Ragging on GM for their decades of lackluster efforts at making compact cars is such a popular activity that it may as well be an Olympic sport. Lately, they've done a great job with the Cruze, but it's not the best compact they've ever made — the Cobalt SS is. Here's why.
At this point, it's quite important to make the distinction between the Cobalt and its SS version. You may have driven a Cobalt at some point. You may have had one as a rental car, or God help you, you may have even owned one.
Though vastly better than the Cavalier it replaced, it still suffered from an unimpressive interior, a ho-hum exterior, an engine like a low-rent appliance, and less-than-stellar build quality. It was a car you bought because you could afford it, not because you wanted it.
But then GM went and did something strange to their Cobalt: they added a bunch of power and tuned it for performance. And then something truly special happened.
Lots of times, you'll hear Cobalt SS owners and fans wait until you're done laughing at them and say "No, you're wrong, it actually is a really great car." Guess what? Those guys are onto something.
(We debated doing this piece on its Delta-platform Saturn counterpart, but for the life of me I simply couldn't bring myself to type "Why The Saturn Ion Red Line Is A Future Classic" unless I was submitting a story to The Onion.)
It's fitting that this car has the Super Sport designation in its name just like the Chevy muscle cars of yore, because that's exactly what it is: a muscle car. Just a modern one, that's all. I mean, when you drill down to the broadest definition of a muscle car, it's what you get when you take a small car and put a larger, more powerful motor in it. While it doesn't have rear-wheel drive and a 396 cubic-inch V8 like a Chevelle SS, it gets the job done with forced induction.
There were actually two Cobalt SS models made over the car's lifespan between 2005. The first one attached a Roots-type supercharger to the 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine that boosted power to 205 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. Those seem like paltry numbers today — many modern four-bangers hit close to that without any forced induction — but it was enough to get the car from a stop to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds.
Further bolstering the Cobalt SS' performance cred was the fact that it only came as a coupe at first and only with a five-speed manual. Built for more than just straight-line speed, the SS got a larger front anti-roll bar, stiffer springs, and aluminum L-shaped control arms for the front struts. You could even get Recaro seats and a Quaife LSD.
Sure, it was outclassed by rivals like the Volkswagen GTI and Subaru WRX, but with a starting price of just a smidge under $22,000, that supercharged speed came cheap. Here's what Car and Driver said back in 2005, as they mourned the death of the Camaro at the time:
The Cobalt SS Supercharged might be a souped-up econobox, but it punches the scorecard with big-league numbers. Is it a home run? Close. Think of it more as a ground-rule double—out of the park but still another hit from scoring.
Cute. Apparently GM took this criticism to heart and decided to put the Cobalt SS on a heavy Barry Bonds-esque steroid regimen until it finally became the heavy hitter they wanted.
That's what happened in 2008 when the supercharger was traded for a turbocharger and direct injection that boosted power way up to 260 horsepower and 260 pound feet of torque. (There was also a naturally-aspirated SS around for a few years, renamed the "Cobalt Sport" when this car came out. It's not worth wasting Internet-ink over.)
That horsepower rating was much more appropriate for a car that wanted to be Super Sport. That was way more than the WRX at the time, and the GTI, and the Civic Si, and the Lancer Ralliart (remember that?). Now the car could rocket from zero to 60 in 5.7 seconds, or faster in some tests, and all the way up to a top speed of 160 mph.
It was also the only car at the time under $25,000 with launch control. This time, the suspension was even further refined to make it a vastly more adept handler than before. There was also a trick no-lift shift system that let you change gears without lifting off the throttle. Yeah, Cobalt. Hell yeah.
Once again, from Car and Driver, this time for the new car:
The old SS was quite good. A mini-muscle car, it was quick in a straight line, although it became a ball of understeer when the road went bendy. But the new SS is better. Not only does it remain face-peelingly quick, but it’s also now a maniacal piece of machinery that laughs at nearly any corner you toss in front of it.
They ran a comparo test a few months later and the SS came in third behind the Mazdaspeed3 and GTI, and neither of those cars can be taken lightly. There's no dishonor in a third-place finish there. It was also cheaper than those two, and was for a while the fastest car you could buy for under 25 large. Here's what Road & Track had to say:
I haven't enjoyed driving a front-wheel-drive car this much in ages. The Cobalt's FE5 suspension is stiffer, better damped and infinitely more compliant than the previous car's. I dare say it's the best-driving fwd sports compact out there, matching the power of a Mazdaspeed3, but easily out-handling it. At the limit the Cobalt SS is predictable, controllable, balanced and should make any driving enthusiast quite happy.
But even with the fantastic power, the Cobalt SS was still a Cobalt. It suffered from a bargain basement interior and a lack of prestige that no amount of power could make up for. It's why Cobalt SS owners are still fighting for respect even though their cars could eat a fair amount of other sport compacts for breakfast. That's a real shame, because it's a mistake to overlook this car, particularly in turbo form.
Today, it's a fantastic used-car bargain, particularly for anyone looking to engage in some track action. It also serves as a great example of how GM can, in fact, make great compacts when they want to.
I have a feeling that someday, people will look back on the turbo Cobalt SS the same way they look at the Dodge turbo cars from the 80s, like the Omni GLH and Shelby CSX. They all show what happens when the proper amount of engineering and planning is used to give a compact car some muscle. This thing is going to kick ass at Lemons one day and you know it.
The Cobalt is no longer on the market, replaced by the vastly superior Cruze. At the moment, we're aware of now plans to build an SS version, perhaps because so much of their marketing for the car revolves around its eco-friendliness.
Lots of enthusiasts have cried out for one, and I'd love to see it happen as well. If it has the same amount of power — or more, more is always good — as the Cobalt SS coupled with a better platform and interior, it could be a real contender.
This is Future Classics, a new, semi-regular feature where we identify amazing and unappreciated cars from the late 90s, 2000s, and today that could be highly coveted by future generations. You may want to pick one of these up while you still can!