GM has been a distressing also-ran in the small-car race for as long as there's been a small-car race. Just recently, however, the company brought out the new Chevrolet Cobalt, which replaces the ancient and long ago outclassed Cavalier. Unlike the Cavalier, which also was sold as the Pontiac Sunfire, the Cobalt has no corporate twin, although it was developed from the same platform as the uninspiring Saturn Ion.
To gauge the competitiveness of GM's latest small-car effort, we put it up against the Mazda 3. Winner of Automobile Magazine's All-Star for best small car, the Mazda 3 is mechanically related to the well-regarded European Ford Focus. Like the Focus, the 3 has a well-sorted chassis and exhibits a surprising, fun-to-drive character.
The Mazda 3 is offered as a four-door hatchback or a four-door sedan; we had the latter for this test. Like previous examples we've driven, this Mazda 3 was the up-level s model, powered by a 160-hp, 2.3-liter four (the base Mazda 3i has a 150-hp, 2.0-liter). This was, however, the first one we've driven with an automatic transmission and the standard sixteen-inch wheels. Starting at $17,160 (with destination), our test car climbed to $19,750 thanks to the automatic transmission ($900); antilock brakes, side air bags, and side curtain air bags (what should be called the Life is Worth Living Package $800) and a power moonroof and six-disc CD changer combo ($890).
Our Chevy Cobalt was the top-of-the-line version of the sedan: the LT. All Cobalt sedans have the same 2.2-liter, 145-hp Ecotec four. (A supercharged, 205-hp, 2.0-liter is reserved for the Cobalt SS coupe.) Due to its luxury model ambitions, the LT only comes with an automatic; lesser Cobalt four-doors offer a five-speed stick. The Cobalt LT easily surpasses the Mazda 3s in the standard equipment department: The LT includes antilock brakes (albeit on a disc/drum set-up versus the Mazda's all-disc), traction control, and heated leather seats. The base price is $18,760. Our additions of an MP3 and XM satellite radio ($150, and $325, respectively) to the standard AM/FM/CD stereo; an OnStar ($695); a rear spoiler (a dubious $275 expenditure); and side curtain air bags (well worth $395, we'd say) brought the total to $20,600.
Mazda's self-image is all about sportiness, and that's evident when you open the door of the 3s. The racy-looking gauges light up red; the black upholstery--decent for cloth these days--weaves in some bright blue accents; and the seats are firm and supportive. The three-spoke leather wrapped steering wheel could have come straight from an RX-8 and it adjusts for both reach and rake. Not everything works so well, however. The single piece of carbon-look trim above the glove box looks lonely and a strip of red lights on the radio attempt to amuse the simpleminded by lighting up in sequence whenever you adjust the volume. This frivolity did not detract from the comfortable driving position, although more armrest padding would have been welcome. With the front seat adjusted for a driver six feet tall, the back is pretty tight, but once you wedge yourself into place it's acceptably comfortable.
While the Mazda tries to win the youth vote, the Cobalt LT cabin seems designed for those who'd really rather have a Buick. While our car's two-tone beige leather and low cowl made it seem bright and airy compared with the black cave of the Mazda 3, the greater contrast is in the design itself. The LT's plentiful plasti-wood and sober chrome-ringed gauges make it about as hip as Lawrence Welk. We didn't insult the Cobalt by calling it better than a Cavalier (what wouldn't be?), and it in turn didn't insult us with its fit, finish, or quality of materials, all of which are up to contemporary standards. Like the Mazda, the Chevy's driver seat has height and lumbar adjustments, and the steering wheel--also leather-wrapped, also with audio controls--tilts but doesn't telescope. Also like the Mazda, the Cobalt's stalks and switches move nicely, its controls are clear, and its HVAC is blessedly straightforward (one area where less-expensive cars regularly outshine their fancier brethren). However, despite being an all-new model, the Cobalt still has a bit of a depressing, economy-car air about it, primarily because of the way you sit in the car. Just as in every Grand Am you've ever rented, you sit low in the Cobalt, and the seat cushion seems to fall away from you; should you raise it, you find yourself uncomfortably close to the windshield header. Similarly, though back seat at first appears to offer reasonably generous space--more than the Mazda, the seat cushion is so low and the under-thigh support so scant that it's far less comfortable than the Mazda's tighter perch. Those more likely to stash kids than adults in back, however, should note that the Cobalt has three, rather than two, sets of LATCH child-seat mounting anchors, unusual in a small car.
Once underway, both the Mazda's self-image of sportiness and the Chevy's self-image of luxury take a hit. Mazda adds a measure of driver involvement by giving its automatic gearbox a gated shifter and manu-matic capability. Interestingly, the dashboard LED displays the numerical gear even when cruising in Drive. None of this, however, makes the automatic-equipped 3 any faster; the fact that the gearbox has only four forward speeds only lengthens the time spent waiting for the revs to climb the tach. While not truly slow, it certainly feels less spry than the manual version.
In fact, the Mazda feels no quicker than the Chevy. The Cobalt's automatic also is only a four-speed. (Even at this price point, five-speeds are becoming common, and VW offers a six-speed automatic in the New Beetle.) The bummer with the Chevy's powertrain isn't its power output, it's the sound quality. The Ecotec four has a hollow, metallic whine that acts like a disapproving scowl from your mother-in-law and causes an involuntary lifting reflex of the throttle foot. When the revs are down and you're just cruising, the Cobalt is very quiet, but the 3 was the car in which we were more likely to drift over our self-imposed--and considerably higher than posted--speed limit.
Again, because of its luxury-ride intentions, the Cobalt LT has different suspension tuning and tires than the LS or S sedan. The chassis does a very good job taking the edge off potholes, but an extended stretch of bad pavement can bring on nervous body motions. And, of course, the "touring" tires show little interest in sharp turn-in. That's just as well, because the electro-hydraulic power steering is generally inert, although certainly improved from its disastrous initial tuning in the Cobalt's cousin, the Saturn Ion.
Remembering a fairly stiff ride in previous Mazda 3s, we were very surprised by our test car's nonplussed absorption of scary-looking potholes. Unlike Chevrolet, Mazda uses a single suspension setup for all versions of the 3, the only differences being lower-profile tires and seventeen-inch wheels with the Sport Package in place of sixteen-inch wheels and less aggressive rubber in our 3 sedan. Dropping down from the seventeen to the sixteen-inch wheels and tires does result in greater understeer, but the ride is far less brittle than the more hardcore setup. Like GM, Mazda uses electro-hydraulic power steering (which is spreading like a fungus throughout the auto industry), but the system in the 3 feels a bit more natural than that in the Cobalt.
Overall, the Cobalt is a credible effort from GM, but doesn't dislodge the Mazda 3 from its top spot in our pantheon of small cars. The Cobalt LT has an impressive standard equipment list and its interior will appeal to those not looking for a boy racer. We wish its seating positions were more comfortable and the Ecotec four were more refined. After switching from a five-speed manual to a four-sped automatic, our view of the Mazda 3 was somewhat diminished. We also prefer the practical and more dramatic-looking hatchback 3 to the sedan we drove this time. But for those who live where the pavement regularly crumbles, a lesser wheel and tire package might be preferable. Hatchback or sedan, the 3 is still a small car with a fun-to-drive character and real personality and that's why it remains our pick in this segment.