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Stalwart Son of a Cavalier

2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LT sedan

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page G01

Give me warm socks, a great sweater and a good pair of jeans or khaki pants. Put me in tough, comfortable shoes. It matters not whether their tops are leather or canvas as long as their bottoms are rubber with grip.

It is the outfit for the simple life -- nothing fancy or extravagant. It covers the body and pleases the soul.

2005 Chevreolet Cobalt LT Sedan
2005 Chevreolet Cobalt LT Sedan
2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LT Sedan (Courtesy GM)

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: The 145-horsepower, four-cylinder engine is a bit whiny during acceleration. But it gets the job done on highways and in other high-speed environments. People desirous of more oomph in the Cobalt series should check out the supercharged 205-horsepower, four-cylinder SS coupe.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Good marks all around, thanks to more rigid body construction and better suspension damping in the Cobalt. Normal drivers will like it. Speed freaks with racing aspirations will yawn.

Head-turning quotient: The Cobalt is conservative, pleasant, inoffensive and designed to stay that way.

Body style/layout: It is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car available as a coupe/hatchback and four-door notchback sedan.

Engines/transmissions: The Cobalt LT and LS sedans come with a standard 2.2-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead-cam engine that develops 145 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 150 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Cobalt SS gets a two-liter, supercharged, four-cylinder engine that develops 205 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque. "Supercharged" means a crankshaft-driven pump pushes more air into the engine to produce more power. A five-speed manual transmission is standard for the LS and SS. The LT gets a four-speed automatic.

Cargo and fuel capacities: The Cobalt LT has seating for five people. Maximum cargo space is 14 cubic feet. Fuel capacity is 13.2 gallons of recommended regular unleaded.

Mileage: I averaged 27 miles per gallon in city and highway driving.

Safety: Standard traction control and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. Side and head air bags are optional. Buy them -- for a total of $395.

Price: Base price on the Cobalt LT is $18,195. Base dealer invoice price is $17,012. Price as tested is $21,325, including $2,565 in options and a $565 destination charge. Dealer's price with those options (sunroof, seven-speaker Pioneer sound system, air bag package, etc.) and transportation fees is $19,888. Prices are from Chevrolet, Edmunds.com and Cars.com, an affiliate of The Washington Post.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy, and you can bargain. The Cobalt is a good car running in a brutally tough segment of the market occupied by the Dodge Neon, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla. The only Chevrolet dealer unwilling to bargain on this one is a dealer unwilling to make a sale.

What I want in clothing -- and cars -- is a sense of freedom. I do not wish to be hemmed in by pinstripes. Nor do I want a car that is so precious that I am afraid to drive or park it anywhere.

As for automotive performance, I don't mind lusting in my heart, or even playing around, as long as I don't have to live with the consequences -- higher insurance and maintenance costs for high-horsepower chariots with unique mechanicals and electronics; and the unwelcome attention of law enforcement people looking for an easy ticket, or car thieves desirous of an exotic pinch.

Being an automotive journalist with access to most of what the car world has to offer is one thing. Being a consumer with a biweekly paycheck and bills is something else. In the real world, I shop for value, which is why I've often bought Chevrolet cars and trucks and why I am likely to do so again.

Chevrolet offers solid value. The 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt LT sedan, this week's test car, is an example.

It is a compact economy car -- positioned above the basement-level subcompact Aveo and below Chevrolet's mid-size Malibu family sedan. In that spot, the Cobalt replaces the Chevrolet Cavalier, General Motors Corp.'s brown-bag economy automobile introduced in 1981. The Cavalier, frequently the target of automotive critics lamenting its pedestrian styling and performance, goes out of production this year.

Think about that. If the Cavalier was so bad, how did it stay alive, usually as a strong seller, for 24 years? Are the millions of people who bought Cavaliers, and who still buy and drive them, stupid? Do they not understand they are out of step with the geniuses publishing car magazines, writing newspaper columns, flooding the Internet with commentary and producing TV and radio car shows?

The truth is that the media have been out of sync with them.

Cavalier buyers are jeans and khaki people. They shop for value. They want what works.

That does not mean they want to be bored, or served depressingly cheap fare -- which is a mistake GM, Chevrolet's corporate parent, made in its initial Cavalier offerings. Economy buyers want low price, but they don't want low class. They were willing to accept the Cavalier in the manner they accept an old pair of faded, tattered-in-spots but trustworthy jeans. They know what they have. They are at peace with that knowledge.

Cobalt buyers are likely to display even stronger loyalty, because the new front-wheel-drive Cobalt has all of the Cavalier's value-oriented virtues. It is a lot of car for the money, even in its base LS dress. But the Cobalt has none of the Cavalier's occasional cheap-feel faults.

Exterior Cobalt styling is conservative, the latest offering from GM's Inoffensive School of Design. But it is much more attractive than the Cavalier inside and out. Interior materials, including the optional leather seating surfaces and the faux wood trim in the tested LT, are as good as what is offered in rival economy automobiles, or better. Overall vehicle build quality is excellent; and the list of standard equipment, including head air bags and traction control in the upscale LT sedan and sporty SS supercharged coupe, is impressively long.

Chevrolet cared enough to pay attention to small details in this one. For example, there is the soft padding on the ignition housing immediately below the ignition key lock. In cars without such padding, dangling keys and key fobs repeatedly strike the housing, creating an annoying racket. No such disturbance occurs in the cabin of the Cobalt LT, which is as quiet as the interiors of substantially more expensive cars.

The Cobalt LT's standard 2.2-liter, inline four-cylinder, 145-horsepower engine will not excite people who spend their lives monitoring acceleration from 0 to 60 miles per hour. But there aren't many drivers out there using stopwatches to time their departures from stop signs or traffic lights. Most folks just want to go when it's time to get going, and the Cobalt LT serves that need just fine, especially in urban areas.

I like this car. I enjoyed driving and wearing it. It's a good fit for the real-world me.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company