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.