We come to our first serious corner on Glendora Mountain Road, and the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Coupe delivers the unexpected. It turns into a tight left-hander with the haste and hunger of an import sport compact. Perhaps most surprising of all, it gives the impression of being happy to do it.
Instead of savoring the moment, we get back on the throttle. We hear the euphoric sigh of the turbocharger, followed by a throbbing exhaust note out the back. The sounds are distinct even to the distracted ear, and they refuse to harmonize. It's an old-school touch in a car full of new-school kit, and you realize there's quite a bit going on with the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS.
It's an odd feeling, because with that familiar Chevy face and Pro Stock-size rear wing, you wonder if you're getting behind the wheel of last year's car. But give this 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Coupe an hour of your time on a good road and it takes you somewhere completely different.
Not the Same Old SS
The only hard visual evidence that we're driving a 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS is a set of new 18-by-7.5-inch wheels (0.5 inch wider than before).
Of course, then we go poking around under the Cobalt's hood and find the turbocharger that engineers from the GM Performance Division (GMPD) have secreted away in the back, which replaces the supercharger that used to be under the SS's hood. In addition, the 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder gets continuously variable timing for its intake and exhaust valves this year. This turbocharged, intercooled Ecotec with direct fuel injection is the same engine introduced by the 2008 Chevy HHR SS.
The output gains over the former supercharged Ecotec are substantial. The 2.0-liter turbo develops 260 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at only 2,000 rpm. Compare this to 205 hp at 5,600 rpm and 200 lb-ft of torque way up at 4,000 for the supercharged Ecotec in the '07 Cobalt SS. Larger driveshafts and wheel bearings have been fitted to cope with the upgrade.
EPA estimates say the '08 Cobalt SS gets 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway. The Cobalt SS is available only with a five-speed manual gearbox, and we suspect that the six-speed manual isn't up to the torque loads. The car's final-drive ratio is also taller, now 3.82:1 versus 4.05:1.
I Wanna Go Fast
The people who built the 2008 Chevy Cobalt SS just want to go fast. You can tell, because other than the 2008 Chevrolet HR SS, this is the only car under $25,000 that has launch control.
You pull the Cobalt SS onto the drag strip and switch the stability control into competition mode. At this point, the DIC (GM's awkward way of saying "Driver Information Center") flashes the happy message: "Launch Control." You put the clutch in, select 1st gear and push the gas pedal to the floor. The Cobalt's computer will immediately rev the engine to 5,100 rpm, and all you have to do is work the clutch. But you can't side-step it; you have to release it progressively but quickly. Get it right and the Cobalt SS makes a getaway with enough authority to churn the contents of your stomach.
To ensure the clutch has a shot at surviving the five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty period, the GMPD engineers tell us that they installed the largest, most robust clutch that would possibly fit and even downsized the flywheel to accommodate it. The engineers also did 600 launches on a single test car to verify their work.
For all its entertainment value, launch control is not the quickest way off the line, largely because it can't perfectly match wheelspin to actual surface conditions. Better acceleration numbers are possible with a less dramatic launch between 2,000 and 2,500 rpm that minimizes wheelspin.
Faster Than a Mazdaspeed 3
The 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS uses up just 5.8 seconds accelerating to 60 mph, and it goes through the quarter-mile in 14 seconds flat at 103.6 mph. This is a night-and-day improvement over the supercharged Cobalt SS, which couldn't break 7 seconds for 60 mph and ran a 15.2-second quarter at 95.6 mph. In fact, the '08 Cobalt SS is, for the moment, the quickest car you can buy under $25,000.
Even the Mazdaspeed 3 can't keep pace with this Cobalt, as the two examples we've tested posted quarter-mile times of 14.2 seconds at 100.1 mph and 14.5 at 98.7 mph. The Chevy's main advantage is that it weighs 200 pounds less. Also, you can upshift in the SS without lifting.
We're serious. GMPD created a "No-Lift Shift" software algorithm that kicks in when you're at full throttle and press in the clutch. It manipulates the engine's variable cam phasing and retards the ignition timing so the cylinder contents burn later in the cycle than they usually would, creating more energy to help the turbocharger maintain boost.
You have 3/10ths of a second to complete your shift while maintaining 95-100 percent throttle; otherwise, you experience a normal upshift with an interruption in boost. Our hottest shoes can execute a gearchange in half this time, so it's not hard to meet the time limit.
