Two of the biggest players in the compact car business have determined to make 2005 the Year of the Showdown. Just in time to celebrate Jetta's 25th anniversary in North America, Volkswagen has taken the wraps off the latest Teutonic interpretation of a compact, five-passenger sedan.
Not to be outdone, Chevrolet has chosen this same year to scrap, finally, its decidedly unchivalrous Cavalier after 24 years of production. In its place, behold the all-new Cobalt. This is the car-available as both four-door sedan and two-door coupe-with which Chevy is determined to claw back its fair share of economy car buyers.
The stakes are huge. Rising gasoline prices are re-orienting buyers away from fuelish trucks and SUVs back towards sporty, responsive, affordable compacts. Chevy and VW are traditional rivals in this category, but they also face a common foe among the Asian automakers who've largely succeeded in defining econocars as their own impregnable fiefdom.
Chevy's Cavalier had 24 years in which to try to grow up, and it never managed the feat. Cobalt is the "Let's just start over from scratch" alternative. First impressions deem Cobalt a promising newcomer.
For one thing, the car looks mature and modern; and its Delta chassis platform (borrowed from Saturn's Ion) is stiff, strong and safe. A 2.2-liter "Ecotec" inline-four uses twin-cam architecture to produce 145 decent horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of torque. Cobalt is lighter than Jetta by about 300 pounds, which tends to equalize the narrow, five-horsepower difference between them. But Jetta's better torque still gives the VW an advantage in acceleration and general perkiness in traffic.
For all the uncanny similarities of exterior styling, Cobalt and Jetta present very different personalities in the cabin and behind the wheel. Cobalt's interior is archetypal GM-featureless plastic, universal instrument layouts, no curlicues whatsoever. Even the ABS brakes are a front-disc/rear-drum set-up. This along with front-only independent suspension tend to pigeon-hole Cobalt as a commuter, not a tourer, right from the start.
That may well be just fine for folks eyeing bargains: Cobalt's entry-level prices start near $14-grand, and the mid-range LT model tested here boasted $18,195 base and $20,600 as-tested prices, including XM Satellite radio, OnStar and optional head-curtain airbags.
Cobalt's five-passenger cabin is almost five percent smaller than Jetta's, and its trunk is over 13 percent smaller; but the split-folding rear seatbacks in both models provide versatility for handling cargo unknown to a former generation of compact-owners. Cobalt's greatest achievement by far, on the other hand, is elimination of the buzziness in traffic that rendered Cavalier such a head-hanging embarrassment for its drivers. Cobalt feels secure and responsive both in traffic and on the highway. Although its debut is targeted at the entry-level segment of the automotive spectrum, its long-term prospects appear true-blue.
5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.2-liter DOHC "Ecotec" inline-4, 4-sp. auto; 145 hp/155 ft.-lbs.; 24 mpg/City, 32 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; passenger volume: 87.1 cu. ft.; trunk: 13.9 cu. ft.; as-tested, w/ HVAC, leather, AM/FM/single-CD, front ind. suspension, ABS disc/drum brakes, opt. side head-curtain airbags: $20,600