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I want everyone reading this to do me a big favor: Take all of your past GM small-car experiences and throw them in a lake. Forget about the girl in high school with the cheetah-fur steering wheel cover on her Pontiac Sunfire (you've probably been trying for the past ten years). Ignore the utter garbage of the 80s, the unforgivable interiors of the 90s, and the distasteful stigma that has, as a result, carried on through this century. Don't even bother going back to read Motive's HHR SS review you ignored after brushing the poor thing off as ugly and pointless despite the strong numbers it can put down. The new Cobalt SS is even better — in fact, it may be the best small car Chevrolet has ever built.

I mention the HHR SS only because it shares so much with the Cobalt. The powertrain — a 260-hp, 260-lb-ft, direct-injection, 2.0-liter turbocharged four mated to a 5-speed manual transmission sourced from Saab — is identical, though the HHR is available with an optional automatic while the Cobalt is not. And while many of the components are unique to each car — the HHR and Cobalt suspension calibrations are both code-named FE5, and are both tuned for a ride that's compliant and relaxed in traffic but very capable on the track — Chevrolet says the combination of suspension tuning and 18-inch Continental summer tires (the HHR wears all-seasons) allows the Cobalt SS to pull 0.9 laterals on a skidpad.

The 2975-pound Cobalt SS is a tiny little thing compared with the HHR. It leans more toward the track-car-for-the-street end of the spectrum, rather than the reverse. In support of this, Chevrolet has made 4-piston Brembo front brakes and vented rear rotors standard equipment, while a limited-slip differential will cost just $495 extra. Inside the cabin, the Cobalt SS gets sport seats carved deeper than any others I can think of from Chevrolet's past. They're inspired by — but not built by — Recaro, but the inner materials aren't up to Recaro spec; the otherwise firm side bolsters give way to sponginess under heavy loads. Rounding off the track-focused modifications is an optional and very tall rear spoiler. It was standard equipment back when the supercharged Cobalt SS was on the market, but 70 percent of buyers selected the no-cost delete option, pushing Chevy to make it an option this time around. I'd skip that check box for the sake of rear visibility, but here's some ammunition for the pro-spoiler crowd: at 70 mph, it generates 23 pounds of downforce. At 120 mph, that rises to 68.7 pounds, and at the top speed of 155 mph the number is 115 pounds. Lose the wing, though, and top speed rises to a drag-limited 160 mph. Everything has its trade-offs.

I'm unable to test that top-speed claim during my afternoon at Buttonwillow Raceway in Bakersfield, California, but the Cobalt makes me giggle nonetheless. Despite a 60/40 weight distribution, the car is incredibly well balanced. "You can thank stability control for that," dynamics engineer Matt Purdy tells me. "Before, we had to dial in understeer to keep the car safe. But adding stability control has allowed us to make the car more neutral." As a result, the Cobalt SS feels lively and eager to rotate into corners where many front-drivers might plow. It's easy to steer the car with the throttle and brakes, which is a good thing because the steering system itself isn't as direct as it could be. The SS uses an electric power steering system just like base Cobalts, but gets a different motor and a 10-percent quicker ratio. This is one of the better, more hydraulic-feeling electric systems on the market, but quick corrections require too much input and feedback is a bit numb. As a result, the throttle, brakes, clutch, and steering don't all work with the harmony you'd find in a Volkswagen GTI.

The compromise for this is that the Cobalt SS is virtually free of torque steer. Going full throttle out of a turn makes the steering column flex its muscles, but it never actually flinches. Purdy credits this to the thicker, solid stabilizer bars and revised suspension knuckles, but the car's computer also senses steering input and dials back boost from the turbocharger to prevent a sudden, mid-corner surge of arm-twisting torque.

When the front wheels aren't cocked, the Cobalt runs up to 60 mph in less than six seconds, aided by a torque curve that peaks at a low 2000 rpm and stays flat up to the 6300-rpm redline. Chevrolet's new "no-lift shift" feature helps, too. It allows for full-throttle shifts by electronically preventing over-revving of the engine, which in turn keeps the turbocharger from unspooling during gear changes. Performing the maneuver requires a full brain reflash, but it is especially useful on a track where fluid full-throttle upshifts ensure that the car's chassis isn't upset by power interruptions. When it comes time to scrub off speed, the standard Brembos are firm and fade-free, even after hours of track time. In fact, the hotter they get the better they work.

The Cobalt SS is a very capable, very enjoyable track car. It lacks some of the refinement of the Volkswagen GTI, the space of a Mazdaspeed3, or the all-weather usability of a Subaru WRX, but makes up for it with endless brute power and an excellent chassis. If you're still not sold, just look at the car's Nürburgring class record of 8:22.85. That time smashed the Opel Astra OPC's record by 13 seconds and is 17 seconds faster than Mazda's own claim for the MS3. Not only that, it tops German magazine Sport Auto's lap times for the E36 BMW M3, the Audi S5, the Porsche Cayman S, the Lotus Exige, and the Honda S2000. The Cobalt's performance belies the fact that this little car is actually very economical; it managed to return 30 mpg on the EPA's highway cycle.

So what's the catch? At $22,995, the Cobalt SS sits just dollars away from the competitors listed above and shares its price with the more practical HHR SS. The car has the performance to back the sticker price, but as a small coupe (a sedan comes next year) with no available automatic transmission, the Cobalt won't fit the needs and preferences of many buyers in this market. The car is ideal for someone looking to replace his Neon SRT-4 or Focus SVT with a thoroughly enjoyable turbo track toy, and the perfect tool for smashing your preconceptions of small Chevrolets. Go give one a try.
 

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I am not crazy over most Chevy's or Cobalt's but I gotta admit this Cobalt SS is definitely one hot little car. I personally love the Red/Black Interior.
 

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^^ I've only had one brief testdrive of a Cobalt, Sobe, but that seems a bit harsh to me - don't remember any complaints (nor major compliments...)
but
in my base10-oriented mind,
that 180" ovl size/segment is about to become very important imho
&
it's possible that 'almost' any entry might be better than no entry // I'm still not
Completely convinced about our Ecosport >>Verve purgatory
...tho I can (unfortunately) believe ^it^ was pretty bad

I wish it was Nov'09 :(
 
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