They called it Cobalt because it’s dangerous. They didn’t intend it to mean the car was dangerous to drive, of course. More like lock-up-your-daughters dangerous. Don’t-bet-your-pink-slips dangerous. One-rhinestone-glove dangerous. Toxic to the uninitiated. Radioactive to the unwary. Intense and colorful. Hazardous if you disrespect it, yet healthy and life-giving in the right form. Something to take seriously.
Well, maybe not. Maybe the name just sounded good, but the name came to be associated with more danger than GM knew at the time. Read on and we’ll see if Cobalt really is dangerous and if their SS version should be taken seriously.
This article starts what I plan to be an occasional series on Chevrolet’s modern-era SSs, or M.E.SSs for short. Chevy’s SS models from the ’60s and early ’70s are esteemed and coveted by muscle car fans. The SS moniker fell out of use after 1973, which at least showed respect for the brand since any SS released in the next 10 years would have been weak sauce indeed compared to their tire-smoking predecessors, to which I’ll give the not-at-all-tortured title Before Emission Attenuations SS Touchstones (B.E.A.SST.s for short. Every English teacher I ever had should be cursing me now).
Chevy dipped their toe back into the muscle car game with the 1983 Monte Carlo SS, which I would consider the first M.E.SS. It wouldn’t win a drag race with a B.E.A.SST.ly 71 Chevelle SS454, but by the (low) standards of the time it was reasonably hot. A few more SS models came in the ’90s, but the 2000s is when Chevy decided it needed to SS all things. From 2000 to 2009, an SS model was added to most of the cars (and even trucks) Chevy offered. An SStravaganza!
Some of these were more successful in execution and/or sales than others, but all of them had at the very least somewhat improved performance and image. The fact that Chevy offered performance versions across almost their entire lineup is rather remarkable, so I think it’s worthwhile for us car enthusiasts to look at them, see what was on offer, and consider if they were worthy of their SS heritage. I have found and photographed examples of most of them, though there are a few that have eluded me to date. Hopefully in time I can get all of them.
We’ll start with one of the better ones, the first (and last) real attempt by GM at a high performance compact car, the aforementioned dangerous Cobalt.
In standard form, the Cobalt doesn’t look very dangerous.
Whose Cobalt is it? Miss Sassy Welltanned’s or Mr. Toocoolforschool Doorag’s? Regardless, neither of them could manage to make this Cobalt look even a little intense or hip.
Despite the name, I’ve always subconsciously thought of the base Cobalt as the real-life version of one of those Chevron cartoon cars from the commercials. A benign and friendly thing, like a puppy or a bag of marshmallows.
Unlike a puppy or marshmallows, the element Cobalt can be quite dangerous. Cobalt in its basic form as found in the earth is a metal. As part of a compound, it’s been used as rich blue dye since ancient times. A form of the Cobalt molecule makes Vitamin B12 (a.k.a. cobalamin), essential for life. That doesn’t sound too scary, but this element is not always so friendly.
Cobalt has a number of industrial uses. When it’s finely divided, as it often is in industrial settings, it’s officially a hazardous substance. It’s flammable and can ignite spontaneously. Without proper respiratory protection, it can cause lung scarring and if ingested can disrupt multiple organs. Cobalt is also a carcinogen and should only be touched with protection.
Cobalt is perhaps better known for its radioactivity. It has several man-made radioactive isotopes, Cobalt-60 being the most common and useful for industrial radiography and medical radiotherapy, among other purposes. Used properly, it ideally only harms cancer cells. Handled improperly, the intense gamma rays it emits, in increasing doses, will cause skin burns, radiation sickness, and death.
Even in its basic form as mined from the earth, danger follows Cobalt. Cobalt is a crucial component of lithium-ion batteries, which of course are used in our ubiquitous electronic devices and the burgeoning choices of HEV/PHEV/BEVs. Sourcing of the raw materials is troublesome as a majority of the cobalt used comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as well as Cuba, Zambia, and other third-world areas. In the DRC particularly, mining operations work with little regulation or oversight from the notoriously corrupt government, so miners—including children, in many cases—generally work with no safety equipment and mines contaminate the environment in surrounding areas. Cobalt demand undoubtedly helps the economies of the DRC and other struggling countries, but not without abuse and danger.
A recent book,Cobalt Red, details the controversy. I really don’t think Chevrolet had all that in mind when they named the car!
So what’s in a name? Chevrolet wanted their all-new car to rehabilitate their image in the compact market. The Cavalier had been a lackluster product for so many years, the name would be a handicap no matter how good the new car was. GM marketing, through their scientific ministrations, determined that young people associated the word Cobalt with power, strength and dependability. Since those are qualities one definitely wants in a car, what could go wrong? The Cobalt was released as a 2005 model and built in the Lordstown, Ohio plant (same plant as made the Vega, Monza, Cavalier and subsequent Cruze).
