- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

For more than two decades, the Cavalier has been Chevrolet’s bread-and-butter model, an entry-level car that regularly lured hundreds of thousands of buyers.

But people eventually get tired of staples, so Chevrolet decided it was time for a new flavor. It’s called the Cobalt, and it’s all-new for 2005, though there were enough leftover Cavaliers that they continued to be sold temporarily, also as 2005 models.

Chevrolet touts the Cobalt as a “premium small car” that is poised to eclipse the leaders in the compact car field — the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Problem is, if you replace your bread and butter with more bread and butter, you may have a hard time beating the guys with croissants and jam.

There’s no question that the Cobalt is a modern design with new styling. But it’s a distinction without much difference compared with the Cavalier. The test car was a Cobalt LS four-door sedan, which is virtually identical in its innards to the 2005 Cavalier LS four-door.

Both use GM’s new four-cylinder Ecotec engine, a 2.2-liter affair with twin overhead camshafts that punches out a lusty 140 horsepower. The power goes to the front wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission, as on the test Cobalt, or a five-speed manual.

The Cavalier is longer by 2 inches, but it also has 4 cubic feet more of passenger space (91 versus 87). Both cars have trunks with 14 cubic feet of space.

The Cobalt is heavier by about 200 pounds, but the fuel consumption is identical: 24 miles to the gallon city, 32 on the highway.

They’re even priced about the same. The tested Cobalt starts at $16,485 and the Cavalier LS has a suggested sticker price of $16,855. So the question is: Why bother? Well, for one thing, the bread and butter had started to go stale, if not rancid.

Whether the Cobalt’s fresher look will be enough to win converts from competitors remains to be seen. The Cobalt does have one advantage besides its looks: an SS model with a supercharged 2.0-liter engine that punches out 200 horsepower.

But in the midlevel four-door LS segment, there’s no particular advantage over the existing Cavalier, despite assertions that the Cobalt is a step up.

None of this is to suggest that the Cobalt LS is without merit. Given its orientation as a transportation appliance for people with limited budgets, it acquits itself reasonably well.

Attractive styling or ugliness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But there’s no question that the Cobalt has a more modern Chevrolet look than the Cavalier, although the optional $275 spoiler on the trunk lid of the test car was a bit overwrought.

A spoiler is a performance item that really has no function until a car reaches triple-digit speeds, and looks misplaced on an economy four-door.

Inside, the surroundings are simply and pleasantly designed, with quality materials and good fit and finish.

The ergonomics are of the sort pioneered by the Japanese — stalks for headlight and wiper controls, with cruise-control buttons on the steering wheel and large, easy-to-use knobs and buttons for the audio and climate-control systems.

There are only three instruments: a speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge. But a digital readout displays trip mileage, fuel economy, average speed, range to empty, oil life, coolant temperature and the outside temperature.

Though leather is available as an option, the test car’s seats were covered in a sturdy textured cloth. Both front seats offered good support, and the outboard rear seating positions had enough knee and headroom even for larger-than-average humans.

But the cramped center position, as on most cars these days, should be written off.

Where the Cobalt shines is in acceleration. The 140-horsepower engine has enough oomph to set the front tires squealing if you punch the accelerator pedal.

But the engine is a noisy affair, rasping loudly as the automatic transmission shifts up through the gears, settling to a muted growl at freeway speeds.

The handling is capable but not exceptional — about what you’d expect in a compact family car. And the suspension system — independent up front with a torsion bar in back — is biased away from handling and toward a softer ride.

The LS Cobalt comes with a high level of standard equipment, including antilock brakes but not side air bags, air conditioning with filtered air, manual height and lumbar adjustments for the driver’s seat, remote locking, power windows and mirrors, and 60/40 folding rear seatbacks.

The trunk is roomy and nicely finished, with a cargo net included.

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