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Buyer's Guide: Chevy Cobalt SS


story by robert bowen

For most consumers, Chevy’s Cavalier was a totally forgettable denizen of rental car fleets and subprime borrowers. For more than 20 years, the nameplate graced ever more downmarket cars as its technology and styling failed to keep up. Sure, there were a few half-hearted attempts at making a Cavalier that was also fun to drive, but there were a lot more flops than successes.

When the bowtie brand unveiled the new Delta-platform Cobalt for 2005, reviewers were understandably cautious. This was an all-new design to replace the aging Cavalier, endowed with a bit of international DNA: It shared a platform with Holden, Vauxhall and Opel. It was also the basis of the promising Saturn Ion.

Like the outgoing car, the Cobalt came in coupe and sedan form, although a convertible was not offered. The base 2.2-liter Ecotec carried over from the Cavalier. It wasn’t a bad engine, though perhaps it wasn’t as technologically advanced as some competitors’ powerplants. Initial reviews were promising: Here was a car that could possibly compete on equal footing with imported compacts.

In the “minuses” column, the Cobalt’s bland styling was panned, and the interior design and materials were stuck firmly in the Old GM world of cost-cutting and (lack of) product design. While it was a good start, what the Cobalt really needed was a dose of excitement.

Two Esses, Three Versions

Other manufacturers were already offering sporty variants of their compacts–cars like the Sentra SE-R, Civic Si, Neon SRT-4, SVT Focus, and even the Evo and WRX. Chevy entered that ring by giving the Cobalt a youthful kick, creating a series of enthusiast-targeted models under the Cobalt SS nameplate. Even if few Cobalt buyers understood its history, the Super Sport name carried some historical weight.

The Cobalt SS badge actually graced three very different cars. The first out of the gate was the 205-horsepower Supercharged Coupe. Under the hood was a sweet 2.0-liter Ecotec engine. It was similar to the one used in the Saab 9-3 since 2002, but with supercharging instead of a turbo. For packaging reasons, a liquid-to-air intercooler with a separate coolant reservoir handled charge cooling. Behind the Euro-sourced engine was a five-speed transmission, which was also cribbed from various European GM cars–including the Saab 9-5.

How did the SS’s equipment differ from a regular Cobalt’s? It sported unique, stiffer suspension tuning, larger anti-roll bars, and 18-inch forged alloy wheels. Available options included a Quaife mechanical limited-slip differential and Recaro seats in the available Performance Package. A gigantic spoiler was standard equipment, as on many sport compacts at the time.

The little coupe was quite a dynamic improvement over the ordinary Cobalt. It easily clicked off sub-6-second zero-to-60 times in contemporary reviews, and was roundly praised for its taut handling and stout engine. Wheelspin and torque steer were present, but thanks to a price of less than $22,000, most everyone seemed to agree that the good outweighed the bad in this new GM pocket rocket.

Nearly from the beginning, GM Performance Parts offered dealer-installed Stage kits to boost the power of the supercharged engine without voiding the factory warranty. The Stage 1 package reflashed the factory ECU and increased the injector size for a 235-horsepower output. Stage 2 included a smaller supercharger pulley, along with the ECU and injectors for a 241-horsepower total output.

For the truly hardcore, GM Performance engineered a Stage 3 kit branded “for off-road use only.” This kit included an even smaller pulley, a completely different ECU with user-programmable rev limiter, no support for a/c, and even a built-in nitrous oxide controller. Plus, a different side plate improved the stock intercooler’s cooling performance. GM claimed that with 100-octane fuel, the engine made 260 horsepower–near the top of the front-wheel-drive compact horsepower wars.

Starting in 2006, the hyperactive, supercharged Cobalt SS was joined by a 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated SS model. Its LE5 engine was a newer-generation Ecotec with variable valve timing and a 173-horsepower output. The atmospheric SS added a sedan to the formula, and it featured an optional automatic transmission. The suspension and wheels were a step down from the parts included with the SS Supercharged Coupe, but they were still sportier than the stuff given to ordinary Cobalts.

The big news for the SS lineup came for the 2008 model year. The supercharged engine, according to GM, was no longer able to meet tightening emissions regulations. The supercharged car was dropped, and the naturally aspirated SS was demoted to just the Cobalt Sport.

But the SS was not dead yet. Later in the 2008 model year, GM grabbed the direct-injection, turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec engine installed in the Solstice and Sky, turned it 90 degrees, and installed it in the outgoing SS’s coupe body. New, wider wheels and new seats were among the very few changes made to the car, which also included the formerly optional Quaife limited-slip differential.

