Name a good compact performance car that came out during the 2000s.
There’s a lot of options for you to choose from: WRX, STi, Evo, Civic Si, SRT4, Mazdaspeed 3, GTI — maybe event SE-R, if you’re being (extremely) generous.
All the above have something going for them, in one way or another. Most of them (if not all) were performance bargains. Some, especially in the case of the first three, delivered incredible value for the money. While we might look at an Evo’s price today and shrug, an Evo 8 or 9 went for considerably less, and its sights were arguably set much further out there. Let’s not forget the Top Gear segment that had Jeremy Clarkson pitting one against a Lamborghini Murciélago. These cars were steals.
Yet, it’s unlikely that most of you said arguably the biggest performance bargain of the decade — the Cobalt SS/TC. Yes, that Cobalt. By Chevy. The one with the strange taillights and the high-sitting ass. I promise you I’m not high. Not even a little bit.
And really, who can blame you for thinking I’m daft? A Chevy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you start throwing around words like “good” and “small car.” Sure, they make a mean LS-series V8 and no one will ever doubt the performance of the Corvette or even the Camaro (provided you fit in one and don’t mind your spine swearing brutal death on your unborn children), but in compact car land, a golden bowtie is the equivalent of the kiss of death.
For most people, when you say “compact Chevy” they’ll likely think of one of two cars, both awful bookends of Chevy’s miserable track-record of entry level cars: the Cavalier and the Vega. One was the plastic-bin from hell, the other became a symbol of Chevy’s inability to produce something reliable that wouldn’t kill you.
Likewise, the base Cobalt itself wasn’t earth-shattering. Built on the GM Delta platform (which was first debuted on the Saturn Ion, perhaps one of the ugliest cars ever made), it came out as a replacement to the previously mentioned Cavalier.
And, to its credit, it was better.
Alas, being better than a Cavalier isn’t exactly difficult. They could’ve seriously released the car from the Flintstones and it would’ve been praised in the same fashion. The Cobalt quickly made its way into rental fleets and… well, not much else. It sold decently well, but it was doomed by the same thing that doomed just about every Chevy product in the 2000s: an interior made out of melted-down LEGO bricks, technology ages behind the competition, prices that weren’t really competitive, and goofy, uninspired styling. I mean, seriously, if you ever see a base Cobalt, just look at the ass. It looks like a dog ready to pounce. Except the dog’s legs are broken.
Yet there was a shred of hope.
While Chevrolet’s current “SS” lineup is light, in the 2000s it seemed to be mandatory that every model had an SS package. Impala? SS. HHR? SS. Malibu? SS. Monte Carlo? SS. Trail Blazer? SS. SSR? …ugh. Chevy seemed content to toss a bigger engine and an SS badge on every car they could, diluting the brand completely to something meaningless.
So of course, when the Cobalt came out they had to stick an SS on it as well.
Thus, the Cobalt SS was born — a supercharged 2.0l FWD car with a tacky interior and a somewhat sharper suspension. It was… not bad. Much like the car it was built on, it was merely okay. Acceptable. Just enough to get by. When it reached the hands of car reviewers, they mostly shrugged. Whatever. It’s a Cobalt that’s quick in a straight line.
Making things worse, slotted below the supercharged Cobalt was another “SS” car. Chevy, who apparently had no idea what the hell was going on within their own brand, decided to offer a second engine option for the Cobalt: a 2.4l Ecotec engine that was abysmal. It was barely faster, got dramatically worse fuel economy, and somehow sounded worse than the base engine. Having owned one (we all have dark times, okay?), I often compared the sound of my car to one of those 1970s mail trucks.
And so it was, yet another SS car created in an era of massive bloat.
But then serendipity took over. In 2007, the SS was “discontinued.” The 2.4l Ecotec version was turned into the “Sport,” and in 2008 a new SS showed up, referred to as the SS/TC.
The hell does this have to do with luck, you say? Everything.
In 2008, Chevy’s contract with Eaton (the company providing the supercharger for the SS) expired. In addition, it turned out that the supercharged 2.0l was sort of killing trees left and right. Instead of axing the SS entirely, someone from within Chevy seemed to see potential in the Cobalt.
That potential was realized in the SS/TC.
Suddenly, $23,000 could buy you a car that went from 0 – 60 in close to 5 seconds, a car that could lap the Nurburgring faster than any other FWD car (at the time), a car that beat the Evo X MR (!!!) on Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap test.
Yes, the interior was still built from whatever dashboard scraps they could melt down. Yes, it was ugly from the rear. Yes, it did have a wing that somehow rivaled an STi in douchebaggery.
But holy shit, this was a car.
And then after only two years in production they stopped making them.
Enter the Cruze.
The Cruze seemingly fixes everything wrong with Chevy’s prior compact cars. Its fit-and-finish wasn’t done by those born without eyes, hands, or a sense of panel gap. It has an interesting, well-made interior that utilizes plastics in ways that don’t invoke images of Fisher-Price construction sets. The chassis doesn’t make your teeth fall out of your mouth. Hell, it even looks interesting, and not in a “what the hell is that, my eyes are burning, please help” sort of way.
It’s nice. A wonderful entry, really. Something that can finally compete without looking idiotic.
At the same time, GM has refined the engine that was originally found in the Cobalt SS/TC. They now use it in everything. Hell, it’s in the new Cadillac ATS.
But not here.
Not in this car.
I can’t figure it out. In a world in which “affordable performance” is making a comeback (did demand for it ever really leave?), GM has a huge window here: the WRX, STI, and Evo are all expensive and outdated. The Mazdaspeed 3 is old. The SRT4 is nowhere to be seen. The GTI has seen better days.
The only reasonable competition is the Focus ST, and by all means, that car seems to be getting showered with journolove.
How the hell did we get here? How the hell did we go from “STICK THAT SS BADGE ON EVERYTHING” to “shit, uh, I guess we can put a turbo on this 1.6l engine? That’s enough power, right?”
It isn’t just about power, either. GM has come miles from the days of Cavalier-into-a-tree jokes. A GM product is competitive with the 3-series. The Camaro has a package for nothing but handling. The Sonic is called “fun to drive.” A Chevy! Subcompact! FUN!
And yet there isn’t even a rumor of a Cruze SS.
The hell is going on?
This is a car that could be groundbreaking, it could be huge. Chevy could run the market.
I’m pulling my hair out here. We go from one car, the SS/TC, that was fast but had a godawful interior, to one that is slow but has a pretty damned good interior. What is going on? Is there something I’m missing? The SS/TC managed to even get good fuel economy numbers. Shit, look, this is the perfect car, don’t you see?
After years and years of “good enough” Chevy finally has the chance to dominated the market. And they aren’t. They don’t want to. It’s just too cool to make gobs and gobs of money.
Chevy just– okay, please, I’m begging you– can we have it? Can we just have, like, a rumor? Anything?