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2006 Chevrolet Cobalt review

January 12, 2006 02:22 PM EST | Chevrolet , Coupes , Sedans | Email to Friend | Comments (0)

View large imageThe Cobalt is a big improvement over its Cavalier predecessor, but it's still well behind the class leaders in handling dynamics, interior design, seat comfort and materials quality.

Pros
Strong acceleration with any drivetrain, smooth and quiet ride, solid brakes, good crash test scores.

Cons
Cheap interior plastics, cramped backseat, dire lack of interior storage, dull handling, mediocre fit and finish.

What's New for 2006
A year after its debut, the Chevy Cobalt features an expanded lineup for 2006. Most significant is the addition of a new 171-horsepower SS trim level, which is available on the Cobalt coupe and sedan. Because this would cause confusion with last year's 205-hp supercharged SS coupe, that trim level is now called SS Supercharged. The remaining trim levels are also renamed: the Base trim is now the LS, the former LS is now the LT, and the previous LT sedan is now the LTZ.

Introduction:
Chevrolet is no stranger to the small-car game. In 1981, the GM division unveiled its answer to the growing number of imports hitting the scene, the Cavalier. The philosophy behind the car was simple: Give customers with limited budgets a well-appointed, reliable car that offers a variety of configurations to suit their needs. Unfortunately, Chevrolet pushed the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" idea too far with the Cavalier. Its first major redesign didn't occur until 1995, a whopping 12 years into its life cycle. By the time the car saw some major revisions, the competition had already outclassed it on nearly every level. The 1995 model, though attractively styled, was still saddled with an ancient platform, and suffered from poor chassis dynamics, crash test scores and an overall lack of refinement. Undaunted, Chevy stuck with the Cavy for another decade. Styling tweaks through the years did little to keep the car fresh, but buyers kept coming back as Chevrolet offered generous rebates and incentives. Recent years have been progressively more difficult for Chevy's small car, as larger and larger rebates have been required to maintain sales volume. Clearly, a major change was needed.

The answer was a completely new car for 2005 -- the Cobalt. Chevy is pinning its hopes on the Cobalt to win back small-car buyers accustomed to the first-class accommodations and driving dynamics of cars like the Honda Civic and Mazda 3. Unfortunately, we don't think the Cobalt is quite ready to make a run at the leadership in the economy car segment.

Based on the platform used for the Saturn Ion, the Cobalt features a conservative and uncluttered appearance inside and out. Though we're still not sold on the coupe's quad round taillamps, the overall look should offend no one. Inside, materials quality, styling and comfort are much improved over the Cavalier, but compared to most competitors, the plastics are cheap, the seats are flat and unsupportive, and there's almost no interior storage.

Coupe and sedan body styles are available, with a sporty SS Supercharged coupe filling the top spot with its 205-horsepower engine. Other Cobalts come with a solid-performing 145-hp, 2.2-liter four-cylinder, while a midgrade SS coupe and sedan feature a peppy 171-hp version. The vehicle's stiff structure does wonders for noise and vibration control, and makes for a solid-feeling ride regardless of terrain. Even the doors close with a solid "thunk." And crash protection is very good in front- and side impacts.

Unfortunately, the car's handling characteristics are nothing special. Body roll is excessive around turns, and the electric power steering is slow with little feedback. The SS models feel tighter in the turns but still don't measure up to cars like the Acura RSX and Mazda 3.

If all you want is an inexpensive car that's quick on its feet and quiet on the highway, the Chevrolet Cobalt might satisfy you. But if you're looking for a budget sedan or coupe with a complete package of amenities and sharp handling, you'll want to check out the competition first.

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The Cobalt is available as a two-door coupe or four-door sedan. Coupes come in LS, LT, SS and SS Supercharged trim, while sedans come in LS, LT, LTZ and SS versions. LS models feature a standard CD player, air conditioning, a driver-seat height adjuster, a split-folding rear seat and 15-inch wheels. The LT adds cruise control; power windows, locks and mirrors; keyless entry; upgraded seats; alloy wheels; upgraded interior lighting; and antilock brakes. The LTZ sedan comes with leather seats, a seven-speaker Pioneer sound system, chrome trim and 16-inch alloys. The new-for-'06 SS adds a more powerful engine, sport-tuned suspension, unique fascias, 17-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. The SS Supercharged coupe features a supercharged motor, an even firmer suspension, leather seats with color-keyed inserts, a boost gauge and 18-inch alloys.

Powertrains and Performance:
A 2.2-liter four-cylinder powers LS, LT and LTZ models. With 145 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque, the engine makes the Cobalt one of the faster econoboxes out there. The SS features an even more potent 2.4-liter version with 171 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. The SS Supercharged coupe features a supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for 205 hp, 200 lb-ft of torque and a 7-second 0-60 time. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual with a four-speed automatic available as an option. The automatic is standard on the LTZ, and not available on the SS Supercharged.

Safety:
Antilock brakes are optional on LS models, and standard on all other Cobalts. Full-length side curtain airbags are optional across the board. Each seating position has a three-point seatbelt, and all but LS models can be equipped with OnStar telematics. The Cobalt is one of the few economy cars to earn an "Acceptable" rating from the IIHS for side-impact protection. The IIHS also named it a "Best Pick" for its frontal-offset crash performance, while the NHTSA gave it four stars for the driver and five for the passenger in frontal-impact tests.

Interior Design and Special Features:
Inside, attractive gauges and a full-featured stereo head unit give the Cobalt a modern feel. Still, the design is plain, unless you upgrade to the LTZ and its leather seats and wood grain trim, or one of the SS models, which have faux aluminum trim. Seat comfort is unimpressive, particularly in back where the bench is flat and low.

Driving Impressions:
Choose any of the engines and you'll have ample power for just about any situation. Commuters will enjoy the Cobalt's smooth, quiet ride, but the car's handling is less impressive. The suspension allows too much body roll, and the electric steering is slow with minimal feedback. The SS models offer tighter handling through the turns but still fall short of the class leaders.

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