With 260 horsepower and 260 ft.-lbs. of torque on tap, the new SS could rocket to 60 mph in around 5.5 seconds–a significant improvement over the Supercharged SS. Handling was tweaked slightly, too, and GM proudly touted the fact that the new car’s suspension tuning was honed on the Nürburgring. Engineers allegedly targeted the all-wheel-drive Lancer Evolution’s road-holding when developing the car.

Shut It Down

For 2009, Chevy upped the ante with the addition of a Cobalt SS sedan, featuring the same great performance as the coupe. Unfortunately, it was a poorly timed launch. Along with everything else in the GM world, Cobalt SS sales tanked just as the new car arrived in dealerships.

Amid the uncertainties of GM’s bankruptcy, the Cobalt SS quietly died after the 2009 model year. The Daewoo-designed Cruze took the Cobalt’s place on the roster. The factory hasn’t announced or hinted at a Cruze-based replacement for the Cobalt SS, so fans of cheap, homegrown speed are probably going to have to look elsewhere for their kicks.

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/21/17 8:54 a.m.

You know, I was just thinking about these the other day. For a little while there, they were part of our world. Then they kind of disappeared.

What does the hive think about them?

pinchvalve
pinchvalve MegaDork
6/21/17 8:59 a.m.

I still think they look great, especially with blacked-out windows, and they are a real performance bargain. If I ever get the scratch for a track rat, this would be my choice over a riced-out Civic.

SS

Dbussey1
Dbussey1 Reader
6/21/17 9:21 a.m.

If I wasn't in the middle of a move, I would have been on a plane to retrieve the low-miles Ion Redline in WA that popped up on here a couple weeks ago.

They strike me as an affordable do-everything car if you can locate an example that hasn't been abused yet.

chuckles
chuckles HalfDork
6/21/17 9:24 a.m.

Mine is an excellent track day car, dead-reliable, surprisingly quick. I love it.

Trackmouse
Trackmouse SuperDork
6/21/17 9:48 a.m.

As a longtime Super Street reader I remember the issue that came in the Mail with a cobalt on the cover. 2006 if I remember right. At the time that car had the Tsukuba time attack record. I was blown away that a fwd Chevy could do that, let alone run and drive...

parker
parker Reader
6/21/17 10:21 a.m.

I love mine but I'll be posting it for sale soon as I need to reduce the fleet. Four door, non-sunroof, LSD, bright red.

266,xxx mostly trouble free miles. I did have to replace the turbo, clutch and timing chain at about 200,000. Fastest car I've ever owned but not as much fun as my FR-S.

759NRNG
759NRNG HalfDork
6/21/17 10:43 a.m.

ZZperformance.com is the center of all things cobalt.....with proven results. Worth a look....Loose C has.

NickD
NickD SuperDork
6/21/17 10:57 a.m.

I think the biggest problem with these cars was the vast majority of the owners. Most of the Cobalt SSs I see are missing a large chunk of the front bumper, driving on 3 different brands of tires and don't have a dent/rust-free body panel. They got bought by kids who couldn't afford to maintain them, or just couldn't be bothered to, and were subsequently run into the ground.

chuckles
chuckles HalfDork
6/21/17 11:52 a.m.

Mine is a 2010, bought new late that year. The LSD was still optional. I have read that about half the turbo cars ('08-'10) had it. I had mine installed by Werks Performance near Chicago, another excellent shop.

NGTD
NGTD UberDork
6/21/17 12:05 p.m.

I know a guy that has a pristine white Supercharged one. It is spotless and I don't know that he would ever let it go.

I was always more interested in the turbocharged model.

NoBrakesRacing
NoBrakesRacing Reader
6/21/17 12:50 p.m.

Not going to search Craigslist...

Tony Sestito
Tony Sestito PowerDork
6/21/17 1:26 p.m.

I always thought that the 2009ish turbocharged sedans would make great sleepers. Aside from wheels and a SS badge, they look identical to the regular ones, for better or worse. They are pretty rare these days.

JeffHarbert
JeffHarbert HalfDork
6/21/17 1:34 p.m.

In reply to NoBrakesRacing: I already did. About a dozen in my area, most under $6000. Good thing I'm saving up to build a shop.

In reply to Tony Sestito: Those are unicorns for me. I've never seen an SS sedan (of any year) in the flesh before. Just the coupes.

conesare2seconds
conesare2seconds Dork
6/21/17 1:35 p.m.

