Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rental Road Test: Chevrolet Cobalt

A pleasant surprise. I actually wouldn’t mind owning one of these for the daily commute, especially given how cheap it would be. Back when they still made these (production ended in June), you could get a new one for around 13K-14K after rebates and CPO examples with 30,000 miles can be had for 10K or less.

For the money, this is a surprisingly competent car. I expected it to be terrible, like the Cavalier was, but after driving it for a bit I’d hesitate to can’t even call it “bad”. Certainly not class leading, like the Civic, but not awful by any measure.

Build quality and fit and finish is very poor, much worse than any competitor, and the car doesn’t give the impression that it would be very robust in the long run. Otherwise, the Cobalt is a thoroughly average compact commuter car in nearly every respect.

The Cavalier was noisy, rough, uncomfortable, and just decidedly crude feeling overall. In comparison, the Cobalt is actually quite pleasant. Around town, road noise is insulated slightly better than a Civic, but not as well as a Corolla. Wind noise on the freeway is more prevalent than in most new cars, but in the city the cabin stays reasonably civilized, and in any situation the Cobalt is quieter than most of the budget-priced offerings you’ll find a class below (I’m looking at you, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Aveo).

Ride quality is similarly middle-of-the road among compacts. Both a Civic and Corolla are noticeably more refined, but the Cobalt is not so far behind as to be intolerable. The soft suspension cushions small imperfections reasonably well, and the chassis is surprisingly rigid, especially given how much GM has struggled with this in the past. Still, expansion joints and frost heaves filter through with a more pronounced impact than you would find in the Honda or Toyota. Larger bumps, such as a poorly maintained railroad crossing or a non-flush manhole cover, can upset the suspension and bring out undue harshness. Overall, the Cobalt is comfortable enough, but not quite as stable and composed as a Civic.

A few compacts, like the Civic and Golf, are engineered to a more precise standard and have a sharper feel in the handling department. Most take the Toyota-style appliance route of low-effort controls inputs and an easy-to-drive demeanor. The Cobalt falls directly into the latter category, feeling much like a Corolla behind the wheel. The steering is light and somewhat slow, and the brakes are highly assisted with a slightly mushy pedal feel. Handling is strictly pedestrian – not great, not terrible, body motions are kept in check but the car doesn’t even pretend to be sporty. The Cobalt was designed for stress-free commuting, and it gets the job done with little fuss.

No doubt due to a significantly larger engine than its competitors, the Cobalt is among the quicker compacts. Acceleration is almost on par with a 4-cylinder mid-size sedan, with 0-60 times closer to 9 seconds rather than the 10-second compact norm. More impressively, engine noise and refinement is several notches higher than GM’s past attempts at small cars. It’s not quite Honda-smooth, but neither is it Grand-Am-grittty. Smooth transmissions have always been one of General Motors’ few strong points and the Cobalt does not disappoint there, despite having a very outdated four-speeds. A fifth and sixth gear would be helpful on the freeway where the Cobalt cruises at a high 2500 RMP, but otherwise the lack of speeds is not glaringly obvious.

Typical of General Motors, space efficiency is not a strong suit. Despite being one of the largest compacts in exterior dimensions, the interior is significantly less roomy than most competitors. The backseat is downright cramped, and the front seats feel somewhat confined due to overly thick door panels (another GM trademark) and a low roof. On the bright side, the cowl and beltline are both reasonably low and visibility is downright good by today’s standards, even though this is only due to the car’s dated styling. The driving position takes some getting used to; the interior is a time warp to the days before telescoping steering wheels, so the pedals are either too close or the wheel too far away.

I came away impressed with the Cobalt. Not impressed with the car objectively, but impressed with the car given my expectations. Every time I evaluated a new quality – ride, noise, handling, solidity, space, overall refinement - the thought that went through my mind was “it’s almost as good as a Civic, but not quite”. The Cobalt is a sound car, competing with better ones. It’s qualities are only 2/3 of the Civic, and it will probably only last 2/3 as long, but it is also 2/3 the price. Not everyone wants to pay a hefty premium for refinement, and if you just want a reasonably comfortable and pleasant commuter car to buy on the cheap and run for a few years, the Cobalt is not a bad choice.

