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.