Home » The Boosted, Rapid Chevrolet Cobalt SS Deserves Your Respect: GM Hit Or Miss

The Boosted, Rapid Chevrolet Cobalt SS Deserves Your Respect: GM Hit Or Miss

Chevrolet Cobalt Ss Topshot
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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.

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Dodge Neon Srt 4

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.

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Saturn Ion Red Line

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.

2005 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss 1

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.

2005 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss Engine

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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.

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2007 Ms3 Front 3 4 Beauty 2

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.

2008 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss 1

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.

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss Sedan Profile

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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.

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt Ss Sedan 1

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)

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Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
11 months ago

I only hear about the Cobalt SS as the donor car for some kit cars, and the preferred vehicle for organ donors.

They seem pretty thin on the ground both in and out of the salvage yards.

Ricki
Ricki
11 months ago

Kinda wanted that drivetrain tbh. Maybe one day.

V10omous
V10omous
11 months ago

Couldn’t you get an HHR with the turbo powertrain too? I imagine that was even rarer.

John Heinricy told me at a Cadillac CTS-V track event in 2008 that the Cobalt SS was the best performance car GM was making at the time.

Last edited 11 months ago by V10omous
NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
11 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

^^^This is the true Holy Grail! 2009 only HHR SS PANEL. A little over 200 of these feisty surprises were made to the glee of dozens of florists!

Dalton
Dalton
11 months ago

Hi Thomas. What on earth does “The Mazdaspeed3 wasn’t here to fuck spiders.” mean?

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
11 months ago
Reply to  Dalton

Simple.

First imagine some Mazdaspeed3s fucking spiders.

Don’t put too much effort into it, and then imagine all the things a Mazdaspeed3 might do except fuck spiders.

That’s pretty much everything right? So in short it means everything.

Like I said, simple.

Monkey302
Monkey302
11 months ago
Reply to  Dalton

That generation Mazda 3 and I think Mazdas in general were recalled due to spiders getting into the fuel filter. Not sure if it was sliders in the factory when being built or US spiders after they came here.

I could be completely off base, but if this is what he was referencing it is the reason I’m reading theAutopian.

Martin English
Martin English
11 months ago
Reply to  Dalton

I thought this was a Laurence story when i saw this in the story …
It’s Australian for one has serious business to pursue and should not be wasting time. It is another way of saying, “Not here to fuck around. I am here to get the job done.”

RWilhelm
RWilhelm
11 months ago

The turbo, sedan variant of the Cobalt SS would qualify as a ‘Holy Grail’ due to it’s rarity, in my opinion. I have never come up with any results when searching for one… always the non-turbo SS version.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
11 months ago
Reply to  MikuhlBrian

Got about 10 minutes to pick it up. Current bid of $14,500 actually doesn’t seem so bad.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
11 months ago
Reply to  ColoradoFX4

That guy got a great deal!

MikuhlBrian
MikuhlBrian
11 months ago

Early into the decade of peak tuner, it was very clear that another Cavalier Z24 just wasn’t going to be enough,….

It could have been. Chevrolet could have easily continued the Z24 moniker with the new Cobalt instead of calling it the SS. I know it’s all marketing, but I happen to like all of the Z** performance cars that Chevrolet put out in the 80s/90s…. but that’s probably because I grew up with them.

In the 60s/70s, all of Chevrolets performance cars wore the SS badge, with a few notable exceptions like the Camaro Z/28. Nova. Chevelle. Monte Carlo. Impala. El Camino. Camaro. All had SS models. As performance fell away in the 70s, the SS moniker was retired and only revived by the Monte Carlo SS/El Camino SS in the 80s.

By then, Chevrolet was transitioning to the Z** nomenclature for the sporty cars.
Cavalier Z24. Beretta Z26. Camaro Z28. Lumina/Monte Carlo Z34. Corvette Z06. I wish that GM had continued to use the Z**, but I think that the Z models had that GM stigma surrounding it and didn’t sound as performance as SS did… so the SS models came back in full force in the 2000s

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
11 months ago

Ahh, the LSJ, the LS Junior as some called it. A lot of people question why they supercharged the 4 cylinder first. Forgetting that Mini was doing it at the same time and having fantastic results. I’ve only ridden shotgun in a SS/SC and it was a hoot!

