By Jon Rosner, Wed, 18 May 2005 08:00:00 PDT
The 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt is a metaphor of most that is right and most that is wrong with General Motors today. Opinions on cars are based on how an individual can see the compromises that make up a modern vehicle. Having met and spent some time with a few of the folks from Consumer Reports I now have a much better understanding of how they make their judgments. There's a lot more gray in the Consumer Reports reviews than black and white. Cars have improved enormously over the last thirty plus years that I have been driving, and there are street cars available now that can outperform the best Formula cars of twenty years ago
The Cobalt replaced the Chevrolet Cavalier that sold well, but was technically outdated at least five years ago. It was designed at a time when only certain brands of GM products had good quality control across the board on parts that went into the vehicle. Complaints of electrical, starter, and alternator problems rang true to my ear. As I too had electrical and alternator problems on my Saturn and many of those parts were shared items.
The Cobalt is a new design on a relatively new platform. The engine, driveline, steering and other components are well-tested and proven. Give GM credit where they deserve it. GM learned from their partnership with Toyota. And like Toyota, any failed GM parts that come back for warranty service return to the factory for failure analysis or the dealership get charged for the part. The fact that Cadillac is number two or three and Buick is in the top ten of J.D. Powers attests to the fact that the company builds at least a few solid products.
Park the Cobalt next to a typical small Japanese sedan and it's pretty much the same size and shape. I happen to think it's nicer looking than most of the soap- bar shaped competitors. The interior is attractive, most of the pieces fit together well. The controls fall into hand nicely and they are easy to figure out. The fake wood that traverses the dash adds a nice touch. The seats are slightly overstuffed, which allows larger purchasers greater comfort, but does not do that much for lighter weight folk. The XM radio offered clear, crisp and satisfying music.
The engine is not as muffled and quiet as some of the Japanese competition, push the pedal down and you get power, nice, satisfying power, and better torque and as smooth shifting as the best of the competition. The ride is somewhere between Buick and BMW, and not soft, soggy and annoyingly unresponsive as many of the Japanese small sedans. The electric power steering offering good weighting and control. Road imperfections around town are handled with aplomb, and with slight steering inputs can be avoided. Crappy back roads brought out no noticeable vices.
If there were no small detail issues that drive me crazy then the Cobalt would rank as one of the nicest small cars on the market. Those small detail issues are that the A-pillar covers on either end of the windshield simply don't fit snugly, the ignition key mechanicals are not centered in the plastic opening, the lining of the headliner has rough cloth exposed in the front and the headliner panel sags slightly on one side in the rear.
The basic design of the new Cobalt is very close to class leading until you run up against the kinds of detail errors that would be cause for the termination of the designer if the car were a Honda, Toyota or Mazda. GM has really learned to take quality control to heart in building cars, but it's errors like these that make it very hard to praise the company for what they have learned to do right.