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Second-Hand: Chevrolet Cobalt

A former deliverer of pizza, trainer of new drivers and conveyance of fixed-income pensioners, the Cavalier finally bit the dust in 2005.

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A former deliverer of pizza, trainer of new drivers and conveyance of fixed-income pensioners, the Cavalier finally bit the dust in 2005.

And not a moment too soon, considering Chevrolet’s venerable relic in the econobox segment rolled into showrooms in 1981 and remained relatively unchanged for 24 years.

Over the Cavalier’s lifetime, Toyota redesigned the Corolla five times, while the small Chevy received mostly cosmetic makeovers and powertrain tweaks.

With the introduction of the Cobalt for 2005, General Motors finally signalled it was keen on crafting a refined small car in-house.

CONFIGURATION

The front-drive Cobalt made use of GM’s Delta platform, which had first underpinned the Saturn Ion in 2003 – an economy sedan Car and Driver described as “a rackety little bastard of a four-door.”

The Cobalt sedan and coupe had a lot to live down.

It helped that engineers had taken the platform to finishing school. A revised cast-alloy oil pan made the engine stiffer and quieter, and the transmission was bolted to both the engine block and pan to further quell noise and vibration.

The rear suspension, similar to Volkswagen, was a trailing-arm arrangement braced by a twist beam. Expensive hydraulic bushings kept the Cobalt planted.

Inside, occupants got firm, supportive chairs mounted higher off the floor – a good thing, considering how many elderly people with mobility problems buy these cars.

The interior looked handsome at first glance – the dash panels merged into a seamless, flush-mounted unit, accented with bits of chrome – but owners griped about the quality of the plastics and “mouse fur” upholstery.

The trunk offered 14 cubic feet (396 litres) of cargo space accessed through a small opening too small for some owners. The Cobalt used multilink trunk supports that folded flat, rather than cheaper gooseneck hinges that crushed luggage.

The looker of the pair was the coupe with its large backlight and curvaceous rear fascia punctuated by four circular taillights. At least the rear seat split-folded to accommodate longer items. Interestingly, the battery resided back there, too.

The base motor was an aluminum DOHC 2.2 L Ecotec four-cylinder making 145 hp and 155 lb.-ft. of torque. The SS recruited a bored-and-stroked version with variable cam timing, making 170 horses from 2.4 litres.

Mercifully for drivers, both engines got balance shafts to smooth the inherent lumpiness.

A five-speed Getrag manual transmission was standard and a four-speed automatic was a popular option.

Canadian Pontiac dealers got their own model, the Pursuit. U.S. dealers wouldn’t get it until 2007 and then only as a coupe, renamed G5.

The Cobalt Supercharged SS coupe was aimed at the tuner crowd, complete with 205 hp from a 2.0-litre Ecotec linked to a five-speed manual gearbox, 18-inch alloy wheels, sport chassis upgrades including rear disc brakes, and a massive rear spoiler.

The Eaton-supercharged SS bowed out early because of emission issues, only to be replaced by a turbocharged model with 260 hp on tap for 2008.

ON THE ROAD

GM engineers had to sweat the details to deliver a refined small car and, to a large extent, they succeeded. The Cobalt was quiet at speed, well damped in its ride motions with a sturdy, quake-free structure.

Zero to 96 km/h came up in 8.4 seconds with the automatic, competitive for an economy car. Braking was fine, requiring 57 metres to stop from a speed of 112 km/h. Skidpad grip was decent, generating 0.77 g on optional H-rated tires.

The Supercharged SS, by comparison, could sprint to highway velocity in 6.1 seconds, with the recent turbo version shaving a half-second off that time.

Some owners expressed satisfaction with the four-cylinder’s frugal ways, while others reported poor fuel use – as much as 12.2 litres/100 km (23 m.p.g.). Stick users were generally happier.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Almost everyone reported a blissful honeymoon with their Cobalt, with the first year or two being trouble-free. Drivers relished the car’s comfort, quiet composure and value.

However, plenty of owners observed that the car turned troublesome over time and the list of faults was not short.

“It has had probably almost $10,000 in work done to it: an O2 sensor, PCM, six radios, HVAC controls, three-valve cover gaskets, passenger-window switch, supercharger, tranny, clutch, driver’s-side drive axle, interior trim pieces…,” read a sad report from the owner of a 2006 model.

The electric – not hydraulic – power-steering system is prone to failure and is expensive to repair post-warranty, owners warned. Oil may leak from the front crankshaft seal on the 2.2 L engine, as well as from the head gasket.

Other common maladies included failed transmissions (manual and automatic), a faulty microswitch pin in the floor-shifter assembly (rendering the key useless), short-lived sensors, air conditioners that dripped on the floor and broken door handles.

It may have been a valiant attempt by GM to beat back the hordes of foreign cars, but the Cobalt still suffered from questionable components supplied by the lowest bidders.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Toyota Matrix, Dodge Caliber and Nissan Versa. Email: [email protected].

 

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