Would really like to see what a turbo model can do with some of the tunes and power upgrades that are available. The HHR SS was stupidly fast at Nurburgring and the Cobalt can't be slower.

jere
jere HalfDork
6/21/17 2:45 p.m.

I have the 2004 ion redline variety. For the most part pretty practical/fun family car. I bought mine for $1,300 (I think it was) 120,000 miles, needed some work. Previous owner treated it like it was an indestructible cockroach car. It had a lot of recalls needed that only the ss cobalt actually got... And currently dealing with a pcm problem, ie throws codes on new sensors runs like garbage.

The dealer couldn't figure it out, but figured pcm was maybe it. Got another "working pcm" sent it off to zzp and got the same issues. Zzp said sometimes the pcms will work in one car but not another... Could just be 1st year run car bugs too.

To do it all again I would have bought the saab cousin with the 6spd lsd and the turbo rather than the supercharged non lsd ion.

NickD
NickD SuperDork
6/21/17 3:03 p.m.
jere wrote: I have the 2004 ion redline variety. For the most part pretty practical/fun family car. I bought mine for $1,300 (I think it was) 120,000 miles, needed some work. Previous owner treated it like it was an indestructible cockroach car. It had a lot of recalls needed that only the ss cobalt actually got... And currently dealing with a pcm problem, ie throws codes on new sensors runs like garbage. The dealer couldn't figure it out, but figured pcm was maybe it. Got another "working pcm" sent it off to zzp and got the same issues. Zzp said sometimes the pcms will work in one car but not another... Could just be 1st year run car bugs too. To do it all again I would have bought the saab cousin with the 6spd lsd and the turbo rather than the supercharged non lsd ion.

That's a weirdo Ion thing. They hate modules. Once had a GM engineer tell me that when replacing modules in an Ion, order them by the 6-pack so that you might get one that programs right. He was right. Had an Ion where the BCM stopped sending the LF turn signal output. Ordered a new BCM and put it in, now the turn signal worked but the radio and radio backlighting never turned off. Replaced it again and now the gauge cluster didn't work right and every warning light was on. Put in a 3rd new, unprogrammed OEM BCM and this time it went through and actually operated everything properly.

The0retical
The0retical SuperDork
6/21/17 3:08 p.m.

In reply to NickD:

The same sad story as the SRT-4...

I think they're cool but finding one in decent shape is tough these days.

NickD
NickD SuperDork
6/21/17 3:23 p.m.

Also, when looking at early Cobalt SS, make sure it is a Cobalt SS Supercharged. The regular Cobalt SS had all the appearance and chassis bits, but was missing the blown mill, instead making do with the N/A 170hp 2.4L Ecotec. I've come across a few of those rolling disappointments

4cylndrfury
4cylndrfury MegaDork
6/21/17 3:57 p.m.

I really want to find a decent example that was hit in the back and totalled. Then, harvest all its guts, and dump em into a DF Goblin, and sprinkle some ZZPerformance dust over the whole thing for good measure. 200hp mid/rear single sourced drop-in-drivetrain exocar sounds like a lot of fun to me.

parker
parker Reader
6/21/17 4:12 p.m.
4cylndrfury wrote: I really want to find a decent example that was hit in the back and totalled. Then, harvest all its guts, and dump em into a DF Goblin, and sprinkle some ZZPerformance dust over the whole thing for good measure. 200hp mid/rear single sourced drop-in-drivetrain exocar sounds like a lot of fun to me.

Did you mean 300hp?

Duke
Duke MegaDork
6/21/17 4:13 p.m.

If anybody has the Supercharged badge off the back of a Cobalt SS-S, I'd be interested in taking it off your hands.

penultimeta
penultimeta HalfDork
6/21/17 4:55 p.m.

I definitely didn't just go search C-list and definitely didn't see several for around 5k. Nope. Didn't do it.

drdisque
drdisque HalfDork
6/21/17 7:36 p.m.

The S/C one was a bit disappointing, coming out about the same time as the SRT4 but with less power and very little going in its favor. Then they did it right with the turbo SS, but by then most people didn't care and had already soured on the Cobalt in general and the Cobalt SS in particular based on the disappointment of the S/C.

The Turbo SS had a lot of neat stuff for a sport compact of its era - torque vectoring, a mechanical LSD, a ton of power, really trick engine management.

dj06482
dj06482 SuperDork
6/21/17 10:44 p.m.

...and who could forget no lift shift!

Txsilverbalt
Txsilverbalt None
6/23/17 3:49 p.m.

The great thing about the delta platform is the interchangeability. All of the suspension components from the SS models fit the base models with relative ease.

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