Yes, the wretched Cavalier is gone, shuffled off to whatever reward comes to twenty-two years of mediocrity. Good riddance.
Its replacement isn't satisfied with mediocrity. The Chevrolet Cobalt SS comes with a supercharged 205-hp engine developed in drag racing, a stiff chassis derived from the Opel Astra, eighteen-inch wheels, and a rear wing even bigger and sillier than that of the Subaru WRX STi.
The engine really got our attention. The supercharged, intercooled 2.0-liter four-cylinder has a steel crankshaft and forged pistons, so it's strong enough to withstand more than 12 psi of boost. It runs smoothly and crisply, and the rasp from the exhaust mesmerizes you until you reach the redline in all five gears.
Meanwhile, the Cobalt SS's chassis has been tuned to deliver the autobahn-style composure of a European car. It was developed at Mosport, the Nrburgring, and Road Atlanta, and it delivers ultra-stable dynamics plus lots of grip from the 215/45WR-18 Pirelli P6 tires. It's the kind of car that shows its stuff best in 80-mph bends.
Stability is also characteristic of the standard Cobalt sedans and coupes. There are three different trim levels (base, LS, and LT), and each has its own suspension and tire package. The ride in each version is supple, and the body motions are firmly controlled. Overall, the Cobalt is sure-footed and capable, a step above the examples of the Ford Focus, the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, and the Volkswagen Jetta that we drove for comparison purposes. Special insulated steel and lots of other acoustic insulation also make the Cobalt very quiet compared with these other compacts. Even the standard 145-hp, 2.2-liter Ecotec engine is quiet, a minor miracle in itself. If you were driving across the state, a Cobalt sedan would be an excellent choice, especially once the optional 175-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing comes on stream for the '06 model year.
For all of this goodness, the Cobalt SS still doesn't quite have the athletic edge of the slower, less-refined Focus and Mazda 3. The Cobalt's electric power steering smothers most of the road feel, and the thick, vibration-absorbing rim of the steering wheel takes care of the rest. The SS is really terrific when you drive it fast, but there's magic in the Ford's communicative steering that the Cobalt can't capture.
Like so many Opel-derived cars, the Cobalt SS is a little heavier than its competition, and it lacks rear-seat legroom (the Cobalt sedan and coupe have the least passenger space in this group). Yet we're still really impressed by this car. It has the full allotment of hard-core, high-performance equipment (a Quaife limited-slip differential and Recaro seats will be part of the option list this spring), so it measures up well against the other racy sport compacts.
While Ford and Honda seem to be waffling in their commitment to cars like this, Chevrolet has stepped up. It's a real player in the small-car market at last.