The Cobalt was built on GM’s new Delta platform, which also underpinned the HHR; Pontiac G5, and Saturn Ion. Reviews for the car were not bad. Reviewers found the structure solid; fit and finish quite good, and value high. On the other hand, the 145hp 2.2L Ecotec DOHC engine (used in the Cavalier since 2002) was pretty good but without the refinement and power of some Asian competitors, and the interior was still infected with a cheapness of look and feel foreign to the owners of those foreign makes. Unlike the portly and pricy early Cavalier, it was of similar weight to its foreign counterparts and was price-competitive.
The Cavalier had long offered a Z24 performance model, but it never got respect from the growing compact “tuner” crowd who drove cars like the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic Si, and the top samurai Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Ford and Dodge had taken on this crowd with their 2002-04 Focus SVT and 2003-05 Neon SRT4. The Focus SVT earned points with its sharp handling, good balance and a host of substantial engine enhancements getting 170hp from a naturally-aspirated 2.0L Zetec engine. The Neon cast itself as the modern-day musclecar of front-drive compacts. Its turbocharged 2.4L made 215 hp initially, then 230 hp (and 250 lb·ft) in an overall pretty crude package in 2004-05.
With their new and improved compact, Chevy wanted to get in on some of this action. First things first, with 18-inch polished wheels; a lowered stance; ground effects, and big trunk wing, it looked the part. Chevy sold the SS Supercharged as a coupe only, which followed conventional wisdom but was out of step in the new millennium when the hot compacts from Subaru, Mitsubishi and Dodge were available only as 4-door sedans and Ford offered the SVT as a 4-door hatch. As with the regular Cobalt, prices were similar to the domestic competition and significantly less than any foreign models that could match its performance.
Thinking of the base Cobalt pictures earlier, it’s amazing what an improved stance and the right set of wheels will do for the look of a car!
The Cobalt SS was actually a very competent performer. The transmission was a 5-speed manual; automatic drivers need not apply. Under the hood, customers found a 2.0L supercharged version of the DOHC Ecotec engine making 205 hp and 200 lb·ft. Not quite Evo or SRT4 levels of power, but pretty lively for a 2900-lb car. Owners could get dealer-installed, warranty-preserving Stage packs that would raise power up to 241 hp. Magazines testing the car got around 6-second 0-60 mph and 14.5-second quarter-miles at 99mph. It was also quite competitive in handling.
The Cobalt performed very well in Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap test, where they annually run every newly introduced or significantly upgraded performance car, divided in price categories (LL1-LL5), through timed laps around Virginia International Raceway’s 4.1-mile Grand Course and rank them. Check out the list of all the cars run from 2006 to 2022. The Cobalt comes in № 281 in 2006 and № 232 in 2008, but the impressive part is to look at all the cars it beat both in its price range and even some above, especially in 2008. Even through 2022, there are only a few LL1 cars that beat it.
The pic above is the summary from C&D’s 2008 LL article. As GM does, it substantially improved the car in the years after its introduction, then canceled it not long after getting it right. For 2008, the SS traded in its supercharger for a turbocharger and found 55 new horsepower (and 60 more lb·ft!). Along with tire; suspension, and brake upgrades, the 2008-2010 Cobalt SS is one of the quickest, best-handling front-drive cars ever produced. The plucky Chevy was indeed dangerous to the pride of owners who didn’t keep up on current events with U.S. carmakers. I’m sure many of them were surprised they had such a good view of a Cobalt’s Corvettelike taillights.
If you like rear doors, 2009 was the one and only year a turbocharged SS sedan was made. Note the sedan’s different tail treatment.
In late 2005, I was in the market for a car and seriously considered a new SS Supercharged. After reading about its surprising competence and reasonable price, I took a bit of a shine to the idea. Being rather old-school, I would not have even considered it as a sedan. I went so far as to test drive a 2006 and confirmed it was an impressively speedy little car with ample power from the smooth-idling (indeed!) engine; tight handling, and a very firm but not punishing ride. At the time, I was finally established in my career; had bought my first house that year, and was in a position for the first time ever to consider a brand-new car. In the end, though, I just couldn’t justify spending that much money on a vehicle, even for the relative performance bargain of the SS. Instead, I bought a nice 1999 Pontiac Firebird Formula for less than 1/3 the price. I believe avoidable debt should be avoided when possible; I still have yet to finance the purchase of a car.
Beyond the name’s image of danger, sadly, some Cobalts turned out to be actually dangerous to their drivers and passengers. Through the fatal 2010 accident of 29-year-old nurse Brooke Melton, it came to light that the ignition switch on the first few years of Cobalts was poorly designed and with wear could slip out of its detent, causing the car to turn off and lose engine power; power steering; power brakes, and current to airbags. A long court case ensued, in which some callous and detestable 1960s and ’70s-style corporate behavior by GM was uncovered. The civil case was settled: the U.S. Justice Department fined GM $900 million; 1.37 million cars were recalled, and GM set up a $525 million victims’ fund out of which 399 claims were awarded including 124 for fatalities. It seems the car was also dangerous to GM’s public image and finances.
