2009 Chevrolet Cobalt XFE car reviews

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt XFE LS

chevy cobalt car reviews

Personality Basic compact car with nice space, speed, mileage
Why we’d buy it Good enough mileage and speed, quiet, relatively inexpensive
Why we wouldn’t Not as much fun as the new 2009 Aveo5, annoying quirks
Mileage EPA, 25/37 (automatic is 24/33; SS is 22/30)
Reviewer David Zatz

The Chevrolet Cobalt XFE is a base Cobalt with minor modifications to improve gas mileage by around two miles per gallon, by no means an insignificant achievement. Those changes include adding variable valve timing, using a higher final drive ratio with the manual transmission, and low rolling resistance tires.

The Cobalt might be getting better mileage, but it’s still a quick little car, doing 0-60 in around 8.5 seconds with the five-speed manual transmission. That’s not bad for a car that seats four in comfort (along with their luggage), and gets an EPA-estimated 25 mpg city, 37 highway. Safety ratings are five stars for front and side crashes — if you’re the passenger. Drivers don’t do quite as well, with three stars (that’s less than the smaller, cheaper 2009 Chevy Aveo, by the way.)

The 2.2 liter engine has been given dual overhead cams and variable valve timing; the result is a revvy powerplant that likes to race up to redline, yet has enough low-end power to get by and feel relatively comfortable. Passing is easy with a quick downshift, and sprints up to highway speed are both quick and easy. The 2.2 liter engine pushes out an amazing 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, showing that General Motors is not taking a back seat in four-cylinders. The turbocharged version used in the Cobalt SS uses direct injection to boost that to an incredible 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque — and still provide 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway according to the new mileage standards.

The manual transmission avoids that spongy feeling many small cars get with an automatic, but takes some getting used to; among other things, the engine is tuned to have a low idle speed, making it easy to stall out. This may have been an intentional step to increase city gas mileage. The stick itself has a conventional feel, and is easy to operate without getting caught in the wrong gear. Reverse is where sixth would be if there were six speeds. A four-speed automatic transmission is also available, but it cuts gas mileage to 24 mpg city, 33 highway.

The speed-sensitive electric power steering feels fairly natural; thanks to the smaller wheels and tires, the turning radius is quite tight. The XFE isn’t quite as sporty as it could be, but it still handles well and can take emergency maneuvers or sharp corners surprisingly well. Comparing the Corolla to the Cobalt, a driver who didn’t know which (s)he was in might well think the Cobalt was the Japanese car and the Corolla was the Chevy. That said, the low rolling resistance tires take their toll at times; hard launches are accompanied by squeals, as are moderately hard turns. The Cobalt is still fairly light on its feet and is nimble enough for most people; those who want something more sporty would be happier in the cheaper 2009 Chevy Aveo, which may be slower but doesn’t feel slower (our comments only apply to the 2009 Aveo, not the 2008). Performance oriented tires would probably improve the feel of the Cobalt, without much cost in gas mileage.

Perhaps more to the point, buyers can get a Chevrolet Cobalt SS, which adds considerable beef to the suspension, does away with the gas mileage moves, raises the bar to 260 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque with direct injection and forced induction, and does all this while still getting 30 mpg highway (22 city). Yes, we said this already, but it deserves repeating.

Visibility is good in all directions, with small blind spots, and decent headlights. The day/night mirror is the manual kind, which is more effective at dimming than the electronic versions; it works with a twist action to avoid throwing the mirror out of alignment. The exterior mirrors are mechanical remote-adjust types, which tend to work in a jerky fashion (and require the driver to reach to the passenger side to get that mirror). The non-power windows are hard to raise and lower, particularly for kids, and require more effort than they really should; it’s as though Chevrolet is trying to push people to the LT by making the LS harder to operate.

The interior is a mixed bag. The instrument panel is dominated by the large speedometer and tachometer; a host of warning lights sit between those gauges and below the fuel level. There is no temperature gauge, but you can see exactly how hot the antifreeze is by going through the trip computer. This device — standard even on the base LS trim level — lets you see the air pressure in each tire, the outside temperature, average gas mileage, distance to empty, average speed, coolant temp, and remaining oil life. The latter is based on extensive General Motors research, which showed that while some drivers needed to change their oil as often as every 2,000 miles, many others only needed to change their oil every 10,000 miles — and some people could postpone oil changes even further. If everyone had GM’s oil change sensor, perhaps millions of gallons of oil per year could be saved.

The instrument panel is fairly upscale in appearance, with rounded bright chrome trim rings aroud the three instruments and a dual-color backlighting scheme: pointers in red and other elements in off-white (the trip computer display is a moderately high-resolution greenish-blue LED setup.) The standard stereo includes XM satellite radio — the next best thing to Sirius satellite radio and a wonderful thing for long trips or daily commuting — and has good sound. The stereo is a step above the standard Aveo unit, though they clearly have the same lineage; there are two pages of presets (XM stations are shown as numbers), an information button to show you whose song you’re listening to, and a tuning/audio control knob that lets you easily flip through satellite or conventional radio stations and quickly set bass, treble, and other adjustments.

