Chevrolet Cobalt: A Retrospective

Chevrolet Cobalt

My wife bought a 2005 Cobalt brand new. I've maintained it since we've been married and put a few miles on it myself. It's the normal LS trim level. Nothing terribly special in the grand scheme of things. Well, I did propose to her in it so there's that. But as far as a car goes it's as regular as you can get. Her Cobalt is low mileage for its age (around 50,000 miles) as we mostly use my vehicles with so it sees little in the way of daily duty. It still goes on longer trips and I do drive it to work sometimes in the summer. Old blue gets better mileage that my Subarus, doesn't need premium gas and doesn’t have the issue of having to be in a panic trying to find four new tires if we shred one far from home. Also, with all of my cars being manual transmissions the Cobalt is the only one Megan can drive.

It's never been a bad car for us. It's held up well, mostly only needing routine maintenance. A few issues under warranty and a bad window regulator have been the only real problems. However, we're just a sample size of one and the Chevy Cobalt has a bad reputation for some very good reasons.

It feels like GM had hopes that the Cobalt would make everyone forget the Cavalier and its image. The Cavalier, at least later versions of it, was mostly reliable if very cheaply built, even by 90s standards. The Cobalt was definitely up market from that. Anyone who bemoans a Cobalt's interior has never seen the Cavalier, Sunfire, Aspire or any other cheap domestic car from the 90s. I'm pretty sure they came from the factory with worn out bucket seats and paint coming off the plastic. In that measure the Cobalt was a success. Most certainly a movement in the upward direction for GM's small cars. It was just up against much better offerings at the time from Honda, Toyota and even Ford. It’s styling, even compared to other econoboxes of the day, was pretty boring too. Not necessarily ugly, just sort of there. The Cobalt looks simple and to be fair underneath it all it is. Chevy let the Cobalt leave the market quietly and deeply discounted. The ignition problems had become public knowledge before the model was put out to pasture. In 2010 one could find brand new cars sitting on lots for as little as $12,000. GM realized they couldn't hang with the Civic/Corolla/Focus on features and just decided to compete on being cheap. Even before ignition-gate the little car had a hard time overcoming its low rent materials and quality issues. Moving up market from the Cavalier wasn’t a very big jump, especially compared to the competition. General Motors then did what it does best and retired the beleaguered Cobalt nameplate to replace it with the Cruze. See the Vega and Cavalier for previous examples of this pattern. Where other manufacturers keep brands around GM seems happy to let any name recognition die.

The quality control issues with the Delta Platform cars were numerous from day one. American car companies in the 2000s put about as much care and time into small cars as a high schooler in a college prep English class does on a paper on Hemmingway. Large trucks and SUVs were still their bread and butter with some minor attention paid to midsize cars like the Taurus. In the big three's defense most people looking at small efficient cars like the Civic, Corolla or Prius probably wouldn't give a domestic make the time of day anyway. It's a cultural thing here in the US. Mostly it’s a hold over from the 70s when the imports were light years ahead in these respects, just look at a first generation Civic compared to a Chevy Vega. Nowadays its more of a wash in my opinion.

Unless you've had your head stuck in dark place for the last few years you've probably read about the myriad of lawsuits and recalls involving the Delta Platform cars. This was the Cobalt, Ion and G5 with a few other oddballs like the HHR. My wife's Cobalt has seen three recalls, one being for the ignition switch of doom. According to GM themselves there have been 124 deaths directly linked to the switch and airbags failing to deploying during collisions. Since that's GM's estimate I expect the actual number to be much higher, but as far as automobile deaths go 124 isn't a huge number but it's troubling that GM knew about the problem for years and failed to act on it. This is what happens when the bean counters run things. All of this is over a few cents on a ignition switch detent plunger. What was to be a rather regular car suddenly joined the likes of the Pinto and Corvair in the public's perception.

I want to give some credit where it's due though. General Motors had some good ideas and well designed features on the Cobalt. The engineers clearly wanted it to succeed and it mostly seems like the accountants let it down. The 2.2L Ecotec is a fairly sturdy engine and low maintenance, it uses a timing chain in lieu of a belt so you avoid a costly service item there. The electric power steering works well. The trunk lid of all things amazes me. Most sedans have large hinges hanging down from the lid that intrude into the trunk space, meaning you can never quite fill the trunk up. The Cobalt has external hinges that stay out of the way and are supported on struts. You can pack that sucker up to the top if you want. On the interior has some well thought out parts too. An actual coolant temperature gauge on the dash, the gauges are actually readable in daylight, seats are comfortable and it's pretty well insulated from road noise. It's a bit spartan but it is an economy car after all. None of the controls are awkward to get to and the interior is good looking if a bit plain. You could actually order a trim level with no AC, crank windows and manual locks if you wanted as well.

Cobalt Trunk

The amazing trunk lid! OK, maybe I'm just easily impressed.

Temperature Gauge

Wow! A real coolant temperature gauge! Don't see those anymore.

Which brings me to the conundrum at hand here. At some point the Cobalt seemed to be handed off to the interns to finish. Either that or the engineers got into the manger's vodka stash about midway through the process. There are parts of this car you look at and can't help but going “oh yeah, GM knew what they were doing here” and others that show they clearly dropped the ball or just weren’t paying attention. Combine this with the aforementioned bean counters trying to save pennies on its build and you’ve wound up with the Cobalt that GM hopes the rest of the world will forget. Of course I suspect GM never expect anyone to keep a Cobalt longer than a few years. Certainly not the decade we've had it. Small, inexpensive cars that hold up well over a decade don't fit in well with the idea that we're temporarily embarrassed millionaires. You're supposed to upgrade, small cars are for kids a poor people. This mentality is part of the reason why I think US manufacturers have never really had a domestic small car hit like the Civic, Fit or Corolla.

The hit and miss syndrome wasn’t exclusive to the Delta Platform with either. GM has been quite innovative at times and then just falls right off the boat. The EV1 is probably the best example of this. GM had fully electric cars available before Elon Musk even really got PayPal off the ground, nevermind Tesla. Then they yanked the EV1 right out of consumers hands, sometimes against their will. GM of the 80s, 90s and 00s seemed to drop the ball on the follow through more often than not. We have yet to see what the post bailout GM will really be like. The Cobalt is nearly a perfect microcosm of this version of General Motors, There is a light on the horizon though as it seems they’ve started to steady their ship and up their build quality in recent years. Not to mention focusing on new technologies, economy and actually improvements in QC. The Volt is one of the most interesting hybrids on the market, they’ve started putting diesels back in small trucks and cars and despite it’s long term reliability issues the C7 Corvette is probably the closest thing to a super car killer being produced by the big three right now (at an awesome price tag I might add). But if you’re looking at a high power sports car chances are using it as a reliable daily driver isn’t high on your list. Ferrari and Porsche don’t exactly have Toyota quaking in their boots either. Only time will tell if the GM of the past is still lurking in the basement somewhere. As someone eyeing a Duramax Colorado I personally hope that GM has these problems taken care of.

I titled this as a retrospective but we have no plans on getting rid of the car. The Cobalt still runs, is paid for and is absurdly cheap to operate. Despite dangerous reputation, dubious fit and finish, and, let’s be honest, downright blandness of the car the Cobalt continues to faithfully serve its purpose for us. It’s unassuming, non-threatening, simple and for the most part just stays out of the way. The Cobalt is a nice uneventful drive home after a day at the office. By contrast WRX is growly, mean and domineering. It requires, no it demands attention from everyone around it. I can’t drive through town on the way home with out getting revved at, headlights flashed, honked at, waved at or exciting random teenagers. It is so opposite who I am that sometimes I wonder what I’m doing with it. But, more on that later. The Cobalt just lets you slip, unnoticed and unbothered, straight through the crowd. Assured that it will work and not yell about itself each and every time.

With everything I’ve said if you’re looking for an affordable commuter a used Cobalt isn’t a bad way to go. A few of the early models had problems with the timing chain tensioner failing and poorly sealing valve seats but otherwise they seem to be able to do 200,000 miles no problem. By now I’d expect most of the infant mortality type issues to have worked their way through the ones still on the road. So, for a couple of grand you can pick up a decently comfortable, reliable car that gets upwards for 30mpg. Not bad really. Just make sure you get those recalls done.