Several years ago, a friend of mine at work drove a 2006 Cobalt sedan. I was aware of the Cobalt ignition recall, so I asked him if he had taken his car in. Jake said, “A recall? Nah, I’m not worried about it.” He recounted that sometimes his car would turn off in traffic, but he was able to restart it right away. He found that if he took all the keys and keychains off his key, that he never had a problem. I said, “But still, they’ll fix it for free…”. I don’t work with Jake anymore, but I contacted him recently to ask about the car. Yes, he survived! He said he sold the car a while ago never having got it fixed (big surprise), but that it was a really good car for him, and he would buy another if they still made them.
Chevrolet sold approximately 37k SSs (Supercharged and Turbocharged) over six years*, out of just over 1 million Cobalts. Both of those figures seem respectable to me. The regular Cobalt was not a game-changer, but it marginally improved GM’s image in the low end of the market, at least until the ignition fiasco. It outsold the Ford Focus most years, and scored about 2/3 of what the benchmark Civic and Corolla sold, though it fell just short of what the Cavalier had been averaging. The SS absolutely earned GM some surprising respect from the automotive press and owners of other performance cars. It was a reminder that when GM wants to, especially on specialty cars, it can execute.
The SS was ultimately irrelevant to the future of GM’s small cars, though. When the Cobalt’s first generation ended in 2010, rather than a second generation, its all-new replacement was called the Cruze, a name and vehicle dangerous only to good spelling. No performance model was offered, all the better to conjure a simple image of safe and carefree
The mid and late aughts turned out to be the high water mark for hot compacts. Never since then have there been so many models for enthusiast buyers on a limited budget to choose from. Many of the SS’ Asian and European competitors are still being made**, but none of the U.S. makers offer a speedy compact car. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that no U.S. maker builds a compact car at all anymore. The Cobalt SS, in both supercharged and turbocharged variants, may be dangerous, but it’s a fine M.E.SS and a worthy addition to Chevrolet’s SS legacy. The B.E.A.SST.s are proud to call it family.
**Addendum on hot compacts in the U.S.: Several of the Cobalt SS’ competitors have also left us. The Focus SVT only lasted through 2004 and a milder ST version through 2007, but serious performance returned in 2013 with the ST model and 2016 with the insane 350hp AWD RS, which lasted until all Focus was lost in 2018. The Neon went dim in 2005, the SRT4 transferred to the Caliber for 2007 which only lasted through 2009. There never was a hot Dart. Mitsubishi offered their Lancer Evolution through 2015, when evolution gave way to extinction. From 2007 to 2013 Mazda offered the Mazdaspeed 3, a very competitive hot hatch, but has not offered a true high performance version of their 3 to zoom zoom in since.
There’s still a fair number of hot compacts available to those who long for big power in a small package. Hyundai offered a mild performance GT version of their Tiburon from 2003-08, then developed a more serious performance Turbo version of the Veloster from 2013-16, then again with the new generation from 2019-22. The Veloster was discontinued in 2022, then the Elantra picked up the baton with a pretty legit N version currently. Honda offered their Civic Si 1999-2015, which were relatively mild in stock form. Honda finally entered the true hot hatch market in the U.S. in 2017 by endowing their Civic Type R with 306 turbocharged horses and every external ‘tuner’ affectation known to fast and furious street racers. The Subaru WRX has been a constant with hotter STI models intermittently available (but not currently). VW has also had consistent offerings with the Golf GTI and R models. Surprising the world, the Toyota Corolla—the poster child for appliance cars since the 1960s—gained a performance model for 2023. The GR Corolla has a 300-hp 3 cylinder, AWD, and a 6 speed manual is the only transmission available. OMG.
*Production breakdown: researched by Soundjunky on CobaltSS.net forum. 2.4 and Sport are the non-supercharged/non-turbo models also offered.
2005 SS/SC = 3,093
2006 SS/SC = 17,464
2006 SS/2.4 (coupe) = 21,688
2006 SS/2.4 (sedan) = 9,068
2007 SS/SC = 10,566
2007 SS/2.4 (coupe) = 12,469
2007 SS/2.4 (sedan) = 3,397
2008 SS = 1,766
2008 Sport (coupe) = 6,259
2008 Sport (sedan) = 4,427
2009 SS (coupe) = 3,040
2009 SS (sedan) = 759
2010 SS= unable to obtain, est. 1500-2000
All Cobalts by calender year from Carsalesbase.com
Further reading about GM ignition switch recall:
GM Ignition-Switch Review Complete: 124 Fatalities, 274 Injuries Car and Driver – Short summary of events
No Accident: Inside GM’s deadly ignition switch scandal Atlanta Magazine – Interesting long form article on the debacle
GM: We encourage employees, dealers to tattle after ignition switch crisis Detroit Free Press – Laudatory look at GM’s post-ignition safety culture
But wait there’s more!: