Chevrolet Cobalt LS car reviews

Review Notes: 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LS
Personality Shut your eyes and it's a big car with a V6.
Quirks Lighting controls, one-sided seat tilting on coupe
Unusual features OnStar on an entry-level
Above Average for Price Solid feel, acceleration, comfort
Needs Work In See quirks entries
Driveway Test Minor scrape on very steep entrance ramp

The Chevrolet Cobalt returns to the traditional Chevy car style in many ways, aside from the Corvette-like round tail-lamps. It takes the standard small car and adds a certain touch of class and comfort, and sells at a small premium if you ignore the rebates. The interior has a quality look absent from many competitors, and the ride is smoother without giving up much in cornering. Overall, we liked the ride/handling balance and the engine's willingness to move at speed, and regretted a bit of low-end hesitation and some quirks.

The interior makes a positive impression; though none of the elements are new, they all fit together nicely, in both a stylistic and mechanical way. The color scheme of our coupe is simple black and dull silver, as is the fashion; that is, almost everything is black, with cloth-covered doors (below the plastic shoulders) and seats (with a black-and-grey pattern on all but the bolsters and sides), and a matte silver strip running across the length of the dashboard and around the center console. The gauges are surrounded classy chrome rings, and, unusually, faced with frosted sheets of plastic placed close to the gauges themselves. When driving, these frosted sheets are normally clear and easy to see through, and the un-shiny surface prevents sun glare. There is no temparature or voltage gauge; temparature can be shown exactly in the driver information center (underneath the tachometer) at the push of the "i" button. The gas gauge isn't marked aside from a full dot and an empty red dot at opposite extremes, and a triangle pointing to the side with the filler tube. The speedometer goes up to 120 mph, providing enough space for clear differentiation of speeds and making it easy to stay at 55 or 65 (the top of the dial, incidentally, is at about 62 mph, since 0 and 120 are not level with each other). Overall, the gauges were clear and easy to read except during overcast or rainy times, when the sun was bright enough to make reading the backlight desirable but not so bright as to let the backlight come on. That brings us to one of the annoying quirks - the computer thinks it's smarter than the driver, and will not allow the gauges to be backlit unless there's not enough sunlight, in its opinion, which we disagree with. No override other than covering up the sensor is possible, and covering up the sensor keeps the headlights on - the headlight control is the new GM design which has automatic as the default, always-on and driving lights as options, and off only as a one-time option (that is, you have to turn the dial back to a spot below the default, and it springs right back again and resumes automatic mode the next time you drive.)

Speaking of quirks, one of the cost-cutting moves on the Cobalt which allows for a good-looking interior and boatloads of features is the lack of an easy way to tilt the driver's seat forward and let people into the back. Back-seat passengers are apparently encouraged to use the passenger side, which is all very well unless people don't want to travel the length of the back seat to sit down, or the right-hand passenger doesn't want to get out to let someone else out. Then again, if you're buying a coupe, you're probably not planning to use the back seat much anyway - at least not for passengers.

Two standard GM technologies have made their way into the Cobalt: OnStar (integrated into the mirror) and the driver's information center, hardly a new idea (it debuted on the Talbot/Plymouth Horizon) but nice to see on a relatively inexpensive vehicle. It provides an easy way to customize some car behaviors (horn-honking on lock, automatic locks, etc.) and also details on distance to empty, oil life remaining, gas mileage, exact coolant temparature, average speed, and outside temparature. The two-button control mounted on the instrument panel is easy to figure out and use.

The optional satellite-radio equipped stereo had excellent sound, aided by massive woofers in the trunk; but many stereos can do pounding bass without having anything else to recommend them. The stereo in our test car was simply superb, with good imaging and stereo separation as well as easy to use controls.

Interior and exterior lighting are both good, with reasonably strong headlamps and an easy to understand dome light switch as well as map lights for each seating position. Visibility is good for a coupe, with a decent-sized blind spot right where you'd expect it in the rear quarter but otherwise good views. We did wish for a rear-window wiper, since it became nearly unusable in some rainy weather conditions, and is slanted in a way which seems to attract dirt.

