The New Muscle Car?
In Chevrolet-speak "SS" means "Super Sport," and it was once a label reserved for the brand's most wicked performance cars. Recently, however, Chevy has slapped SS badges on some real pretenders, namely the latest Impala SS and Monte Carlo SS.
Now GM wants us to believe the new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged is the real deal, a hard-core competitive sport coupe with enough style and muscle to take on the Acura RSX Type-S and Dodge SRT-4. The funny thing is it might just be right.
Making the SS Super
The Cobalt is a radical departure for the world's largest automaker, thanks to stellar fit and finish and a sporty platform.
Its unibody architecture is based on the same Delta platform as the Saturn Ion, but it loses the Saturn's small rear doors, which makes the Cobalt's structure stronger. No squeaks or rattles here.
While standard Cobalt shoppers can choose a coupe or sedan, stick or automatic, the SS Supercharged is only available as a manually shifted two-door. We think Chevy may regret this move as four-door performance cars like the Dodge Neon SRT-4, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX gain momentum in the market.
Firmer springs, performance shocks and thicker anti-sway bars are part of the package, as are 18-inch Pirelli PZero tires, five-spoke alloy wheels and a retune of the electric power steering.
GM's Ecotec four-cylinder gets a serious makeover in the SS. First its displacement was reduced from 2.2 liters to 2.0 liters, then an Eaton Supercharger blowing through an air-to-water intercooler was installed. Other improvements include revised cylinder heads, sodium-filled valves, a forged steel crankshaft and oil-jet cooling for the pistons.
The result is an impressive 1.68 horsepower per cubic inch, or 205 hp and 200 pound-feet of torque. To put things in perspective, a 2004 Corvette Z06 cranks out 1.14 horsepower per cubic inch.
Every Cobalt SS is equipped with a heavy-duty Getrag five-speed manual transmission. A short-throw shifter quickens the shifts, and a steep 4.05-to-1 final drive ratio increases performance off the line. Our test car was also equipped with the G85 Performance Package, which includes a much needed limited-slip differential and sporty Recaro bucket seats.
Finally, the SS Supercharged is equipped with larger vented disc brakes and performance brake pads for improved stopping power.
Cleaner Is Better
We like the Cobalt's sleek lines. There's a touch of Cavalier mixed in there, but the new car is sleeker and cleaner, like an American compact with European panache.
The two-door Cobalt may look small, but at 180 inches it's more than half a foot longer than its two closest competitors, the Acura RSX Type-S and Dodge SRT-4.
The SS model gets attractive 18-inch alloy wheels, along with unique front and rear bumpers, lower rocker panels and sleek color-keyed side mirrors. And then there's the wing.
The big wing totally demolishes the stealth factor when rolling up to a stoplight next to a tricked-out Honda. It also blocks out the back window, which makes watching for flashing lights while exercising the car's supercharger nearly impossible.
The Cobalt's cockpit is a huge step up from the Cavalier in fit and finish, comfort and ergonomics.
Both dash and door panels are covered in nicely textured plastic that looks upscale. Leather covers the fat steering wheel and shifter knob, and a sleek center stack houses the stereo and climate controls.
An arching instrument cluster provides an excellent view of the giant tachometer and speedometer, and a slick boost gauge is sunk into the A-pillar. Unfortunately there's no oil pressure gauge and the temp gauge is digital, neither of which is conducive to high-performance driving.
Trimmed in black leather with cloth inserts, the Recaro bucket seats look full-race. While the bolstered buckets kept us in place during flat-out slalom runs, they weren't very comfortable on long trips.
As one would expect in a sport compact, the backseat is cramped. With 32.2 inches of rear-seat legroom and 35.7 inches of rear headroom, the SS falls squarely between the RSX and the SRT-4. If you plan on carrying more than one passenger for anything other than trips around town, the four-door Dodge is a better choice.
The Cobalt's trunk is also small and it's accessed by a mail-slot opening.
On the Road
Now that we've gotten all the pesky details out of the way, let's get to the important stuff: how it drives.
The Cobalt SS Supercharged has absolutely explosive power. The little Ecotec is sedate until 3,500 rpm, when the boost kicks in like an afterburner and the front tires scream for mercy. We noted that the boost gauge maxed out at 11 pounds, but we've got no doubt that Chevy's 12-pound claim is accurate once the engine breaks in and loosens up.
Torque steer is a problem in front-wheel-drive cars with power, and the Cobalt SS is no exception. As soon as the boost hits, the steering wheel starts trying to yank itself out of your hands, so finesse and a firm grip are necessary to keep this beast under control.
At the track our test car ran zero to 60 in 7 seconds flat and sprinted the quarter-mile in 15.4 at 97 mph. In comparison, a similarly priced Dodge SRT-4 (which is turbocharged) that we recently tested went zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds and ran the quarter in 14.9 seconds at 94.3 mph.
Out in the real world, the SS nicely balances ride comfort and handling, and it was easy to drive in the slalom with minimal body roll and plenty of torque to pull out of the cones. But our tester could only run through the course at 63 mph, which is well short of the 65.7 mph we recently squeezed out of an Acura RSX Type-S.
Its huge 18-inch tires (the Acura we tested rolled on 17-inchers) just can't make up for the Cobalt's hefty curb weight, dated beam axle rear suspension and numb, feedback-free electric steering.