The SS/NA was a good car too, albeit just slower. The handling was crisp, the shifter felt great, and honestly minus the GM parts bin issues, it was an awesome little coupe. My ex had one for several years and after we split, her timing chain flew off in a fit of plastic fantastic failure.

The SS/TC is where it’s at. The LNF is an amazing motor, the fact that you can have it in RWD and FWD flavor is fantastic. Dare I say, it’s more fun in the FWD package of the Cobalt and HHR flavor. The car is tossable, it pulls out of corners with a furiousness that some RWD sports cars can’t attain. It’s truly a wonder that GM, mid 2000’s GM, built such a fantastic chassis and engine package. It really embodies the spirit of GM and “everything surrounding the good stuff is crap”.

Anchor
Anchor
11 months ago
Reply to  rctothefuture

I have a basest of base model cobalts I bought because it was one of the cheapest things you could buy that wasn’t a kia when I got it.

2 door
5 speed
No A/C, no power anything, no ABS. It’s even an XFE, so taller 5th gear and it gets 45 mpg highway

It’s the fastest slow car I’ve ever driven.

Eric L
Eric L
11 months ago

I bought one of these new in 2006 because I was looking for something fun to drive and better on gas than the 2004 GTO I was using at the time. There is nothing to respect about this car. It was paying $24k for basically a $14k car. The engine made it special, everything else was crappy Cobalt. Mine I had for almost a year until GM bought it back as a lemon. Mine would die on accelerating, specifically in my case when on the on-ramp of an interstate and attempting to merge with traffic. Which is a big deal here in the Dallas area because the default freeway seems to be 90mph plus if you don’t want to get murdered.

  • First they said crank position sensor, did it again when driving to work the next day.
  • Next it was replace engine wiring harness, did it again when driving to work the next day.
  • After that, it was play in the crankshaft, dealer was to rebuild the bottom end.
  • Car never started after that.

The car sat at the dealership for 4 months as they replaced computers, wiring harness, sensors, threw their hands up in the air and ignored it. It eventually got escalated to a district manager and they pulled an engine off of the factory floor and put it in the car, then the car started. At that point I already had the Lemon buyback paperwork going. When I go to pick up my new short bed regular cab 2007 Silverado (which is worthy of respect and nostalgia after a 4/7 drop, mild cam, head work, headers, side exit exhaust, custom tune, man that thing moved and got better mileage than my 2004 GTO); they pull the Cobalt around and ask if I want it back, I politely declined.

What if that Cobalt was not under warranty and all that happened? It had a stage II kit from GM performance on it. I had acquired a bunch of other parts for it that in my wisdom didn’t ever install because I was going to wait until the factory warranty expired. At least I made all my money back selling the beefed up axles, header and full exhaust, pulleys, intercooler, etc that I never used.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
11 months ago

Also worth mentioning that for $800 you could get a dealer installed GMPP tune that took the LNF engine to 290HP 340FtLbs AND kept the factory warranty. Just required premium gas.

too bad I was about 5 years away from affording even that car or it would have been mine.

Rippstik
Rippstik
11 months ago

The Mazdaspeed3’s biggest Achilles Heel was that the drivetrain would blow up regularly and spectacularly. Very few nice ones left.

Tim Beamer
Tim Beamer
11 months ago

“Greatness has never been found in Quickbooks.” That’s literally one of the greatest lines I have ever read.

Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
11 months ago

There is a guy with one in a local scca group. The color on the timesheets is Nuclear Banana. He and his car are absurdly quick. FWD can be good coming from the right engineers at the right time and helmed by the right drivers. Absurdly good, in this case.

Goof
Goof
11 months ago

I swear every time I go to an autocross or a hillclimb or a solo day, the most surprising (and consistent) times will always be some person in something that is either a straight-up FWD economy car, or a hotted up version of one. Every. Damn. Time. Without fail.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
11 months ago

I saw one of the SS/TC sedans at the SC state fair in 2008. Nobody else knew what it was. Shame I had no money at the time.

The successor could loosely be labeled as the Buick Verano Turbo. Same engine and could be had with a stick. Undoubtedly porkier but Delta II cars handle okay even in base trims.

