High fuel economy for a non-hybrid, powerful engine for the segment, quiet ride, surprisingly precise shifter.
Low-rolling-resistance tires compromise handling and braking, vague steering feel.
Desperation isn't pretty, especially not the kind of desperation you feel when your tank is running on fumes and there's no filling station in sight. You do what you can to limp the car to the next fuel stop, and inevitably, thoughts like "Why didn't I think of this earlier?" haunt you. Perhaps it's this sort of situation that led GM to develop the 2009 Chevy Cobalt XFE. After a long period of placing fuel-efficiency low on its priorities, Chevy finds itself in a pinch. Lacking a readily available vehicle to challenge hybrid stalwarts like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, it needed something to offer the fuel-conscious driver. However, the XFE (for eXtra Fuel Economy) has become more of a Band-Aid approach rather than a reputable high-mileage contender.
With the Cobalt-replacing 2011 Chevy Cruze and the all-electric Volt a few years away, GM needed that Band-Aid. Instead of dropping a highly efficient hybrid drivetrain under the hood of a Cobalt, the engineers opted for a list of readily available tweaks that included low-rolling-resistance tires, taller gearing, revised engine software and a shift light that prompts the driver to shift for optimal fuel economy.
After all of this, the 2009 Chevy Cobalt XFE only manages to eke out a measly 2-mpg improvement over the base Cobalt, which is already one of the more fuel-efficient cars you can buy. Though the fuel savings are miniscule, they come at a notable price: lack of performance from the low-rolling-resistance tires. In the end, its unimpressive tires, coupled with its very slight fuel savings, make it hard to recommend the XFE over any other gas-sipper — including a more well-appointed Cobalt.
Our 2009 Chevy Cobalt XFE test vehicle came with the standard 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission driving the front wheels — the only configuration available for XFE variants. As with all Cobalts — SS models notwithstanding — the engine produces 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque.
In testing, we managed to accelerate to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, which is on the quick side for cars in this class. Fuel economy, which is perhaps the only reason the XFE exists, comes in at an EPA-estimated 25/37 mpg on the city/highway and 30 in combined driving — which is excellent, considering the Honda Civic gets 1 mpg less. Under our heavier-than-average right feet, we only managed a 25-mpg average. When comparing the XFE's mileage to the standard Cobalt LS's 25/35 mpg rating, the sacrifices hardly seem worth it.
Although power output for the vast majority of economy cars ranges from barely detectable to adequate, the Cobalt's engine was surprisingly peppy, with power spread evenly from idle to its buzzy 6,750-rpm redline. However, if you're trying to squeeze as many miles as possible from each gallon, you will rarely see revs above 4,000. As with the rest of the Cobalt line, the XFE's engine noise is subdued — even more so if you shift when the ultraconservative, cog-shaped shift light recommends (usually between 2,500 and 3,000 rpm).
As expected, the Cobalt XFE is not adept at handling aggressive maneuvers. Much of the performance lag is due to the low-rolling-resistance tires that screech loudly in protest, even under moderate cornering. When pushed harder, the car exhibits a healthy amount of understeer, with oversteer constantly looming should the driver require a sudden change in direction. Our biggest concern in regards to the tires was braking — the lack of grip combined with rear drum brakes required 146 feet to stop the XFE from 60 mph, more than some full-size SUVs we've tested.
Steering is light, perhaps too light, thanks to the electric power steering. Little feedback makes its way back to the driver, making it feel more like steering a Fisher-Price vehicle than a real one.
Despite the mechanical and performance gripes, our 2009 Chevy Cobalt XFE impressed us with its quiet cabin and fairly smooth ride — something we've come to expect from the entire Cobalt line. The compliant suspension absorbed flaws in the road with little difficulty or drama, and on the highway, wind noise was pleasantly abated.
Although the seats remind many of us of the 1980s with their flat form and featureless fabric, comfort is still decent. Even on extended road trips, the cushions provided adequate padding and support. Seat adjustments for the driver are limited to fore/aft, seat rake and seat height. Rear seating is slightly less comfortable, with lower and flatter seats.
Because our XFE was delivered in only the most basic of Cobalt trim levels, expectations should be kept in check. Hand-cranked windows, manually adjustable mirrors, no keyless entry (in fact, no power locks at all) and no cruise control all contribute to this Cobalt's bargain basement rental car feel. On the bright side, the manual shifter was particularly pleasing, with gates easily found and a positive feel. The clutch was similarly satisfying as well, with a light touch and intuitive engagement.
If you've driven any other contemporary GM car, the XFE's controls should feel eerily familiar. The Cobalt's rubberized steering wheel, switches, knobs and gauges are identical to other products in the General's lineup, which is not entirely a bad thing. The gauges are easy to read and the radio and climate controls are simple enough to operate with a minimum of fuss. The CD/MP3 sound system, aided by the quiet cabin, delivers enough clarity and range to make a long trip less tedious, plus the addition of satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack further enhance the entertainment options.
Storage for the 2009 Chevy Cobalt XFE is generous. At 13.9 cubic feet, the trunk easily holds two golf bags and a large suitcase. Making use of the 60/40-split fold-down rear seats adds even more cargo versatility, even though the seats do not fold completely flat. Trunk lift-over height is low, but the opening is hampered by the taillight cutaways that impede loading wider items.
Design/Fit and Finish
From all outward appearances, our XFE looked essentially identical to the base Chevrolet Cobalt LS sedan, except for a subtle XFE badge under the right taillight. Both exterior and interior designs were generic and bland and in need of an immediate makeover. Interior materials are about as bargain-basement as we've seen in awhile, made up of hard plastic elements. Gaps between the panels are uneven, even by econobox standards, emitting groans and squeaks when operated or pressed. The Cobalt's age is the culprit here, as it hails from a period when Chevy's interiors were dismal; recently redesigned vehicles like the Malibu have improved greatly in this regard.
Who should consider this vehicle
Buyers so fiercely loyal to the Chevrolet brand that they have bowtie logo tattoos, and who are looking to save every drop of fuel. Most other compact-car shoppers would be better served by almost any of its competitors. Taking into account the XFE's performance sacrifices and its minimal fuel savings, even a non-XFE 2009 Chevy Cobalt makes more sense to us.