From the Corvair Monza to the Cavalier Z24, Chevrolet has always dabbled in spicy economy cars, but the Chevrolet Cobalt SS was the end of the line. Chevrolet hasn’t sold a hot performance car since, but I’m not entirely sure if that’s due to changing market demands. There’s a chance that the Cobalt SS was so good, GM doesn’t know how to make it again. That might seem like an absurd statement, but bear with me, for this Cobalt is special. Welcome back to GM Hit Or Miss, where we dig through the ditches and burn through the witches of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning department in search of Dragula-caliber greatness.
Although American carmakers have largely been remembered for feats of muscle, by the mid 2000s, a major shift had occurred in the car scene. Media like “The Fast And The Furious” and Sport Compact Car magazine had cast a spotlight on four-cylinder tuner cars, and the kids were lapping it up. There was a new horsepower war on the streets of America, but instead of being fought with V8s and Hurst shifters, battle armaments consisted of four-bangers and boost.
Early into the decade of peak tuner, it was very clear that another Cavalier Z24 just wasn’t going to be enough, and Chrysler cast the first domestic stone with the Dodge Neon SRT-4. Featuring a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine boosted to 215 horsepower for the 2003 model year. A mixture of parts-bin special and factory hot rod, it used goodies like a minivan transmission, PT Cruiser knuckles, a Sachs clutch, Tokico dampers, and Michelin Pilot Sport tires in the pursuit of speed. Unsurprisingly, the magazines adored it. As Car And Driver quipped:
“So what’s it like to drive? Bitchin’, thank you. Tramp on the go pedal, and the boost gauge snaps to attention — right now. Power comes on with a profound rush, and Frankeneon hurls itself down the street with a will.”
Yeah, that sounds plenty exciting. Meanwhile, Chevrolet was in the middle of pumping up its SS line of performance cars, and GM Performance wasn’t about to have its ass handed to it by a goddamn Neon. Therefore, the Chevrolet Cavalier replacement’s performance trim had to be habanero hot, with a forced induction kick and a cohesive handling package. Oh, and that sucker had to hit the street in the low 20s.
The Delta platform underneath the Chevrolet Cobalt is often remembered as an Opel-developed platform, but it didn’t burst on the scene with an Opel badge. Instead, it debuted underneath the 2003 Saturn Ion, a car you might remember Doctor Octopus hurling through a storefront in “Spider-Man 2.” What debuted in the Saturn Ion the very next year? A little motor called the LSJ. See, Saturn was GM’s import-fighting division, or at least one of them. With just about every Japanese carmaker under the sun producing some sort of spicy compact car, Saturn threw its hat in the ring with a supercharged Ion called the Red Line. Featuring a two-liter four-cylinder engine with an Eaton M62 blower bolted on, this 205-horsepower supercharged screamer was one fast piece of plastic.
Yep, this means that the first Cobalt SS wasn’t some ultra-special skunkworks performance project: It was a parts-bin car that took the powertrain from the Ion Red Line, stuffed it in more palatable (read: less weird) Cobalt sheetmetal, jazzed it up with some special cosmetics, and then flew out of showrooms. However, it didn’t matter than the Cobalt SS was a parts-bin car, or that it was slower than the Neon SRT-4. With a little bit of timing, a little bit of marketing, and a whole lot of engineering effort, the supercharged Cobalt SS made a name for itself as a sport compact great.
For starters, the Cobalt SS genuinely drove well, garnering acclaim from all corners of the motor press. A particular highlight is Motor Trend’s words on the steering, a make-or-break system for any performance car.
The steering itself is a precision slicing-and-dicing tool for placing the car on the road, free of hunting, correcting, and sawing back and forth. Pick a line through a corner, and the car follows. A direct-acting front anti-roll bar adds crispness to transitions.
While driving well matters in the real world, big numbers matter around the water cooler. To wit, Motor Trend remarked:
In testing, the Cobalt SS is the fastest regular-production front-drive car through the slalom we’ve tested in three years, rocking through the cones even faster than the new Corvette Z51. The SS outcornered the VW R32 on the skidpad, outgunned the MINI Cooper S 0-to-60 mph, and outstopped the Subaru Impreza WRX 60-to-0 mph.
Hats off to the GM Performance engineers behind the project, and hats off to the marketing team too. See, GM made the clever decision to let EA Games license the Cobalt SS for use as a starter car in 2005’s “Need For Speed: Most Wanted,” a game that sold 16 million copies worldwide and 3.9 million copies in America, as reported by Softpedia. Giving 3.9 million enthusiasts the opportunity to virtually interact with this tuner car almost as soon as they boot the game was a genius move, and likely part of the reason these cars were so hot.
Finally, let’s get to timing. The Cobalt SS came out right at the end of the Neon SRT-4’s production run, so it only had to run with its faster, more shitboxy rival from Auburn Hills. Once the Neon was gone, the stiffest competition to the Cobalt SS was the turbocharged 200-horsepower Volkswagen GTI, and the Cobalt felt much rowdier. As far as other competitors went, the Honda Civic Si and Acura RSX posted great peak numbers but didn’t have forced induction torque, the Toyota Corolla XRS just wasn’t as serious of a performance car, and the Subaru Impreza WRX was seriously quick if an abusive redline clutch dump was used, but curiously inert in the real world. Dollars-for-ponies, the Cobalt SS was on top of the world for the 2006 model year. Oh, and to cash in on the tuner car craze, a naturally-aspirated SS was cooked up to marry go-fast looks with humdrum mechanicals. Everything was going well, and then Mazda threw its hat in the ring.
Yes, plucky little Mazda, the Ford-affiliated carmaker from Hiroshima known for fun cars and sticking with odd ideas until they worked. So, when the odd idea to stuff the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from the Mazdaspeed6 into a Mazda 3 while giving it barely less power surfaced, jaws were dropped from California to Connecticut. The Mazdaspeed3 was a turbocharged terror of a hot hatch, 263 horsepower and a grown-up interior for the low, low price of $22,800 in 2007 dollars. That was less than two grand more than a Cobalt SS for 28 percent more horsepower, a clear indication that the Mazdaspeed3 wasn’t here to fuck spiders. Suddenly, Mazda bore the crown in the factory front-wheel-drive tuner car wars, and Chevrolet would need a weapon to surpass Metal Gear if it were to attempt a coup.
Another year later, timing’s other shoe dropped. At the dawn of 2008, the Cobalt SS as we knew it was dead. The supercharged LSJ engine wouldn’t pass 2008 emissions standards, and the naturally-aspirated SS-lite was demoted to the rank of Cobalt Sport, presumably for not being awesome enough. Death seemed to have arrived for the Cobalt SS, but it was all just a little wrestling drama. For 2008, Chevrolet kicked down the door with a beefed-up turbocharged Cobalt SS packing the engine from the Pontiac Solstice GXP sports car. This force-fed two-liter four-banger pumped out 260 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque — three horsepower shy of a Mazdaspeed3, but in a car that weighed 178 pounds less than Mazda’s weapons-grade hatchback. Add in a low price tag of $22,995, and the final-form Cobalt SS was unbeatable for the money.
Frankly, it’s still unbeatable for the money. In addition to the tactical nuke under the hood, Chevrolet tuned the Turbalt’s suspension on the infamous Nürburgring, resulting in a track weapon that looked like every third airport rental car. Quantifying this is Car And Driver, which took a turbocharged Cobalt SS to its annual Lightning Lap test at Virginia International Raceway, where it proceeded to spank a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, a BMW 135i, a Lexus IS F, and a Honda S2000 CR with a lap time of 3:13 flat. It would be the fastest front-wheel-drive Lightning Lap time ever recorded until the FK8 Honda Civic Type R came along nearly a decade later, and an enormous “fuck yo’ couch” moment in sport compact history. Of equal importance as raw time is how the turbocharged Cobalt SS drove, and Car And Driver had nothing but praise on track.
Gobs of power from the new engine and an optional limited-slip diff allowed the Cobalt to take most of the track in third gear. The SS hurtled forward with an anger missing in the rest of LL1 and much of the LL2 group. Despite the explosive power and front weight bias, the Cobalt SS resisted the typical understeer found in front-drive cars. The SS goes about its business with almost no drama. You only realize how quick it is when you arrive at start-finish and wonder, “How’d I get here so fast?”
Unfortunately, as amazing as the turbocharged, no-lift-shift-equipped, Brembo-shod 2008 Cobalt SS was, nobody bought it. See, 2008 also brought a recession, so the sort of young buyers Chevrolet depended on evaporated overnight. Just 5,565 turbocharged models were made in 2008 and 2009 combined, a far cry from the 17,464 supercharged models sold in 2006. The rarest Cobalt SS is the turbocharged SS sedan with just 759 made, of which just 39 were made in Rally Yellow. If you ever find one, buy it. With the Cobalt-replacing Chevrolet Cruze on the horizon, GM pulled the plug on the Cobalt SS after the 2010 model year, and it never got a proper replacement.
The Chevrolet Cobalt SS was an enormous hit, a black eye for Japanese sport compact car manufacturers that culminated in a turbocharged blizzard of “How did you do that?” It’s one of the most underrated American performance cars of all time, and everyone should be goddamn grateful that the dumpster fire of mid-aughts GM made genuine silk out of an appalling sow’s ear. It’s also a car GM might never be able to re-make. Between lack of available base cars, an all-hands-on-deck approach to the electric age, and the general turnover you’d expect to see over the course of 15 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if GM never makes another sport compact again, which would be a crying shame. A friend of mine once said, “GM has the best engineers and the worst accountants in the business.” My advice? Let the engineers off the leash more often. Greatness has never been found in Quickbooks.
(Photo credits: Chevrolet, Dodge, Saturn, Mazda)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.