With a 2005 debut, the Cobalt was two years behind the Saturn Ion despite sharing GM's front-drive Delta small-car platform. Chevy used the extra time to pen more-orthodox styling and improve refinement.
Helping the latter was the use of sound-deadening "Quiet Steel" for some body panels -- no Saturn plastic skin here -- and some evident attention to engine mounts and similar details. Of course, the engines themselves were also shared: workhorse 2.2-liter Ecotec for base and LS sedans and coupes, and a 171-hp 2.4 for sporty SS models added as early '06s.
A genuine eye-opener was Cobalt's Supercharged SS coupe, Chevy's lob at the fast-growing "sport compact" youth market. This delivered a class-competitive 205 bhp from a blown 2.0-liter Ecotec, plus mandatory five-speed manual gearbox, standard 18-inch wheels (vs. 16s or 17s), appropriate chassis upgrades including rear disc brakes (shared with regular SSs), plus a high-flying rear spoiler and other racy exterior add-ons.
Supercharged buyers were well advised to order the $1500 Performance Package for its limited-slip differential, a near-necessity for controlling the front wheels under power. Its genuine Recaro seats and trendy A-pillar-mount instruments (including a boost gauge) were just a bonus.
All Cobalts offered the safety of optional curtain and front side airbags, plus OnStar and satellite radio. A luxury-oriented LTZ sedan with standard automatic, heated leather seats, and premium audio highlighted an otherwise stand-pat 2006 season.
All this marked a change in Chevy's small-car strategy. With the imported Aveo catering to price-conscious shoppers, Cobalt was pitched one rung higher as a "premium" subcompact with world-class fit-and-finish, performance, and features -- or so Chevy said.
Refreshingly, the cars lived up to that claim on the road. From the sedate LS sedan to the eager Supercharged SS, Chevy had finally produced worthy alternatives to the likes of Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics.
Consumer Guide® bestowed its Recommended ribbon on Cobalt as a "pleasant, solid, well-equipped compact with many appealing features…If you can live with subpar rear-seat room and comfort, Cobalt merits a look." A good many buyers also liked it: nearly 161,000 for model-year '05 -- encouraging in that annus horribilus for old GM.
The jury is still out on three 2006 models, but all suggest that Chevy is once again dead-serious about building truly desirable cars.
Perhaps the shakiest of the three in terms of longevity is also, unsurprisingly, the trendiest, the Cobalt-based HHR wagon. The initials stand for "Heritage High Roof," a veiled reference to styling allegedly in the mold of Chevy's circa-1950 Suburban wagon.
The resemblance may be strained, but there is no mistaking Chevy's intent: a youth-oriented "lifestyle accessory" in the mold of Chrysler's retro-look PT Cruiser, which still sold respectably in its sixth season. Celebrated GM product czar Robert Lutz bridled at that comparison, but some journalists couldn't help but see the HHR as a "Me-Too Cruiser."
Still, imitation is flattery, sincerely meant or not, and the HHR, as Consumer Guide® observed, was no less "a practical blend of look-at-me style and utility in a not-too-large package." Handling wasn't the best, and neither was performance with the Cobalt's mainstream 2.2- and 2.4-liter fours, even with a standard five-speed manual transmission.
But the HHR was well-equipped for its mid-teens base prices, and all the right safety, convenience, and appearance options were available, yet wouldn't much damage your pocketbook. Not one of Chevy's best efforts, perhaps, but a welcome sign of life on the car side of the business.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices