All of the other automotive journalists were talking up the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS, but we remained skeptical. Car and Driver calls it "freaky fast and fun on a twisty road." Road and Track thinks it might be the "most underrated car in the world". According to Winding Road, "the real draw of the Cobalt SS is the driving experience". But this was a Cobalt, a low-end economy car from Chevrolet. Could it really be that good? A fast start with wheel-spinning furor convinced us it might just be the case. Solid cornering, with little drama or body roll, showed us this car could redeem GM in the small car segment.
But, although this car features some advanced tech, it's far from perfect. The understated design is practical, but the sound of shrieking metal as we opened and closed the driver's door suggested build-quality issues. Cabin tech relies on OnStar for navigation and hands-free calling, two features that we would rather see handled by Bluetooth and a proper GPS device. And although the car handles corners very well, ride quality is a little rough for long trips.
Test the tech: Torque steer test
The Cobalt SS uses one of GM's more advanced engines, a direct-injected turbocharged two-liter four-cylinder with variable-valve timing. Given that this engine puts 260 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels, we suspected torque steer might be a problem. To test out the torque steer, we tried a few tests, applying moderate-to-heavy acceleration from a stop.
Chevy tried to dial out the torque steer, but under the right conditions, the steering wheel will turn violently to the right.
For our first test, we took the traction control off, revved up the engine, then dropped the hammer. We gripped the wheel as the front tires spun, the car making little forward progress. Backing off on the gas to give the tires a chance to grip, the Cobalt SS bolted forward. Throughout, we maintained a good grip on the wheel and didn't feel significant torque steer. It seemed as if the car got the torque steer out of its system while the wheels were spinning.
We tried the same heavy acceleration test with traction control on. The Cobalt let the front tires spin, but not nearly as much as with traction control off. This time, the intermittent grip afforded by the traction control sent the car careening off to the right, torque steering having reared its ugly head to such a degree that we had to back off quicker than with the previous test.
Our next two tests involved moderate acceleration, this time with hands off the steering wheel. We turned off the traction control, revved up more moderately than on the previous tests, and let off the clutch pedal. There was minor wheel spin and the wheel immediately cranked around about 45 degrees to the right, indicating serious torque steer.
The traction control button can put the car into competition mode, which features launch control.
Finally, we repeated the same test with traction control on. This time, we got very little wheel spin, and the steering wheel remained straight. This test showed us that when traction control wasn't being overtaxed, torque steer was virtually eliminated, suggesting that Chevy engineers put good work into refining the control characteristics of the Cobalt SS.
We also ran a test with launch control on, a feature activated by hitting the traction control button twice. We revved up the engine and dropped the clutch again. The tires squealed loudly, but gripped enough to get the car moving fast. We kept a tight hold on the steering wheel, and didn't notice excessive torque steer.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS doesn't rise much above its economy-car platform. Hard plastics cover the dashboard, but you do get a leather wrapped steering wheel and sport seats. The stereo head unit is pretty standard for GM cars, with an electro-fluorescent display and a row of soft buttons. GM makes the most of these buttons, using them intelligently for browsing categories on XM satellite radio, picking presets, and setting the equalizer.
It is surprisingly easy to browse folders on a USB drive using this interface.
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.
This subwoofer made a big difference with the audio system, giving it bold, clean bass.
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 boost gauge looks cool, and will let you know that the turbo is working, but it's not where you want to look under acceleration.
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.