All of the other automotive journalists were talking up the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS, but we remained skeptical. Car and Driver calls it "freaky fast and fun on a twisty road." Road and Track thinks it might be the "most underrated car in the world". According to Winding Road, "the real draw of the Cobalt SS is the driving experience". But this was a Cobalt, a low-end economy car from Chevrolet. Could it really be that good? A fast start with wheel-spinning furor convinced us it might just be the case. Solid cornering, with little drama or body roll, showed us this car could redeem GM in the small car segment.
But, although this car features some advanced tech, it's far from perfect. The understated design is practical, but the sound of shrieking metal as we opened and closed the driver's door suggested build-quality issues. Cabin tech relies on OnStar for navigation and hands-free calling, two features that we would rather see handled by Bluetooth and a proper GPS device. And although the car handles corners very well, ride quality is a little rough for long trips.
Test the tech: Torque steer test
The Cobalt SS uses one of GM's more advanced engines, a direct-injected turbocharged two-liter four-cylinder with variable-valve timing. Given that this engine puts 260 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels, we suspected torque steer might be a problem. To test out the torque steer, we tried a few tests, applying moderate-to-heavy acceleration from a stop.
For our first test, we took the traction control off, revved up the engine, then dropped the hammer. We gripped the wheel as the front tires spun, the car making little forward progress. Backing off on the gas to give the tires a chance to grip, the Cobalt SS bolted forward. Throughout, we maintained a good grip on the wheel and didn't feel significant torque steer. It seemed as if the car got the torque steer out of its system while the wheels were spinning.
We tried the same heavy acceleration test with traction control on. The Cobalt let the front tires spin, but not nearly as much as with traction control off. This time, the intermittent grip afforded by the traction control sent the car careening off to the right, torque steering having reared its ugly head to such a degree that we had to back off quicker than with the previous test.
Our next two tests involved moderate acceleration, this time with hands off the steering wheel. We turned off the traction control, revved up more moderately than on the previous tests, and let off the clutch pedal. There was minor wheel spin and the wheel immediately cranked around about 45 degrees to the right, indicating serious torque steer.
Finally, we repeated the same test with traction control on. This time, we got very little wheel spin, and the steering wheel remained straight. This test showed us that when traction control wasn't being overtaxed, torque steer was virtually eliminated, suggesting that Chevy engineers put good work into refining the control characteristics of the Cobalt SS.
We also ran a test with launch control on, a feature activated by hitting the traction control button twice. We revved up the engine and dropped the clutch again. The tires squealed loudly, but gripped enough to get the car moving fast. We kept a tight hold on the steering wheel, and didn't notice excessive torque steer.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt SS doesn't rise much above its economy-car platform. Hard plastics cover the dashboard, but you do get a leather wrapped steering wheel and sport seats. The stereo head unit is pretty standard for GM cars, with an electro-fluorescent display and a row of soft buttons. GM makes the most of these buttons, using them intelligently for browsing categories on XM satellite radio, picking presets, and setting the equalizer.