Dinklesmith
Dinklesmith
11 months ago

My uncle had a Cobalt SS and absolutely wasted it. He just used it as a commuter car and ran massive highway miles on it. The Cobalts were built the next town over so they were the go to economy car, and he just wanted the highest trim level

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
11 months ago

what an awesome and well written article! that kids growing up nowadays wont have cars like this is a shame. Cash for Clunkers did such lasting damage, as well.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
11 months ago

“Not here to fuck spiders”. I laughed out loud and, when queried by my nine year old, I could not explain to him why I was laughing so hard

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
11 months ago

This is one of those cars where the numbers are damn impressive but at the end of the day I just don’t give a F.

Toecutter
Toecutter
11 months ago

This car’s bland but pleasing styling coupled with its powerful engine will mean it will age very well. My only major gripe is that it is front wheel drive.

Dinklesmith
Dinklesmith
11 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Looking back, I find the Cobalt has aged better than the Cruze that replaced it, even though the Cruze, in its day, was considered the better car

Lokki
Lokki
11 months ago

—-

Last edited 11 months ago by Lokki
Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
11 months ago

I know these cars can perform, but when these were new I just couldn’t get past the boring design. The SRT-4 looked raw, the GTI looked mature, and the Speed3 looked menacing. The Cobalt looked like a scrunched Impala SS, which was also understyled. As sort of odd looking as the Ion was, it was definitely the better looking of the siblings.

Cam.man67
Cam.man67
11 months ago

Man, I loved the Cobalt SS/TC. I test drove one my senior year of college and my God was it fast. I shopped ot agains a GTI and WRX, and the ‘Balt was in my opinion the best of the 3. The GTI had a better interior but I’d had a bad experience with VWs prior so that was a no go. The WRX I tested had weird clutch take up so it wasn’t really a contender. The Cobalt was white with a red interior and I dang near bought it the day I test drove it, but I decided that rather than I new car what I *actually* needed was a rusty shitbox pickup, so that the purchase I made. I don’t really regret passing on the Cobalt, but it was a good, affordable rocket in its day. Honestly though the HHR SS was far cooler.

Acid Tonic
Acid Tonic
11 months ago

Evolution IX and X were the cars of the group to have in my opinion (having owned both).

Active center differential in 2006 and active rear diff in 2008. I had an 06 and a 12.

Just because some track nut out drove one in a dry lap somewhere means nothing to me. On the street the Evo was king and the handling was simply superb.

Recaros when other cars didnt have them yet. Brembos before many had them. MOMO steering wheel stock. Tunable ECU when others were still far more locked.

Factory forged engine and the largest turbocharger of all these cars, but twin scroll to spool it up when the others were not.

4.69:1 stock final drive…

I miss mine tremendously. They were just more money but a real well done stock car.

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
11 months ago
Reply to  Acid Tonic

IIn 2006, the Mitsubishi Evo 9 sold for $35,189. The Evo X based at $37,995 and could be optioned up to $76,400. The cars discussed in this article were in the low to mid $20k range. I’m not sure you’re really apples to apples here.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
11 months ago

These things were so dope. From my memory back in the day, like no one tuner scene liked these. I would go to street races, back when that was a thing. And people would dunk on this car constantly. When it was new, there was just no aftermarket for it. And a belief that it was GM trying to hard. Weird thing was the Neon SRT4 was heavily embraced, and even that damn Escort Zx2 had its fans. But I can’t think of a single person who ran one of these. Maybe cause everyone’s GM loving dad wanted one. Really, if you said you’re looking at one, people would tell you to buy an RSX or Spec-V or a Tc.

They seem more popular now. With ZZP being a thing now, there is two in my rural New England county making 400 wheel. If you told me a GM 4banger could hold 400 wheel in 2008, I wouldn’t believe you. But I know two people who swapped out the K-series in their RSX for a B-series, so we were a bit primitive.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
11 months ago

I always chalked it up it up to visuals – it looked too much like simply the evolution of GM’s ultimate cockroach, the Cavalier. Not even the Skyline-esq taillights could save it.

Meanwhile, all the competitors, real or not, were either new or relatively so. And the scene at the time was all about the new, so I think that prejudice kinda doomed it. But of course, the paucity of them sold then has made them way more coveted now.

Just like how back in the day, nobody was buying the last of the gigantic-engined muscle cars by the mid-70s, but now…

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
11 months ago

Used to see these on the road often around here in their heyday, but never got to drive or ride in one. People I talked to who had driven them all thought they were a lot of fun, though, and certainly worth the money if you were looking for a hot econobox.

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