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AMR Review: 2005 Chevy Cobalt - Feelin' Blue

The Background
If you've noticed, the Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire have soldiered on for eons relatively unchanged. The cars got the short end of the stick while GM focused its small car dollars on establishing Saturn. Then, when they finally got a chance to redo the cars (and create the Sunfire from the Sunbird), they, well, didn't do such a great job. They created a cheap car that still needed heavy discounts to sell, and still never quite seemed like a good bargain. Before the big rebate days, GM was losing $2,500 per car due to inefficient procurement, production and operations. While they pretty much fixed the profitability of the old car (can you give them credit? After all, they had around a decade to get it right), they never made it appealing. They did put in the effort, especially with the Cavalier, but the underlying car was so bad that no amount sprucing up could help. GM saw this, and also saw how much of the brand they had destroyed with the massive rebates on the twins, and thus made a big decision. After about 20 years, the Cavalier name would be retired, and the Pontiac twin canceled. GM knew they needed to replace the cars, but that just bringing out a new Cavalier would never cut it. Enter the Cobalt. New name, new platform, new car that is leaps and bounds beyond the Cavalier. Problem is, the Cavalier was so bad, I'm not sure that being leaps and bounds beyond it is really good enough. Read on and see if you agree.

The Packaging
The Cobalt comes in sedan and coupe forms, like the Cavalier, but GM gave the two pretty distinctive styling in both the front and rear ends. They both measure 103.3" long, but the sedan runs on two tenths less wheelbase than the coupe (108.5"). With the same track (67.9"), the sporty-looking coupe comes in with over an inch and a half less height (55.5" vs. 57.1"), yet somehow has two tenths more front headroom than the sedan (38.7" vs 38.5").

Engine choices are a 2.2L normally aspirated Ecotec DOHC 4 banger, or a 2.0L supercharged unit (like in the Saturn Ion, with which the Cobalt shares its Epsilon platform). Power is 145 hp and 155 lb-ft of torque for the 2.2 and 205 hp and 200 lb-ft for the supercharged unit. These are great numbers for this class, making the Cobalt a competitor for the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec-V and Neon SRT-4, at least in terms of power. It is also a competitor for the Saturn Ion, including the hot Red Line version of the Ion Quad Coupe.The Looks
The Coupe features four round tail lamps coming out of the rear a bit in hopes of evoking thoughts of the Corvette. This was a great move in a marketing/positioning sense, though I can't say it looks great in person. The issue here being the quality of the seams and how the lights come out. It just looks as if the fabricators are still learning about how to turn metal and integrate plastic. Something is just off, especially in person. In the commercials, though, the look is much better, and the Cobalt 'little sibling' is cheeky and cute next to its big brother Corvette. The two clearly look related.

The sedan doesn't look that bad in photos, and has yet to be featured in TV spots, at least in the Northeast market. The front end is distinct from that of the coupe, and the rear has lights that are closer to those of the Dodge Neon than the Cobalt Coupe. They're actually quite nice. If you ignore the heinous C-pillar, the car looks classier and more substantial than the Cavalier ever did. Unfortunately, though, the C-pillar is very awkward looking, and cheapens up the shape of the car. The bumpers aren't sculpted in such a way to give the car a feeling of substance or class, and this also cheapens the car. However, the most damaging aspect really only comes out in person. The cut line between the rear end and the fender is high, large, long, and very poorly integrated into the shape of the car. The first time I saw the car in person, it was an odd brownish color, and the rear quarter of the car took on two colors, one on either side of the joint between the panels. I just don't understand the logic here. Why put a huge joint that high up when you can't get your panels to assume the same angle? You get odd light refraction that makes the car look like it was in an accident and poorly repainted. To be sure, some makers use high cut lines as accent touches, but they make damn sure their panels have the same angles or take on explicitly different ones so that onlookers never assume there was a production mistake on that car or bad body work at play.

