Long overdue for replacement, the decade-old Cavalier is finally being succeeded by not one but two cars--the bargain-basement, Korean-built Aveo and the bigger, better, America-made Cobalt. Introduced as a 2005 model, the Cobalt is GM's most ambitious attempt to date to go fender-to-fender with compact Asian imports. Although it shares the Delta platform with the widely scorned Saturn Ion, the Cobalt has proved to be an exemplar of what GM engineers can accomplish, staying true to Chevrolet values while advancing a cost-sensitive product to the center of a hotly contested segment. Solidly built, suitably refined, and attractively priced, it's an American car that can compete with its foreign rivals. The Cobalt is offered as either a coupe or sedan, both available in Base and LS trim. The high-line LT is unique to the sedan. High-performance fans are served by the dramatic SS coupe, which boasts a demeanor worthy of "The Fast and the Furious" through its bodywork, suspension tuning, potent supercharger, and sporty interior touches.
Chevrolet describes the exterior design of the Cobalt as "clean and uncluttered, with a tailored, refined execution." In other words, it's boring. Unfortunately, there's still enough Cavalier in the Cobalt's styling DNA to scream "Avis Vacation Special." But to be fair, the inoffensive sheetmetal is arguably more appealing than that of competitors like the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra. The generously sized wheels and tires--195/60R15s on the Base model and LS and 205/55R16s on the LT--look great. Drivers looking for more visual panache should consider the more-aggressive-looking SS, which rides on low-profile 18-inch tires and benefits from an in-your-face (and in-your-rear-mirror) rear wing that looks like the calling card of a Hot Import Nights car show.
General Motor's interiors have long set the standard for frugality. By this standard, the Cobalt is not merely a revelation but a genuine miracle. Sure, there's a lot of plastic, but it looks and feels good, and the fit and finish are in the hunt with the best in class. Much of the switchgear is a cut above the GM norm. The mostly plain cabin is dressed up with well-intended touches such as chrome trim around the gauges and stereo controls, but don't look too closely--it's plastic and appears cheaply wrought. The seats are upholstered in high-quality cloth, but while the front units are comfortable, rear legroom is a bit cramped even in the four-door sedan. Air conditioning, a rear-window defroster, CD player, and tilt steering are all standard in even the base model. Moving up to the LS gets you cruise control, keyless entry, and power everything, while the LT comes with leather, heated seats, and a thumping Pioneer audio system. The interior motif of the SS is "Speed Racer" Lite, from the leather-wrapped shift lever to an A-pillar-mounted boost gauge. An MP3 player is also part of the SS product mix.
Safety is an area where manufacturers can cut costs in ways consumers often overlook--a common tactic in the small-car wars. The Cobalt is as good as, if not better than, most of its competition on the safety-equipment front. The standard brake configuration puts large vented discs up front and composite drums in the rear. All trims except Base feature four-channel anti-lock brakes with rear proportioning as standard equipment; it's a recommended option on Base. Dual front airbags are found across the board, and side-curtain airbags are available. Typical of this class, stability control is not available. In case of emergency, the optional OnStar in-vehicle safety and security service can provide an extra measure of comfort.