5,300 revolutions per minute and 260 pound-feet of torque at a nice, low 2,000rpm, which explains all of our wheel spinning. GM claims a very respectable time of 5.7 seconds to 60 mph from stop.
The Cobalt SS includes a turbo boost gauge on the driver's A pillar. A nice performance touch, but not all that useful, as we tended to watch the road while under acceleration. GM will also offer an onboard performance computer as an option, although it didn't seem to be available at the time of this review.
The five-speed manual transmission, GM's Sweden F35, felt solid and went into gears smoothly, but wasn't quite as nice as the five-speed manual transmission from Honda we tested in the Fit Sport. Honda's transmission is extraordinarily easy to flick into each gear, but the Sweden F35 takes some rowing. The ratios for the gearbox let us hit 60 mph in second gear, with the tach needle close to redline. As with most small sports cars, second and third gears are where the work is done, with fourth and fifth gears up there for economy on the freeway. That said, a sixth gear could have further improved the fuel economy.
We found the handling particularly impressive in the Cobalt SS. With a limited slip differential on front and stabilizer bars, it handled the corners nicely. There was a bit of suspension travel as we took it around long, sweeping turns at speed, but it stayed pretty tight for quick turns--similar to what you would find at an autocross event. GM also puts Brembo brakes on the front, giving it extra stopping power.
The EPA rates the 2009 Cobalt SS at 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. We maxed our mileage out at 22.1 mpg, a low number brought about by a lot of spirited driving and liberal use of the turbocharger. Emissions, at a LEV II rating, meet California's minimum standard.
At a $24,095 base price, the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS may seem expensive for a compact car, but most of the features mentioned above are standard, with just $100 extra for the iPod-connecting stereo system, putting our total at $24,195. The Cobalt SS works as a great performance sleeper, mixing in with economy cars when you want to be subtle, and blowing many cars off the line when you want to put the hammer down. For about the same money, you can get a Honda Civic Si, but you will have to put up with much less horsepower and torque. The MazdaSpeed 3 is another car to consider in this price range, with similar horsepower, but inferior cabin electronics.
The Cobalt SS earns an excellent rating from us for performance, although it gets downgraded a bit for average fuel economy, a minimum emissions rating, and the transmission, which was just good. Cabin tech is better than we expected, although we still have to ding it for the lack of a real navigation system. And although we like the interface design on the stereo, this car isn't a great looker, merely working as an acceptable shell to carry five passengers.