Storage areas abound, with map pockets on both doors, primitive cupholders that can be used for sunglasses, a pen slot in the open, a glove compartment that would have room for more maps and gloves if the OnStar manual were taken out, a Toyota-style storage area to the left of the wheel (which also houses the trunk release button), and a center console with clips for two pencils and a moderately small storage area for other things. And there's another quirk, a somewhat more annoying and possibly dangerous one: the center console is positioned right over the emergency brake, making it rather difficult to set with enough force to actually stop the car from rolling. If the transmission fails to hold the Cobalt in place, off it goes - and if the normal brakes fail, a driver in a panic may not have time or sense to raise up the console in order to reach the brake and pull it up with enough force. Needless to say, releasing the brake underhand is equally hard. Apparently the designers intended us to raise the console, release the brake, lower the console, drive, park, raise the console, and set the brake. Or maybe they intend most customers to be the kind of automatic-transmission users who never set the parking brake because they're afraid the cable will rust in place. Either way, it's goofy, and like the lights, strange from a company with Bob Lutz at the helm (or at least near it).

Headroom is good for a coupe, and both shoulder and leg room are surprisingly good. The trunk is quite large (14 cubic feet), though the opening is not, and the spare is easy to get to.

The standard engine is peppy at high rpms, with a smooth but clear "power program" transition. At times, we wished for better off-the-line acceleration, but the standard 145 horsepower four (with 150 lb-ft of torque - something you won't see on a four-cylinder Honda) moved the Cobalt automatic faster than most of its stick-shift equipped competitors, including the Civic EX and Corolla (around 8.5 seconds). That's especially good when you consider the hefty weight of the Cobalt - 2,824 pounds - partly to assure high crash-test ratings. A weight-sensing passenger airbag and available side airbags help to increase safety as well.

The automatic transmission seems well geared (perhaps a lower first?) and smooth, even under full power downshifts, and generally responsive. Gas mileage could be better - EPA is a mere 25/34 with stick and 24/32 with automatic, and we generally got about 27 mpg in mostly-city driving.  We wished for a standard transmission despite the automatic's competence; it would increase the fun factor and add a couple of miles per gallon.

For those who want more of a good thing, the Cobalt SS brings a 170 horsepower version of the four-cylinder, while a supercharged Cobalt SS version has a 205 horsepower powerplant that can, according to GM, go from zero to sixty in a mere 6.1 seconds, similar to the Dodge SRT-4 and, for that matter, the Hemi-powered Dodge Charger; and far faster than the Focus SVT, Corolla XRS, or Civic Si.

Cornering is above average, though squealing tires under hard turns told us that higher-grade rubber might be handy; the Cobalt always felt confident, though, even as the Continental TouringContact AS tires signalled their protests. Variable assist steering, nicely tuned, help to keep the feel sporty and under control. Above all, the ride was smooth and clean, and we always felt just enough about the road surface to get a feel for it without being punished by it. Ribbed surfaces, old concrete, sudden pot-holes were no match for the Cobalt, as it gave a big-car ride that easily equalled the comfort of the Toyota Corolla while easily out-cornering that popular model.

We realize at this point we should follow other reviewers and bad-mouth the Cobalt because only the Japanese can make good small cars, blah, blah, soft floaty ride, blah, blah. The Cobalt does maintain comfort without floating or wallowing, and, for what it's worth, from 1994 to 1999 the best-performing economy car (including both acceleration and cornering) was the American-made Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth Neon, "the car so cheap it only has one name for three brands." Even today, an American car, the SRT-4, is generally acknowledged to be at the top of its class in performance, and a supercharged version of the Cobalt is more capable than just about any Japanese car in its price range (and for that matter any American car save the aforementioned SRT-4). We could find no lack of refinement in the Cobalt, from the well-assembled interior to the quiet, smooth-idling engine.

Overall, the Cobalt is a small car with a big-car feel and fit and finish that equals any of its Japanese competitors. The styling got some looks and inquiries, while the comfortable, supportive seats and smooth ride, coupled with competent cornering and adequate acceleration, made day to day driving a pleasure. We were admittedly annoyed by the inability to easily get backlighting on the gauges, to get people into the back seat on the driver's side, and the insanely placed brake handle, but we were also pleased by the total package. The Cobalt is definitely worth a spot on your shopping list.