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Car and Driver (online) tests '09 Cobalt XFE

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2009 Chevrolet Cobalt LS XFE - Short Take Road Test

Xtra Fuel Economy may not be thrilling, but at least it’s not torture.

September 2008

At first glance, the Chevrolet Cobalt appears to be suffering from neglect. Its generic, character-free interior and exterior design was already a step behind the competition when the car launched in 2005, and little has changed in the intervening years. Now that the Cobalt is riding out its final years before its replacement, the Cruze, arrives in 2010 as a 2011 model, that’s sort of a moot point; we wouldn’t expect Chevy to invest heavily in its lame-duck compact, after all. But rising fuel prices and America’s growing interest in fuel-efficient cars spurred the giant to stir the Cobalt pot a little bit, as the automaker combined some fuel-saving tricks and technology to create the Cobalt XFE.

Chevy introduced the XFE (XFE stands for Xtra Fuel Economy) package for the 2008 Cobalt. For an extra $600, the ’08 XFE package came equipped with a 148-hp, 2.2-liter four-cylinder mated to a manual transmission, low-rolling resistance tires, a taller final-drive ratio (3.74:1), and a fuel-sipping engine calibration. Fuel economy jumped up from 24 mpg city and 33 highway to 25 mpg in the city cycle and an impressive 36 mpg on the highway.

For ’09, the Cobalt’s 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine gains variable valve timing and output rises to 155 horsepower. The XFE remains a manual-only proposition, but the tweaks are now standard on Cobalt LS and 1LT trim levels. An even taller (3.63:1) final-drive ratio is another change on the 2009 model that helps it bump highway fuel economy up to 37 mpg. In our hands, the ’09 Cobalt XFE returned 29 mpg combined in mostly city driving. In our 2005 test of an automatic-transmission equipped 2.2-liter Cobalt LS, we managed 27 mpg.

Peaceful, Easy Sippin’

The fuel-economy gains of the XFE aren’t huge by any means, but the nice thing is that the XFE package requires no sacrifice from the driver to return superior mpg’s. The taller axle ratio isn’t noticeable in the lower gears; in fact, the Cobalt XFE sprinted from 0–60 mph in a very respectable 7.5 seconds, which makes it one of the quicker cars in its class. In our “Little Feet” comparison test of eight compacts, the Cobalt’s time would have placed it behind only the Mitsubishi Lancer GTS and in a tie for second with the Volkswagen Rabbit S, ahead of the Scion xD, Ford Focus, Suzuki SX4, Saturn Astra, and Toyota Corolla. At highway speeds, the taller gearing for fifth keeps the engine revs low and the engine hushed. Downshifts to fourth are necessary for quick passes, as fifth-gear acceleration from 50–70 mph takes a long 13.3 seconds.

The XFE’s low-rolling-resistance Continental tires squeal with less provocation than we remember experiencing in the regular Cobalt, but the 0.77 g of skidpad number matches the grip from our 2005 test vehicle. The 200-foot stopping distance from 70 mph is almost inexcusably long for the class and adds 12 feet to the number posted by the ’05 Cobalt.

Our XFE lacked optional power windows, locks, and mirrors, but instead of making the Cobalt feel like a hair shirt, the do-it-yourself Cobalt exuded an honesty that is missing in many cars. The Cobalt drives like a simple and inoffensive transportation appliance, and many staffers commented on how nostalgic such a stripped car felt, how it reminded them of their first cars. (We doubt they’d sing the same tune after spending more than a single night in the XFE, however.)

Gets the Job Done, but Exciting It’s Not

Some might call the Cobalt XFE dull—and it is—but it is also competent. Although the Cobalt doesn’t exactly encourage the driver to flog it, the Chevy has no glaring dynamic flaws, the shifter moves crisply, it goes where it’s pointed, the ride is supple without being soft, and the engine goes about its business without drawing any negative attention. This car’s not quite as refined as the king of compact competence, the Toyota Corolla, but the Cobalt does start $400 cheaper, at $15,670. The only options fitted to our test car were a $180 Protection package (floor mats and body moldings), a $75 spare tire, and anti-lock brakes, which cost $400 and we consider a crucial add-on. The total was a thrifty $16,325.

If you’re willing to forgive the cheap-looking interior and the plain exterior styling, and are looking for an inoffensive car that’s easy on the wallet, the Cobalt XFE may just be the ticket. But always keep in mind that there are more exciting, more refined, and certainly better cars in the Cobalt’s segment.

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

PRICE AS TESTED: $16,325 (base price: $15,670)

ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block head, port fuel injection

Displacement: 134 cu in, 2198cc

Power (SAE net): 155 bhp @ 6100 rpm

Torque (SAE net): 150 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual

DIMENSIONS:

Wheelbase: 103.3 in Length: 180.5 in Width: 67.9 in Height: 57.1 in Curb weight: 2817 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS:

Zero to 60 mph: 7.5 sec

Zero to 100 mph: 21.6 sec

Zero to 110 mph: 28.3 sec

Street start, 5–60 mph: 8.1 sec

Standing ¼-mile: 15.9 sec @ 89 mph

Top speed (governor limited): 114 mph

Braking, 70–0 mph: 200 ft

Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g

FUEL ECONOMY:

EPA city/highway driving: 25/37 mpg

C/D-observed: 29 mpg

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While we're on the subject of second-tier compact cars, Ford has the '09 Focus up on its website now. Rear headrests are now offered, and ESC is bundled with ABS, a good deal.

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This car’s not quite as refined as the king of compact competence, the Toyota Corolla, b

Umm, what?

Last time I checked, pretty much everything (namely a Civic, and Astra or a Mini -- Keep in mind, the statement said "compact cars" no price point was given) blows the new Corolla out of the water.

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Umm, what?

Last time I checked, pretty much everything (namely a Civic, and Astra or a Mini -- Keep in mind, the statement said "compact cars" no price point was given) blows the new Corolla out of the water.

The new Corolla is finally a car I wouldn't be embarassed to drive - at least in the higher trims. It offers a lot of neat tricks (like the keyless start), but then OnStar can be pretty impressive, too. Of course, you all know I"d rather walk than drive a Toyota..........

I would be more concerned if the Cobalt didn't already have a planned replacement. Mercifully, we are not going to have another Cavalier on our hands here: staying 3 or 4 years beyond her prime. Our Cobalt sales are through the roof and for the buck, it's a very decent car. The tweaks to the '09 are pleasant and the extra power is noticeable. Let's be ready to dump all over GM if the Cruze doesn't blow the Civic and Mazda 3 out of the water. My gun is ready, just in case.

Oh, and at last you can get the graphite cloth interior in the Cobalt, which greatly improves the look of the interior.

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Actually a positive and a FAIR review for the most part. Something MT knows nothing about I am still considering cancelling my subscription b*stards.

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What new car doesn't have plain exterior styling? The Mazda 3 is one of the very few I can think of. A Cobalt LT with rear spoiler and bodyside moldings looks far less plain than a generic Corolla. If these moron editors actually think that a Corolla, Civic, Focus, Sentra or Elentra look anything but plain and dull then they need to leave there crack pipes home. I always have to laugh when these newer writers start talking about car styling and immediately criticize a vehicle that is more than a few years old. So typical of the throw away video game computer generation.

Edited by ponchoman49
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^200 Ft stopping distance, that is huge!

Low rolling resistance tires. C&D got 184 ft from a Prius in 02/04, that was with the 15" tires. I haven't yet found any results from the Touring model with the 16" tires.

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