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.


NYC taxi photo said...

oh wow, how are you getting these cars? A manual? you're test driving at dealerships?

Max P. said...

No, just another rental. It's automatic like all rental cars, just has one of those silly rubber boots to make it look like stick, GM has a fetish for those.

Martin van Duijn said...

The Cobalt is related to the Opel/Saturn Astra - but the new Astra has moved up considerably on the social ladder. It Buicked up. Did I event a new word here? Chevrolet is now looking at Korea for its entyry level cars.

Andrew T. said...

From Cavalier to Cobalt to Cruze. I wish GM would try to build on brand equity rather than sweeping names away as lost causes with each new generation of car.

I rarely have high expectations for GM cars, so it's nice to hear that this one isn't (or wasn't) that bad. How does the performance compare to the early 2000s Ford Focus? Since I own one, that tends to me my shorthand barometer of comparison for smaller automobiles...

Max P. said...

The Cobalt is not nearly as buttoned-down as a Focus in terms of steering and suspension, but it's significantly quieter and smoother riding. The engine is more powerful and has much better NVH suppression than the Focuses I've driven.

They're kind of aimed at different sections of the market - the Cobalt is more of a comfortable cruiser while the Focus is a small car with a sport bent. Depends what your priorities are - a Focus is much more fun to drive but the Cobalt is significantly more refined.

Tor said...

HA! Rented one exactly like this in Cali two weeks ago. Same color too.

Rented a orange one back in 2007.

Adequate, but that is about it IMO. I'd take the 2010 Elantra instead (which I rented the next day; for various reasons I drove 4 rental cars in 7 days). Mazda3 or Golf would be my pick of the smaller cars.

I've been wanting to try a SS sedan with a manual, but I never got around to it.