Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Fuel economy. It's on everyone's mind and the guys at Chevy want you to know it's on theirs, too. So once you equip the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt LS sedan with a five-speed manual transmission, it becomes the XFE — eXtra Fuel Economy.
The Cobalt XFE is part of GM's quick response to changing buyer preferences caused by the recent rise in fuel prices, and this same badge is being applied to more models in GM's lineup like the Pontiac G5 XFE and the yet-to-be-released, Chevy-Aveo-based Pontiac G3 XFE.
After all, who can resist extra fuel economy?
Your Mileage May Vary The base-model 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt LS sedan with the 2.2-liter Ecotec inline-4 engine and five-speed manual transmission promises 25 mpg in city driving, 37 mpg on the highway and a combined average of 30 mpg. This highway rating puts the Cobalt in a three-way tie for the most fuel-efficient subcompact on the market, alongside the Mini Cooper Clubman and Pontiac G5 XFE. Use the 25-mpg city rating as the criterion and the Cobalt XFE is in an eight-way tie for 5th place.
As the base model in the Cobalt lineup, the $15,670 LS is powered by a 155-horsepower DOHC 2.2-liter inline-4 with variable valve timing. Its fuel tank will hold 13.2 gallons of regular gas, taking you (theoretically) to a cruising range of 488 highway miles.
To bring home this kind of fuel economy, the Cobalt combines tall gearing (to keep the engine running at low rpm), low-rolling-resistance tires and ECU software that favors lean-burn engine combustion. There's also a telltale light on the instrument panel that illuminates between 2,000 and 2,500 rpm, a measure that is meant to inspire you to get better fuel economy by changing to a taller gear.
Though we followed the advice of the shift light almost exclusively over the course of a thousand miles, we achieved a worst tank of 22 mpg, a best tank of 29 mpg and an overall average of 25 mpg. Ever since the EPA's new testing rules went into effect this year, it's been uncommon for our overall average to fall short of the EPA's combined figure, but it did this time.
What You Get Unlike some other fuel sippers emblazoned with all manner of stickers and badges, the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt is unassuming, a traditional American sedan. It doesn't broadcast your frugality or announce your desire to lessen your dependence on foreign sources of oil. It looks just like any other Cobalt sedan you might encounter in an airport rental lot. If this sort of anonymity appeals to you, well, there it is.
The Cobalt LS XFE also gives you rental-spec cloth-covered seats (the driver seat is height-adjustable) and 60/40-split-folding rear seatbacks that don't quite go all the way flat. Curtain-type side airbags and a one-year subscription to OnStar are standard. An above-average audio system accommodates CD/MP3 with an aux jack and XM Satellite Radio. Finally, 15-inch steel wheels with rattling hubcaps and low-rolling-resistance P195/60R15 tires round out the package.
Our car came with three options: $180 Protection Package (floor mats and body-colored side moldings), $400 antilock brake system (must have) and $75 spare wheel and space-saver spare tire. The as-tested total is $16,325 which seems fair, although you'll notice this is a very competitive class, with 13 other 2009 cars with base MSRPs under $17,000, many of which seem to us to be better equipped or available with a wider array of options.
What you don't get includes an automatic transmission, power windows, power door locks, keyless remote, power mirrors, telescoping steering wheel, power seats, leather seats, seatback pockets, map lights, cruise control and electronic traction or stability control, and standard antilock brakes.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road Our ABS-equipped 2,800-pound Cobalt ate up 146 feet coming to a stop from 60 mph, or between 10 and 25 feet more than comparably equipped cars in its class. Subsequent stops ranged from 150-155 feet. These distances aren't acceptable even for full-size trucks. We attribute the Cobalt's subpar performance to those hard, skinny, low-rolling-resistance tires, plus rear drum brakes that produce an ABS cycle that is very slow.
As you'd expect, the Continental TouringContact AS tires also affect the Cobalt's handling. Around the skid pad, the Chevy achieves a decent 0.76g orbit and a wild-and-woolly 61.7-mph slalom pass. The Cobalt XFE is one of those rare front-drive cars that understeers relentlessly on the skid pad, yet threatens to spin while making the quick turning transitions of the slalom test. A confidence-inspiring car, it is not.
Good Powertrain The engine and manual transmission are perhaps the best things about the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt. The 155 hp from this 2.2-liter Ecotec might seem modest, but the 150 pound-feet of torque is not. It helps produce a run to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds (8.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) on the way to a quarter-mile of 16.4 seconds at 86.3 mph. Not too shabby for a car that can earn up to 37 mpg. In relative terms, the Cobalt will smoke a Prius or Civic Hybrid in a contest of speed.
The action of the Cobalt's shift lever is particularly direct and cares not if it was being shifted at leisure for economy or rushed at the test track. In either case, the clutch uptake at the pedal was very intuitive and helped make possible the low-rpm upshifts prescribed by the shift light.
On the Highway Whatever the road surface, the Cobalt XFE rides as smoothly as a midsize car. It offers good isolation without the usual maritime sensation, a measure of the long-travel Premium Ride suspension that Chevy specifies for the XFE. Road noise is an issue, especially on grooved or grainy roads where the din of the tires is obvious. On the other hand, wind noise is moderate, even in cross winds.
Unfortunately, steering feel is a casualty in the name of economy. As we've observed in the four-cylinder Chevy Malibu, GM's version of an electric-assist power steering rack might improve fuel economy, but it does little to deliver natural steering effort. We hesitate to use the trite video-game analogy, but it fits here.
Infuriating Nostalgia Times have changed, and it's a lot harder for us to live with an economy car than it used to be. To lock the doors, you have to use the plungers on the passenger doors and the key in the driver door. From the driver seat, we realized we couldn't roll down the passenger window. The driver's window crank got noticeably bound up and became harder to rotate when the window was about halfway up.
Also, a parent unable to deal with unrequited requests from the child seat for lowered windows had better plan ahead with other means of quelling fresh-air-starved youth who are used to windows that go down with the touch of a button. Oh, and you had better set your manually adjusted passenger-side mirror before heading out into the world.
As far as fit and finish goes, the Cobalt has none of it. We're sorry to say that from the first day we had the car, its hubcaps buzzed and rattled with every road reflector and driveway entrance. Body panel gaps are large enough to actually see the scissor hinges when the trunk is closed. The metallic paint showed several spots of orange peel plus uneven application. And there's that wrinkly pinch weld running the length of both running boards that we haven't seen since, well, window cranks went away.
This car really is a throwback to a bygone era. How did we ever survive the 1970s? We must've had so much more time and patience.
Aftertaste We'd like to say that all these shortcomings are petty nitpicks that should be overlooked for the price and economy that's gained with the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt LS XFE, but the price isn't that compelling and the economy proved elusive. In this burgeoning era where small cars are now offered with some or all the features and conveniences previously found on cars farther up the ladder, the Chevy Cobalt is behind the times if the XFE is any measure.
Instead we have to look ahead. At, for example, the 2010 Ford Fiesta, a vehicle that acknowledges that small cars are the next big thing. We'll have to wait at least until 2011 for the Cobalt's replacement, the Chevrolet Cruze, which will be GM's serious subcompact import fighter. For now, the Cobalt remains a rolling compromise.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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