What's New for 2008
Last year's Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged model has been discontinued, but a midyear replacement arrives in the form of the turbocharged 2008 Cobalt SS coupe. Stability control is now optional on the LT trim and standard on the new Sport and SS trims, while traction control is standard on models equipped with an automatic transmission and optional antilock brakes. Full-length side curtain airbags are now standard on all Cobalts, as is satellite radio. As a midyear update, LS and LT models equipped with the five-speed manual transmission are dubbed "XFE," indicating adjusted engine calibration, lower-rolling-resistance tires and a consequent fuel-economy improvement of 1 mpg city and 3 mpg highway.
Introduced a few years ago as a replacement for the geriatric Cavalier, the Chevrolet Cobalt presents a much more modern entry in the economy-car segment. Improvements over the Cavalier in the areas of performance, ride quality, cabin materials and crash tests should have strengthened the position of Chevy's compact sedan and coupe. However, saying the 2008 Cobalt is a much better car than the Cavalier is like comparing potential vacation spots to Bangladesh. Quite simply, the Cobalt cannot challenge the compact car segment leaders, including a certain Astra-nomical new entry from GM's own Saturn brand.
Don't get us wrong. The 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt has a few things going for it. The new turbocharged SS coupe is a strong performer, while even the base and Sport models provide peppy performance and a quiet ride. Chevy has also increased the amount of available safety equipment for 2008. And an extensive roster of dealer-installed options like a performance exhaust system and ground effects allow more personalization than most competitors. But buyers in this class are typically more interested in overall quality and a comfortable cabin than a snarling exhaust or racy body styling. For instance, compared to the interiors of the Honda Civic or Saturn Astra, the Cobalt's design seems rather bland and its materials are low-grade. Seat comfort is another area where the Cobalt generally falls short, although the SS model's sport seats are first-rate.
For 2008, Chevrolet was forced to discontinue the SS Supercharged model and its 205-horsepower engine for emissions-related reasons. The regular SS model has also been dropped, although the new Sport trim shares the same larger 2.4-liter four-cylinder, sportier suspension tuning and snazzier styling cues. But the real news on the performance front is the introduction of the turbocharged 260-hp Cobalt SS coupe, as it boasts some of the best performance available in this segment. Also new is the XFE model, which is essentially a snazzy name for the LS and LT trim levels when they come equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Recalibrating the engine and adding lower-rolling-resistance tires provides a fuel-economy improvement of 3 mpg highway.
This new SS is indeed pretty special, but the rest of the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt lineup suffers in comparison to compact cars like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer and Scion tC. If you're zeroed in on a compact car from General Motors, the new Saturn Astra is a vastly better two- or four-door compact that boasts European-tuned handling, superior interior materials and a more premium feel throughout.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt is available in compact sedan and coupe body styles, each split into LS, LT and Sport trim levels, while the Cobalt SS is a coupe-only model for 2008. Standard features on the LS include 15-inch steel wheels, front disc/rear drum brakes, air-conditioning, a tilt steering wheel, a 60/40-split rear seat, a trip computer and a four-speaker stereo with CD/MP3 player, satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack. The LT adds 16-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, keyless entry, upgraded front seats and a front center armrest. On top of that, the 2LT Package adds cruise control and OnStar. With 2LT, you can also get foglamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a seven-speaker upgraded sound system and a Performance Appearance Package that adds snazzier styling elements inside and out. The Sport trim includes all of those features as standard, and adds 17-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes. Optional on the LT and Sport are a sunroof, remote ignition, leather upholstery and an in-dash six-CD changer. Finally, the SS coupe adds 18-inch wheels, an exclusive sport-tuned suspension, Brembo front brakes, unique exterior and interior styling cues, sport seats and a turbo boost gauge. Options include the sunroof, a limited-slip differential and a rear spoiler. A Cobalt SS sedan is in the works for the 2009 model year.
Powertrains and Performance
A 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine powers LS and LT models. With 145 hp, 155 pound-feet of torque and a broad power band, that engine makes the Cobalt one of the faster economy cars available. The standard transmission for LS and LT models is a five-speed manual, with a four-speed automatic available as an option. The base manual is badged the XFE, which indicates its extra fuel economy. As is, the XFE gets 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined. The automatic-equipped LS and LT achieve 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined.
The Cobalt Sport features a more potent 2.4-liter version with 171 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is standard with the Sport, while a four-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy for this model is 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined with the automatic. (The manual yields 1 mpg better combined.) The SS is propelled by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four that pumps out 260 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The SS can only be had with a five-speed manual. Fuel economy is 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined.
Full-length side curtain airbags are standard on all Cobalts. Antilock brakes are optional on the LS and LT, and standard on the Sport. Stability control is also optional on the LT and standard on the Sport. ABS-equipped models with automatic transmissions come equipped with standard traction control. In frontal government crash tests, both Cobalt body styles received four out of five stars for driver protection and a perfect five stars for passenger protection. In side impacts, the Cobalt sedan got only three stars for front seat passengers and five stars for the rear. The Cobalt coupe yielded four stars for the front and rear seats. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset crash test, the Cobalt sedan received the highest score of "Good." In the IIHS side crash test, the Cobalt sedan received the second-highest score of "Acceptable." Fleet buyers should note that Cobalts sold to fleets do not come standard with side curtain airbags -- without the side airbags, the Cobalt scored the lowest "Poor" rating in the IIHS side test.
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, attractive gauges and a full-featured stereo head unit give the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt a modern feel. Still, the design is plain unless you upgrade to the Performance Appearance Package or the Sport or SS trims with their snazzier details. Interior materials quality is also very disappointing, even at this modest price level. Seat comfort is unimpressive, especially in back where the bench is flat and low. The SS model's front sport seats, though, are so good that they remind us of the Recaro seats in the old SS Supercharged, even though they're made by GM's performance division this time around.
Both the 2.2-liter engine and the 2.4-liter mill provide ample power for just about any situation. Commuters will enjoy the 2008 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 Sport model's sport-tuned suspension improves things somewhat with tighter handling through the turns, but still falls short of the class leaders.
It's only in SS trim that the Cobalt comes into its own as a legitimate driver's car. Acceleration is impressive -- Chevrolet says the SS will sprint from zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds -- and braking and handling are top-notch. The Cobalt SS may not be the most refined sport compact on the market, but we can't argue with its performance, which rivals that of pint-sized powerhouses like the Mazda 3.