Below the stereo is the climate control, which has a conventional, old-fashioned three-knob setup (vent, fan, and heat), with the middle knob having a different size and shape so it can be more easily felt out by touch (and to make room for the a/c, defroster, and recirculate buttons). Vents are easily to close and easy to direct with two knobs per vent (up/down and right/left). Our only real gripe about this system is the very small indicator, practically invisible during the day, to tell you what part of the heat and vent control knob is active. On the lighter side, the vent control allows for "fractions" — you can set it between heat and bilevel, for example, and get a mix of the two.

Back seat room is fairly generous for a compact car, and the trunk is capacious indeed, though the trunk opening is somewhat restricted and the underside of the lip is not finished or smooth. There is no covered center console, just twin cupholders up front and twin cupholders in back. While there is a small Toyota-style cubby to the left of the steering wheel, which includes an electric trunk release button, there are no map pockets in back, and the front map pockets are fairly small. Overall, the look of the interior is fairly pleasant — neither upscale nor cheap, easy on the eyes with various shades of gray tastefully applied.

The General Motors executives outdid themselves in choosing what would be standard on this car. Power locks and power windows are optional; the miniature sun visors don’t slide out or have extenders, though they do have covered vanity mirrors; and there is no standard spare or floor mats, but standard features include satellite radio, OnStar (the remote assistance service), air conditioning, the trip computer, and that GM special, automatic headlights that annoy more than they serve.

OnStar and automatic headlights each deserve a little time. Automatic headlights GM-style means, in essence, that the headlights go on whenever the system thinks a cloud might show up later in the day. The only way to shut them off is to either turn on the parking lights, or to turn on the headlights — unless you want to flip the knob back in the other direction, which will shut off the automatic headlights (until you restart the engine) but will also activate a warning in the trip computer, because who wouldn't want their headlights on all the time?

More sensible and desirable is the OnStar system. The basic system is good for emergencies; but pay a little extra and you can use the Internet to select the location you're going to (or call an operator), and the system will then give you step by step directions to get there, just like a navigation system, but without having to get one of those pricey touch-screen stereos that make you go through ten steps (with your eyes off the road) to lower the bass a little. The hardware is standard even on the base Cobalt; the service is extra.

We drove a base (LS) model 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt XFE four-door sedan. Standard features include speed-sensitive power steering, power brakes (discs up front, drums in back), front and rear side curtain airbags, automatic headlights, tire pressure monitor (showing the psi for each tire separately), dual breakaway side mirrors, intermittent wipers, air conditioning with air filtration, CD player, satellite radio, one year of OnStar’s base plan, tachometer, tilt steering, remote trunk release, and rear window defroster. Again, these choices are a little unusual — air conditioning but no power locks; side curtain airbags for both rows, but no power windows. The cost of all this is a reasonable $15,670, before any rebates or discounts (and there are sure to be rebates or discounts). Our test car had floor mats and bodyside moldings, for a rather price $180; antilock brakes for a reasonable $400; a spare tire (replacing the can of flat juice) for $75; and a total price of $16,325. At the time of writing, Chevy was giving a $1,500 rebate, making the price of the base Cobalt XFE a moderate $14,170. In comparison, the 2009 Corolla, with similar mileage, starts at $16,070, with no discounts — but should have higher resale value. That’s not a big deal if you intend to keep the car a long time, but if you trade in after three years, it could outweigh the difference in initial price.

The LT model may be more popular; at $17,130, it adds power locks and windows, center console with armrest, power adjusting exterior mirrors, and head-curtain side airbags. The price difference seems rather high for what you get, though.

The Chevrolet Cobalt XFE is a solid-feeling compact car that is distinguished by quicker than usual acceleration with the five-speed manual transmission; a surprisingly quick Cobalt SS performance version; decent enough mileage with the XFE and manual transmission; and competent cornering. For most buyers the XFE is a good choice versus the “ordinary” Cobalt, providing better mileage without much of a penalty. The usual GM quirks are a nuisance, but owners can learn to live with them over time. Still, and despite having been refreshed, the Cobalt is starting to show its age. For a fun small car the 2009 Aveo has more to recommend it than the Cobalt LS or LT.

The Chevy Cobalt has shortcomings but it remains unique as an inexpensive domestic sedan (actually engineered in the United States) with decent mileage and power, and it might be available at a bargain price with discounts, rebates, and such. Basically a pleasant car, families on a budget, commuters, and those who see a car as transportation would do well to give it a test drive. It’s more likely to please the less-adventurous driver than the Aveo (and has similar gas mileage), and is large enough for most Camry shoppers, while its smaller exterior keeps weight down and gas mileage up. The Cobalt is more comfortable than the pricier Corolla, and just as quiet, with a smoother ride and better seats; the Cobalt is often overlooked, but it remains a strong value.