Although the steering system is supposedly tuned to feel sportier, it actually feels worse than the standard setup. In competing vehicles like the RSX Type-S and SRT-4 you can feel when the car is at its handling limit, but the Cobalt SS is eerily numb at speed.
The Bottom Line
The sport compact field is crowded, and GM has showed up late to the game.
Our $23,000 test car came loaded with every option available, including the Performance Package, XM radio and a power sunroof. A comparable SRT-4 is nearly identical in price, but if you order each vehicle in base trim the Dodge is actually a few hundred dollars cheaper. The high-end Acura RSX Type-S costs about $1,000 more.
Dodge's turbocharged four-door packs superior performance in every category for identical money. However, the Neon is a bit rough around the edges when compared to the Cobalt SS, which is more refined.
Fastest in its class or not, there's no arguing that the Cobalt SS Supercharged is the best Chevrolet compact to come along in decades. Thanks to snarling supercharged performance and a sleek new look, it can wear those SS badges with pride.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
When I worked at Super Street in 1996, the thought of a mainstream automaker putting a supercharger, and obnoxious rear wing, on an economy car before it left the factory was like thinking Porsche might build an SUV or Honda should produce a truck.
Now that hell has officially frozen over I have to say that we've come a long way from the Cavalier Z24. I wish the steering provided better feedback, and I think the shifter could be more precise, but 205 horsepower for $21,500 is darn impressive. It'd be damn impressive if only Dodge wasn't offering 220 horsepower for $20,650. I'm glad to see the domestic companies finally addressing this market. But while both models are fast, neither offers the kind of balance and refinement found on that first Integra Type R, or even the later Focus SVT. For me, I'd either spend a little less and get a used one of those models, or spend a little more and get a WRX.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Here's a car that deserves its SS badges. OK, so it's front drive, but like an old muscle car, this Cobalt demands a sensitive throttle foot if you don't want to sit there and smoke the tires. Once it hooks up, this Cobalt flat-out flies and although the five-speed's shifter was a little rubbery, it still felt good grabbing the gears. Because of all the recent SoCal rains, I didn't get to properly exercise the Cobalt SS, so I really can't assess all-out handling composure, but I still appreciated the well-weighted steering and firm but not harsh ride quality.
With the exception of the front and rear ends, the body doesn't seem a whole lot different from a Cavalier coupe's and the rear spoiler is just overdone. The cabin's materials, for the most part, felt solid and the standard, ultrasupportive Recaro seats get big points in my book.
In short, the Cobalt is a big improvement over the outgoing and mediocre Cavalier. Whether this SS model is better than the Acura RSX Type-S, the upcoming Civic Si coupe or a Scion tC with a supercharger kit is another question. I smell a comparison test
"It's a fun ride, but still not SS material. I have never thought of an SS as a four-cylinder car, and after driving this, I don't think the SS tag belongs on it, maybe if it was a 6-cylinder. If I were Chevrolet, I'd drop the SS tag because nothing they put the emblem on lives up to its name. Maybe they should think about putting it on the Corvette. However my wife loves it, so I'm happy." — Gunsnroses572, November 15, 2004
"I'm a 50-year-old guy that was part of the muscle car era, and have owned SS396 Camaros and SS454 Chevelles. Although this isn't in that category, it is about as close as I've come in recent years. It's fast, fun to drive and doesn't look bad either. The fit and finish is superb! Bravo, Chevy. Favorite features: Supercharger, overall build quality. Suggested improvements: Add more available colors." — PappaC, October 18, 2004
"I love this car, it is awesome. I must admit this is a fun car in every way and the Ecotec engine is QUIET and fast. The Cobalt SS is a little Corvette just like Chevy says in their ads. Suggested improvements: Add a 300-hp version." — william71, November 6, 2004
System Score: 9.0
Components: An ETR AM/FM stereo with CD player and MP3 playback provides a clear signal, and our tester also came equipped with the $325 XM radio option. The head unit is simple to operate, and MP3-specific buttons allow users to sort through file folders on a CD, similar to the way an iPod works. A Pioneer amp sends power to seven Pioneer speakers, including dual front tweeters and subwoofer in the trunk.
Performance: The system sounds amazingly clear, especially considering its standard equipment on a sub-$25K car. We cranked up the erratic sounds of a Mars Volta CD — which usually distorts like crazy in factory stereos — and it sounded clear as a bell. The sub provides a nice touch of bass without going overboard and vibrating the windows, although it is capable of serious pounding if that's your thing.
The XM radio is a must-have feature. It provides CD quality sound and a great selection of tunes. We also love the MP3-specific buttons that allow you to sort through files and folders. Several other manufacturers offer stereos capable of playing MP3s, but this is the first system we've seen in a compact car that gives the driver a chance to get a little more creative with file sorting. Controls on the steering wheel for volume, source and track are also a nice touch.
Best Feature: Clear sound quality and an easy-to-use interface.
Worst Feature: None that we could find.
Conclusion: It's not as perfect as the Lexus Mark Levinson system, but considering this is a standard stereo in a sub-$25K Chevy, it sounds great. Amped Pioneer speakers spread clear, balanced sound through the car, and little tricks like steering wheel controls and a wide range of source options (AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3) make it easy to find something to listen to. — Dan Kahn