When I heard that the Cobalt would be competing with the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza and friends, I laughed. This car almost looks like it can do it in photos. Now I'm not one to put much faith in what marketers and artists can do to evoke buyer interest. I decide to find out for myself just how well this car stacks up. I went out and grabbed a Cobalt from a local dealer. Here's where I really started to have issues with the car, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The interior looks so much better than the Cavalier's, and really better than most Chevrolets right now. The Malibu has a brand new interior, yet it is nowhere near as good as the Cobalt's. For those who know me, you know I am picky about steering wheels. GM doesn't do well here in my eyes, but the Cobalt's doesn't look all that bad. It's bland and traditional, but not as ugly or dumpy as other GM wheels. That's all that matters. Where the car really excels inside is with the stereo. It looks clean and lacks all of that bulbous gray plastic GM typically uses on its stereos. To be sure, the HVAC and stereo controls look great, and feel quite good. I don't know if Delphi has turned a new leaf since they've branched out into consumer electronics and learned a thing or two, or if GM has specified better looking and feeling stuff, but they've really done well here. And the thing plays MP3s, too. XM satellite radio is available, as well.

No Competition
Usually, that phrase is a good thing, but not here. The Cobalt is not a competitor for the great Corolla, Mazda3 (amazing car), the Sentra or anything else from any competitor, really. The closest might be the Dodge Neon, but I'd take the Neon over the Cobalt, and the Neon is like 6 years old. Why? It's roomier, looks better (in my opinion), and handles better. The same can be said for pretty much any competitor. The Cobalt just doesn't feel as good or as substantial. There is a fine interior when compared to the Cavalier and to other GM products (it's actually quite good for a GM vehicle), but it still isn't good enough. Fake wood has no place in this class. It looks fake as can be, and we all know its fake when used in this class of vehicle. The only time faux wood works is when it fools you. Even real wood would come off fake in this class, and especially in the Cobalt. I will say the Cobalt can possibly compete with the Koreans (Kia Spectra and Hyundai Elantra), but those cars are better values (amazing warranties), and there's a new Elantra on the horizon, so don't bet on the Cobalt staying competitive.

Where the Cobalt does well is in the pricing. It is more expensive than the Cavalier, but I can't say I felt it was unfairly priced when I saw it. The Coupe comes in three trim levels: Base, LS (both 1A and 1B), and SS Supercharged. They come in at $14,190, $16,485/$17.080 and $21,995 respectively. The sedan is the same with the Base and two LS versions, but currently has an LT version instead of the SS (an SS version is to follow for the sedan later in 2005). The LT runs at $18,760. For both cars, the base runs on 15" steel wheels, while the LS moves to 16" aluminum rims, with the 1B package adding a sports package. The SS runs on 18" aluminum rims, while the LT keeps the LS's 16" units, but adds leather. The SS also has a boost gauge to monitor the supercharger. I do think $500 or so off the sticker would have been more appropriate, but the car wasn't a bad value per se. Unfortunately, while GM hoped to avoid rebates on the Cobalt, they're giving them on all of their cars, so the Cobalt isn't safe. The result is that all the effort put into the new name and positioning is being hurt by brand-destroying rebates.

The Final Review
What can I say? The car is pretty well priced, pretty well packaged, and, well, that's about it. The interior is better, and good for GM, but that doesn't mean its good enough. The styling is bland, and has too many signs of inexperienced designers, engineers or stampers. I have a feeling none of the people working on the Cobalt were inexperienced, so this is inexcusable. I'm actually surprised Bob Lutz allowed this car to come out, though perhaps it was too late for him to do much.

What has come out is really a competitor for the Saturn Ion sedan and Quad Coupe. That's not a good thing. The Saturns really cannot compete with anything they're put up against (maybe in Red Line form against the vanilla versions of its competitors' cars). The last thing GM needs is for its struggling Saturn unit's volume car to be directly challenged by its platform-mate. And the same goes for the Cobalt. The only car that might honestly be considered in the same breath is the Ion. Sure, GM gets the money either way, but wouldn't it be better if they could get the sale at the expense of one of their competitors rather than themself?

I wish I could love this car, but I can't. It could have been different. GM, if you're listening, I'm available for consultations on the next Cobalt. That is, if you decide to make another one, and I don't think you should.


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