While there are plenty of car enthusiasts in the world who live for the chance to ogle the latest exotic offerings and talk shop about the biggest engines, the great bulk of car drivers are actually interested in what a car does for them. Does it move you from place to place? Is it fairly comfortable while doing so? Does it run fast enough to get the job done without single-handedly exhausting the North American gas reserve?
In other words, what many people are looking for is a car that looks nice, but isn't necessarily sporting the latest hipper-than-thou design cues. Something that's more than simply serviceable, but not so stylish as to break the bank. It's the giant practical niche that gives the Civic and Corolla everlasting life.
To a fair amount of corporate hoopla, Chevrolet this year introduced its latest model of entry-level cars, the Cobalt. Conceived in a handful of iterations, the Cobalt is pitched as the perky little brother to the big boy lineup: Corvette, Silverado and SSR. That makes the Cobalt LT sedan the most mature of the younger siblings -- a sensible four-door that takes a moderate approach to both styling and performance, but manages to throw in a touch of luxe in the interior as well.
On the outside, the LT registers as a nice compact sedan. It's a bit more conservatively styled than the other models in the line -- where the two-door coupe features sporty, round taillights, the LT opts for a more Corolla-esque, quarter-circle treatment that's perhaps a bit overly familiar.
The safe styling cedes the playful ground to more sprightly looking cars such as the Mazda 3. However, the Cobalt is an enormous step up from the model it replaced, the awkward and ugly Cavalier, the front grill of which evoked a teenager with a bad overbite. You may not be turning a lot of heads with the LT, but you won't be making anyone snicker, either.
The LT is a competent performer around town and the beltway, merging and passing without much fuss. Handling is firmer than in typical American-built sedans -- not so soft as to leave you bouncing around like a balloon man, yet tight enough to adroitly handle standard curves and parking garages. The speed-sensitive steering operated without making itself obvious.
I'm not, however, a big fan of the four-speed automatic transmission, which occasionally spat out some rough shifting during early acceleration.
Slipping behind the wheel of the LT was a pleasant surprise, as the interior was far more inviting and competent than I expected. Doors and levers and moving parts all fit where they should, and nothing was loose or wobbly. In the past, I've found GM interiors to be mismatched amalgamations of parts from their myriad platform-sharing models, but the Cobalt is a refreshing change from that, with everything blending together nicely.
I would, if I could, get rid of the too-cheesy, fake-wood trim spanning the dashboard. While the controls for the stereo and climate are simple and accessible, the buttons to call up trip and engine information are frustratingly hidden behind the steering wheel.
My test model included the standard, sharp-sounding, seven-speaker stereo system and the optional XM Satellite radio ($325), which made for a nice commuting tune time. And as always, you should spring for the side impact and head curtain airbags for another $395.
Overall, the Cobalt LT is a solid entry into a niche full of strong competition. But if you're in the market for an entry-level sedan that offers a good value without a lot of flash, then you should be scheduling yourself a test drive.