That is, if they still made them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Test Drive Terror: The Unstoppable DeVille

Test drives can be disappointing. Almost as often, they’re impressive. Once in a while, they’re downright fun. But sometimes, just sometimes, a test drive is a terrifying adventure.

Looking for a half-decent car below $2000 is not a particularly easy task. It can be done, but it takes some diligent searching. Having decided to pick up a cheap spare beater to drive for a few months and then flip, I set out on a search. On the list of possibilities – a dark green 1996 Cadillac Sedan DeVille listed for $1900.

It looked very good – shiny paint, no rust, no dents, clean white leather interior. Turned the key and the Northstar V8 came to life, quietly. Seemed pleasant enough.

I took the car around a bit, and apart from a clunky suspension and weak, worn-out brakes, it was acceptable for how I’d expect a 90s DeVille to drive. Before I went back to the dealer, I decided to stop and give a walk around, maybe pop the hood, give it a look over. I pulled into an empty parking lot a few blocks down from the dealership, and shifted it into park. Suddenly, I heard a slightly loud noise coming from under the hood. It sounded like some sort of accessory motor, maybe for the rear air suspension, so I got out and popped the hood. Couldn’t figure out what it was. Got back in, shifted into reverse, and immediately the car jolted and started moving backwards at a frightening pace. I had to really stand on the brakes to get it to slow down. I continued backing out the space, shifted into drive to pull away, and once again, felt a hard, jerking jolt and the car started to fly forward. It was quite clear what was going on – the motor was stuck at part throttle rather than idle. Since the target demographic of this model was primarily octogenarians, there was no tachometer, and the V8 was so naturally quiet I couldn’t even tell it was revving high.

I looked down at the gas pedal, and it wasn’t stuck. Since the car had been sitting on the lot for weeks if not a month, I was afraid to turn it off and restart the engine, because the battery might be too drained to handle it. Somehow, I had to get this thing back to the lot. I would just have to be very careful and keep my foot on the brake.

Oh, but that wasn’t all that was wrong with this damn thing. There was a plethora of electrical issues, and among them, neither of turn signals were functioning. Not a big deal… just wait for room and take extra care when changing lanes, right? Only problem – the dealership was located on a high volume one-way street, and I was test driving it during rush hour on a Friday.

Needless to say, traffic was crawling along, bumper to bumper. The street had three lanes, and the dealership was on the opposite side than the parking lot I had stopped the car in. Not only did I have to get out into the street, I had to get all the way to the other side. I nudged the nose of the Cadillac out, and the drivers in the two closest lanes made a small hole in the traffic flow to let me in. Seizing the opportunity, I quickly pulled into the middle lane. As I crawled along in the sea of cars, I flipped the signal up to the right, so someone would make a space to let me in the far lane. Oh! That’s right, it doesn’t work. But the dealership was right there! Past the lot I went, stuck in the wrong lane. No problem… just have to get in the left lane, make a turn at the next intersection, and circle the block again. Damn! That signal doesn’t work either. So there I was, stuck in the middle lane of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, completely neutered of any navigating abilities. Keep in mind, all this is happening while I’m standing on the brakes to keep the car under control.

What fun. I could be stuck here for miles, crawling along at the mercy of the traffic flow, and if I let off the brakes at any moment the free-revving engine might propel the thing into the back of the next car in line. NO! I was not going to put up with this. Closer and closer I came to next intersection. If I didn’t turn left here and circle the block, it would be at least another mile before I had the chance. I had to get out of here and back to the dealership before this car killed me, it was now or never. I was now in the intersection, almost through it. I had to make the turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight break in traffic to my left. It might even be big even to fit the car through. Maybe. It was my only chance. Suddenly, as if possessed by the fear of being in this situation for any longer than I had to, I floored the gas and yanked the steering wheel sharply to left. The body flopped onto its side and tires squealed in protest as the brute Cadillac squirted sideways. A symphony of angry horns erupted around me, one of them no doubt that beige Malibu in that nearly took out my left tailfin.

Phew, I made it. Hmmm… it looks like I may kill myself before the car has the chance to. Ah well, people do crazy things when they’re scared. Around the block I went, and somehow navigated into the dealership lot without any further incident. Quickly, I parked it and turned the engine off. It was all over.

“How’d you like it?”, asks the salesman as I walk in to return the keys.

“Let’s just say, I’m no longer interested.”