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MARK PHELAN Promising Cobalt is undone by quality-control glitches



Published: Sat, April 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt is an opportunity lost. It's also a troubling example of how General Motors can make vast progress in engineering and design only to be undone by quality problems the automaker should have solved decades ago.

The all-new Cobalt compact coupe and sedan have excellent handling and performance, good enough to run with class leaders like the Honda Civic, but the two Cobalts I tested had significant fit and finish defects.

There are so many things to like about the Cobalt LS coupe and LT sedan that this actually makes me sad.

The Cobalt marks the first time in my memory GM put its most talented people behind building a first-rate compact car. From engineers to designers to top executives, lots of people did very good work on the Cobalt.

That wouldn't qualify as news if the car came from Honda, Mazda, Toyota or Volkswagen. They've always understood that small-car customers deserve and expect first-rate vehicles.

Historically, this has not been the case at GM, which produced a long line of small cars that started out behind the competition and lost ground from there.

The Cobalt replaces the Chevrolet Cavalier. Base prices run from $13,625 for the base coupe and sedan to $18,195 for an LT sedan. I tested an LS coupe that costs $18,335 and an LT sedan that stickers at $20,760. All prices exclude destination charges.

World-class engineering

The Cobalt is the first American GM product in decades to take advantage of GM's expertise in building some excellent compact cars in Europe. The Cobalt uses a lot of the same basic engineering as GM's Opel Astra, a world-class small car. It also features many pricey components like laminated steel, giving it the quiet interior Americans expect from bigger cars.

The Cobalt's performance, ride and handling all reap the benefits of that shared expertise.

The passenger compartment is very quiet, with minimal road and wind noise, even at high speeds. The suspension absorbs bumps comfortably and the steering is crisp and precise.

That good steering is particularly refreshing. The Cobalt features an electronic power steering system. EPS, as it's called, offers a lot of potential benefits, including reduced weight, fewer repairs and the ability to make the steering feel however you want -- sporty, sedate or anywhere in between -- simply by changing the system's programming.

This is a good thing, as long as the programmers make the right choices. They missed the mark on the Pontiac G6, but they nailed it with the Cobalt, producing a responsive and linear steering feel that inspires confidence and encourages sporty driving.

Engine, transmission

The Cobalt's 2.2-liter, four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC engine deserves a lot of credit for the car's high fun-per-buck quotient. The engine produces 145 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque, more than the standard engine in the Ford Focus, Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. The engine has a very pleasant exhaust note and plenty of power at all speeds.

A sporty Getrag five-speed transmission is standard equipment, and a crisp-shifting four-speed automatic is optional.

In addition to very precise shifts, the automatic transmission gave me exceptional fuel economy. I got 26.9 miles per gallon in a week of mixed highway and surface street driving in the coupe.

An optional 205-horsepower, supercharged 2.0-liter version of the same engine will be available in the Cobalt SS coupe. A very brief drive in the SS showed it to be an extremely enjoyable package. The SS package is available only with a sporty short-throw five-speed manual transmission. SS prices start at $21,430.

The interior is attractive and comfortable, although the coupe has limited rear legroom.

The coupe and sedan I tested both used good-looking materials and had large legible gauges.

Problems, inside and out

However, the headliners of both cars were loosely attached to the roof. The coupe's headliner was actually detached at the front, leaving a space I could fit my hand into between the headliner and the car's roof.

The instrument panel looks good, but there was another loose trim piece in the center stack below the climate controls. Chevrolet says that's because a feature coming soon -- maybe an iPod adapter -- will go behind the panel. That's nice when it happens, but it doesn't excuse poor fit and finish for today. In addition, a black rectangle stamped into the middle of the loose piece looks like one of those tacky pieces automakers use to remind you that your car could have had more features if you weren't such a cheapskate.

The Cobalt's exterior styling isn't going to set the world on fire, but I found the coupe to be attractive and sporty. The sedan has a restrained and conservative look.

However, the coupe's exterior also had fit problems, most notably that the gaps on either side of its trunk lid were of visibly different sizes. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz made a point of saying that tight and consistent panel gaps were a priority developing the Cobalt, but that memo must not have gotten to whoever inspected the car I drove.

The Cobalt has the makings of a really good little car, but it won't be one until GM gets better at making it.

XMark Phelan writes for the Detroit Free Press.

Knight Ridder Newspapers




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