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2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS Review

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One Notch Short of Full Kill
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

I just finished spending nearly two solid hours doing hot laps on the road course at Buttonwillow Raceway Park near Bakersfield, California and the adrenalin is still coursing through my veins. Good thing, too. I think the adrenalin is mitigating the motion sickness I was beginning to feel after the last dozen laps without a stop. Who ever said racing is not a physically demanding pursuit hasn’t done any, I’m sure.

Before hot lapping at Buttonwillow we spent the morning running up Granite Road into the mountains just east of Bakersfield – a nice twisty country lane through the oil fields, then the pasture lands and finally into a scrappy forest where a mangy, three-legged coyote watched patiently as we passed hoping for some road kill – a free meal, that is. We’ve spent a good long day in the fun little Cobalt SS.

The enthusiastic team at Chevy put together a drive program to introduce us to the new SS version of the common Cobalt. This is the second generation of Cobalt SS and very different from the first supercharged version introduced in ’05 - different meaning much improved. The smart folks at GM, starting with product boss, Bob Lutz, Chevy general manager Ed Peper, and continuing through Performance Division leader, John Heinricy and the inspired development team, have decided that there will be no more SS badges affixed to any Chevy without substantially upgraded the going, stopping and turning capabilities. We saw that philosophy a couple months ago with the introduction of an SS version of the already fun little HHR. You probably read about it here. Heinricy, by the way, is an accomplished race driver and recently won a national championship in the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) C-Showroom Stock class in a Cobalt SS in addition to driving it to a class record (front-drive compact class) at the Nürburgring.

Well, as you might surmise, the HHR SS formula has relevance here, too. HHR and Cobalt, after all, share the same vehicle architecture so it wasn’t much of a stretch to take that formula and just move it over, sort it out and continue the fun. In fact, I’m assured by the development team leader, that if we put both cars on a hoist and examine them from below we would see little difference. Of course there are some differences in such things as spring rates, damper settings and a few other details but you probably wouldn’t be able to identify them just looking.

Like the HHR SS, this Cobalt SS’s handling was sorted out at the most challenging racing circuit in the world, the Nürburgring, where every manufacturer serious about performance takes their fresh products for testing. The philosophical goal is stated clearly by one of the development engineers, Matt Purdy, who grins when he reveals that they wanted a car “just one notch short of full-kill.” That is, take the fastest, most audacious car in the class, perhaps a Mitsubishi Evo, and make the SS just one increment more civilized for daily use. Judging from their Nürburgring time they may have succeeded.

Let’s do a walk-around first. It looks like the common Cobalt - not one of my favorite designs, I’ll admit. But the SS is dressed up with unique front and rear fascias, slightly lowered ride height and increased track, special rocker molding, standard rear wing (a larger one can be had for a few extra bucks), 18-inch twin five-spoke forged aluminum wheels, SS badging and some great, vivid colors – yellow and red are the best, in my humble, purely subjective, opinion. Inside we immediately notice the multi-material sport seats with plenty of bolster and SS emblems embroidered into the seat backs. With a tip of the hat to its stable mate SS uses the identical steering wheel as Corvette. Controls and ergonomics are simple, conventional and clean with a special red-accented gauge cluster. I love the little boost gauge integrated into the inside of the A-pillar.

Power for Cobalt SS comes from the same source as the HHR SS, that is, a wonderful little turbocharged, intercooled, direct injected, dual cam 2.0-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder making 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Unlike the HHR SS which has an automatic transmission option, the Cobalt SS comes only in a 5-speed stick with a shorter throw, stiffer shifter than the regular Cobalt.

This little engine sings as it gets past 4,500 rpm on the way to a 6,250 red line as the rev limiter kicks in gently. We accessed it plenty today. Zero-to-60 times are published at 5.7 seconds and top speed is a tad better than the 160-mph indicated on the speedometer. You get all this along with 30 mpg on the highway and a 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, thanks to steel crankshaft, forged connecting rods and other tough stuff designed into the powertrain.

Beneath the skin SS shares next to nothing with the standard Cobalt. The FE5 suspension, developed for the HHR SS, though, makes its second appearance here but with different spring rates, damper tuning and a few other details. Performance-oriented Brembo fixed-caliper front brakes are standard. On the HHR SS Brembos are an option. Rear brakes are vented discs with the usual floating caliper design. At least three functions are designed into the suspension and driveline to mitigate the dreaded torque-steer usually associated with mega-horsepower front-drive cars. With the nice, sticky standard Continental Y-rated P225/40ZR18 high-performance summer tires Cobalt SS tested out on the skid pad at 0.9 g – nearly as good as the Corvette.

A couple of systems have been incorporated into the SS versions of both Cobalt and HHR to allow the less-than-professional driver perform like a pro – No-Lift Shift and Launch Control.

No-Lift Shift allows us to power shift through the gears foot to the floor without loosing turbo boost pressure. Who wants to have even a little turbo lag taking precious milliseconds off our quarter-mile times? The sensors and algorithms insist that shifts be executed quickly though.

Launch Control lets us get off the line from a standing start with maximum efficiency. First we engage the system with a button on the dash, and then put the accelerator to the floor. The engine will hold at 5,100 rpm. Let out the clutch decisively (don’t dump it) and you’ll get just enough wheel spin to gain maximum traction on the launch.

While a few experienced performance drivers might be able to better these engineered systems it would be very few. With these systems engaged the average driver, or even the newbie, can perform with the best.

Cobalt SS shows a base price of less than 23-grand and comes with just about everything you’ll need. It will be at dealers shortly (second quarter of ’08). The only options are a sunroof, the larger rear wing and limited slip differential. Looks like it will be less than 25-grand with everything possible. Soon you’ll be able to choose some extra dress-up items for the inside like a faux-carbon fiber trim strip across the dash or some colored trim as well as other performance and dress-up accessories. All this SS stuff will be available in the Cobalt 4-door sedan in a few more months as well, probably by July of ’08. After all, in terms of marketing Cobalt SS is focused at youngsters who love to personalize their rides and some might want to take a few pals (or maybe a wife and kid) along.

So, back to the mountain driving and hot-lapping. I must say I’m impressed.

The route into the mountain allowed for brisk speeds and time to assess driving dynamics in this modestly challenging environment. The electric, power-assisted quicker-ratio steering felt predictable with better-than-most on-center feel as we wagged and weaved through sweeping, often blind, turns climbing into the foothills. Acceleration is thrilling coming out of each turn even with modest turbo-lag. In spite of the performance suspension tuning the ride is not harsh or jumpy. A softly raucous sound could be heard coming from the rear. I’ll bet it really sounded good from the outside. Maybe that’s what scared the mangy coyote. [Cobalt At Speed]

On the track at Buttonwillow the quickness and precision of the steering was even more important. The sticky tires gripped wonderfully as I pushed harder and harder with each lap. No matter how hard I pushed the SS never became squirrelly or less than poised. Now remember, I’m not a race driver. But I’ve spent considerable time on different tracks pretending to be one. So, you can imagine how I loved the smell of hot rubber when I came in for a break. By the way, don’t expect long tire life if you’re having this much fun with the car. But be sure to opt for the limited slip differential if you’re going to spend time on the race track. If you live where the snow sometimes flies get the limited slip differential as well and budget in a set of winter tires. You’ll need them.

The tuner-car crowd has a distinct affinity for the Japanese-built products. Now let’s see what they think of this contender from Lordstown, Ohio.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved