Wednesday, November 24, 2010
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.
Posted by Max P. at 2:11 PM