One Notch Down From Full Kill
Handling is the other half of the story about the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS, which marks a shift in thinking for the chassis engineers at GM. This midcycle makeover represents a joint effort with Opel Performance Center (OPC), the tuner division of Opel that created the Astra VXR, and the upshot is that GMPD recalibrated the damping. There's more compression damping than before, but the rebound damping hasn't been dialed up a commensurate amount, so the car feels far more supple in the European style.
You feel this immediately in the '08 SS. The suspension doesn't isolate you from the corners, but instead lets you feel them while dispatching them in a controlled fashion. No matter how or where we drive this Chevrolet Cobalt, it feels highly composed but never harsh. The fact that we're saying this about a car with a torsion-beam rear suspension makes it all the more remarkable.
Roll stiffness has been increased by about 30 percent on the 2008 Cobalt SS, too, largely thanks in part to revised steering knuckles that change the front suspension geometry to raise the roll center — this effectively makes for a stiffer front end. Other upgrades include new lower control arms, stiffer antiroll bars, revised coil spring rates and wider 225/40R18 Continental ContiSportContact 2 tires.
While fine-tuning the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS, GMPD chassis engineers kept a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII around the garage. They describe that car as "always being on full kill." The plan was to make this Cobalt "one notch down from full kill."
Show Us Your Numbers
Our Cobalt has the optional Torsen-type limited-slip differential (an absolute must with this much torque), and it works quite well with the car's standard brake-lock differential. Understeer is inevitable if you dive into a corner too hot, but it no longer defines the character of the Cobalt SS.
The 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS is nearly 2 mph quicker through the slalom than the old model, averaging 69.2 mph. The last Mazdaspeed 3 we tested went through at 69.3 mph, while the Saturn Astra, which shares the Cobalt's chassis but not its power, manages 69.1 mph. There's little difference in skid pad performance between the new SS and the old: 0.89g versus 0.87g. Here again, the Mazdaspeed 3 and Astra turn in numbers that are nearly identical to this.
Steering remains electric on the 2008 SS, and GMPD has quickened the steering ratio to 14.8:1. Really, you can't even tell it's electric, and we mean that in a good way.
Even the Cobalt's brakes impress us. The rotors are an inch larger front and rear on the '08 SS, and the rear discs are now vented instead of solid. And you can't miss the four-piston Brembo calipers up front. There's still a dead zone at the top of the pedal travel, but the pedal firms up nicely during harder efforts. Our best 60-to-0 stop at the test track is 115 feet. We've measured a Mazdaspeed 3 as short as 113.
Here's the Problem: Looks Matter
We can't stop talking about how well the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Coupe drives. GMPD has made up serious ground in the sport-compact wars with the 2008 Chevy Cobalt SS. This car is quicker than a Mazdaspeed 3. And the price difference is all of $20.
This is when we feel a twinge of sadness. The Cobalt SS has become a surprisingly cool car, but cool kids aren't going to give it a chance. The SS is stuck in a Cavalier-style body that just doesn't resonate with them. Poor interior packaging and down-market furnishings make it worse.
A full-blown Chevrolet Cobalt SS sedan is coming for 2009, and we expect that body style will prove more popular. But if it were up to us, we'd put all this stuff on the five-door Saturn Astra. Call it a VXR. Call it a Red Line. Either way, it'll outsell the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS coupe.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Engineering Editor Jay Kavanagh says:
The badge on the Cobalt SS's rump proclaims "Turbocharged," but that's a bit misleading. Not because it doesn't have a happy spinny thing in the exhaust system, but instead because the bigger news is the revised handling. The previous Cobalt SS Supercharged had little problem making solid numbers at the test track, but I was no fan of that car's hopelessly insipid driving character.
With the Turbocharged model, there's even more sauce under the Cobalt SS's hood than before. And who doesn't like that? Yet more significant is the fact that this additional power hasn't turned the Cobalt SS into a tire-spinning, understeering mess. On the contrary, great handling has transformed the SS from chump to champ. The damping and steering ratio are spot-on, and even while at full chat on Buttonwillow International Raceway, the chassis is always with you, responding quickly to the throttle to gently rotate the tail in fast corners even as it allows you to claw out of low-speed turns with terrific speed. The Cobalt SS is now an eager participant in the proceedings, rather than a reluctant tag-along.
Of course, this car lacks the polished integration of some of the other cars in its class and its interior is a nightmare, but there's only one car that has a hope of keeping up with the Cobalt SS Turbocharged on, well, any road you can think of. And that car, of course, is the Mazdaspeed 3. I suspect there would be blood.