With the new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged, Chevy has created something truly unique: The sport compact muscle car. By size and specification it's a sport compact, but by temperament and ability it's a good old American muscle car.
The Chevy Cobalt replaces the archaic Chevrolet Cavalier and it's on the same "Delta" front-wheel-drive platform as the Saturn Ion. Chevy, however, uses steel body panels and gives the Cobalt coupe just two doors instead of the Ion Quad Coupe's four. Also like the Saturn Ion, all Cobalts have a MacPherson strut front suspension, a semi-independent torsion beam in the rear and electrically assisted rack and pinion steering.
Although the Chevy Cobalt SS Supercharged shares these basic elements, it's powered by a 205-horsepower, supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder and uses the same five-speed manual as a Saab 9-3. Ordinary Chevy Cobalt coupes and sedans are powered by a normally aspirated 145-hp, 2.2-liter Ecotec backed by a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. And to make things even more confusing, a non-supercharged Cobalt SS model with a normally aspirated 2.4-liter Ecotec will debut in mid-2005 as a 2006 model. It will be available as a coupe or sedan.
Cobalt SS Supercharged models also get four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, an interior with standard leather upholstery and phony metal trim instead of phony wood, a mild body kit, an oversize rear wing and cool-looking 18-inch wheels wrapped in P215/45R18 Pirelli PZero tires. The only significant option is a performance package bundling an effective limited-slip differential with truly great Recaro front seats. Don't buy a Chevy Cobalt SS without them.
Sizewise the Cobalt SS Supercharged, which is only available as a coupe, is barely small. It's 5.1 inches longer and 1.3 inches wider than a Honda Civic Coupe. However, the Cobalt's 103.3-inch wheelbase is just 0.2 inch longer than the Civic's.
At nearly 3,000 pounds the Chevrolet Cobalt SS isn't light either, and it feels heavy on the road. Plus its acceleration is tempered by those big, heavy (25 pounds each) wheels. Chevy says it will trail the Saturn Ion Red Line, which is powered by the same supercharged engine, in the quarter-mile by two-tenths of a second.
To put the muscle car thing in perspective, however, consider that the Cobalt SS Supercharged weighs less than a five-speed 1987 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z, and almost matches the output of the Camaro's 5.0-liter V8. Fact is the Cobalt SS is likely quicker than the IROC, although it'll get spanked by a 230-hp, turbocharged Dodge Neon SRT-4 which costs about the same.
The supercharged Cobalt SS also drives much like that old Camaro, and we mean that as a compliment, mostly. It tracks beautifully, pulls hard through corners and its electric steering has a heavy, numb feel reminiscent of the third-generation F-body. That kind of steering worked in heavy muscle cars cranking Huey Lewis and the News, but the 2005 tuner market wants, and expects, improved feel and feedback.
With its excellent torque down low (its peak is 200 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm), the supercharged Ecotec even feels like a small V8, pulling with authority. It would be nice if it sounded like a V8, but supercharger blower whine has an appeal of its own.
We're also fond of the Cobalt SS' stiff structure, and its firmly tuned suspension that produces a tight ride and flat cornering. On some California mountain roads the Chevy Cobalt SS proved to be an entertaining drive, but there's a bit too much understeer dialed into the chassis. This is partly due to its beam rear suspension, but it's really a balance issue. One look under the hood and you can see how the engine actually sits in front of the axle line, putting too much weight too far forward.
Inside, the Chevy Cobalt SS is straightforward and attractive, but it still suffers from quality lapses in part fitment and plastic casting flash. The dials are easy to read, the AutoMeter supercharger boost gauge is a neat touch and the steering wheel and shift knob are encased in leather. Carrying on the Chevy Camaro tradition, the rear seat is tight.
If Chevy is going to build a mini-muscle machine, it ought to embrace the concept more completely: Drop the vision-blocking rear spoiler in favor of a classic Camaro ducktail and throw on some rally stripes. The $21,995 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged may use parts from around the world but its feel is as American as the Super Bowl. And that is something unique.