By Thane Peterson
The Good Low price and quiet, smooth ride
The Bad Unproven reliability, lack of pizzazz
The Bottom Line A solid competitor -- if it holds up
If you're shopping for a car for a college student, check out the Cobalt. New for the 2005 model year, it's something different from Chevrolet: a solid, thoughtfully designed, fuel-efficient compact at a bargain price.
The base model, for both the four-door sedan and the two-door coupe, starts out at just $14,190 and is scheduled to rise only $300 for the 2006 models. Plus, on end-of-the-model-year '05 Cobalts, GM's fabulous "employee discounts for everyone" pricing still applies, knocking the base price down to just $12,470. Little wonder that GM sold more than 130,000 Cobalts in the first seven months of this year.
Even as I type these words, I imagine the doubts rising in the minds of many readers. Unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool Buy American type, you're probably thinking: Me? Buy a Chevy? General Motors (GM ) has a lot of work to do to regain the confidence of economy-car buyers. The Chevy Cavalier, the model the Cobalt replaces, languished for more than two decades, falling ever further behind in quality and reliability while GM poured its development dollars into improving its more profitable SUVs and pickup trucks.
But in the Cobalt, GM finally has a potential competitor to models like the Honda's (HMC ) Civic and Toyota's (TM ) Corolla. I was surprised by how solid and quiet the Cobalt feels.
The base model comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, which is what I would opt for because it's more fun to drive. A speedier version offers a supercharged engine, but most parents wouldn't let their kid near the thing because it costs too much (22 grand) and might drive their insurance rates into the stratosphere. I decided to test the cheaper, more sedate four-door sedan version with a four-speed automatic transmission (an $850 option).
ROOM ENOUGH, MOSTLY.
The first thing I noticed is the smooth ride -- much quieter than most economy cars. Exterior fit and finish is tight, and the Cobalt has a cool crouched-tiger look. The interior is tasteful and seems well put together. I didn't see any of the cost-cutting that usually mars a Chevy's interior in small ways.
The radio, heater/air conditioner, and other controls are all mercifully simple to use. There's plenty of shoulder and headroom and lots of legroom upfront. A big negative is the cramped back seat. With the front seat all the way back, legroom is quite limited.
On the other hand, the Cobalt offers numerous thoughtful design touches. In the sedan, the rear seat backs recline at the flip of two easy-to-use switches in the trunk, creating a big space for hauling stuff, a must for college kids. The big rear doors also make for easy access to the back seat.
TIME FOR A CHANGE.
Another feature I particularly like that comes standard on all models is an easy-to-use information center that lets you calculate average mileage, distance before you need a fill-up, etc. It's great for student drivers -- who often forget to service their cars -- because it also signals the driver when the oil should be changed. Better yet, the calculation is made based on engine revolutions and temperature so that if the driver tends to hotrod around, the system will indicate an oil change is needed sooner than usual.
One caution on the price: It mounts quickly as you add options. If you want power windows and door locks, aluminum wheels, and such, you'll have to pay an extra $2,000 or so more for the LS version (renamed the LT in 2006).
You also might consider getting the side curtain airbags for your college student. At $395, they're a relative bargain, and only with them does the Cobalt have an acceptable safety rating in side-impact collisions.
Many students will also want the upgraded seven-speaker Pioneer sound system that can play MP3 disks -- an extra $150. And I'd consider anteing up an additional $595 for the sports package, just to get the very cool white-face gauges that come with it (you also get leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever, special tires, a rear spoiler, and other add-ons).
I have two qualms about this car. First, since it's new, you don't know how reliable it will be over the long haul. Second, it's just not very exciting to drive. The Cobalt LS I tested is rated to get an economical 32 miles per gallon on the highway and 24 in the city, but the trade-off is that the standard 143-horsepower, four-cylinder engine doesn't have much giddy-up.
In 2006, GM is introducing an SS version of the Cobalt that has a 171-hp engine that should make the car sportier without driving up insurance rates too much for young drivers. But it also carries a higher $18,790 base price, nearly two grand more than the sporty little Scion tC.
MATRIX IN VIBE'S CLOTHING.
On balance, the Cobalt is a bargain, especially at the GM employee discount price. Sure, you can pick up a low-mileage, dealer-certified 2001 or '02 Cavalier for $7,000 to $10,000, and it will come with a three-month, 3,000-mile warranty and roadside assistance program, but these are noisy, unrefined little cars.
One other option, if you want a GM nameplate, is a 2003 Pontiac Vibe, which you can find with low mileage and well-loaded for about $14,000. You'll pay more for a dealer-certified model and for the hard-to-find all-wheel drive version. But the Vibe is a sporty, reliable car made by a GM-Toyota joint venture in California, and under the skin it's the same as a Toyota Matrix.
Still, as I see it, it's hard to compete with a new Cobalt at the discounted price.
Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online