Chevrolet introduced the XFE ("eXtra Fuel Economy") version of the Cobalt compact sedan in 2008; 2009 brings a revised engine that gets even better fuel economy. I put some serious miles on the Cobalt XFE during my test drive, and yes, the fuel economy is pretty darn good -- but how's the rest of the car? Read on. $15,670 base, $16,325 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 25 city, 37 highway.
First Glance: The pursuit of high MPG
With so many hot-rod Chevys stealing the headlines -- cars like the '09 Corvette ZR1 and '10 Camaro -- it's easy to forget that the folks at Chevy do think about fuel economy from time to time. Last year they introduced the Cobalt XFE, with a recalibrated engine, low-rolling-resistance tires, and a higher final-drive ratio (the gearing between the transmission and the front wheels; a higher ratio allows the engine to turn more slowly, saving fuel). The catch? The XFE was (and still is) only available with a manual transmission. Compared to regular stick-shift Cobalts, the 2008 XFE's fuel economy was better by 1 MPG (about 4%) in the EPA city cycle and 3 MPG (9%) on the highway.
For 2009, all manual-transmission Cobalts (except the hot-rod SS model) get the XFE treatment. The 2.2 liter engine (link goes to photo) has been retuned for better highway fuel economy (up 1 MPG, or almost 3%, to 37 MPG). Horsepower is up a bit and torque is down a bit, but the changes aren't really significant.
So does the whole XFE thing work? As a matter of fact, it does. My wife and I took the Cobalt on a 1,200 mile road trip, and we saw mid-to-high 20s in town and mid-30s on the road, and no shortage of power. (I'll get into the specifics in a bit.)
Outside, the Cobalt hasn't changed much since its 2005 introduction. The 4-door sedan retains its boring rental-car-anonymous profile, though the coupe is a lot better looking. And frumpy as it is, the Cobalt sedan is practical, with decent back-seat room and a well-shaped and easy-to-load 13.9 cubic foot trunk.
In the Driver's Seat: Not bad for a cheap car
Inside, I found little to remind me that I was reviewing the least-expensive LS model, the biggest giveaway being the lack of power windows, mirrors or locks. They aren't available in the Cobalt LS; you have to step up to the Cobalt 1LT, which costs $700 more. I didn't mind crank-down windows so much, but manual door locks in a 4-door are a major pain. The plastics and fabrics felt decent enough given the Cobalt's price, though the molded-plastic shift knob added an unnecessary air of cheapness. Still, the Cobalt features air conditioning and a decent-sounding CD stereo with auxiliary input jack as standard equipment. It even gets a trip computer, so you can track your fuel economy. Overall, I though the Cobalt's cabin was pretty nice for a base-model car. If I have one serious complaint, it's that the gearshift is too far back -- there is a pair of cupholders just ahead of it, and I can't tell you how many times I tried to shift gears with my water bottle.
Optional floor mats ($180), antilock brakes ($400) and a spare tire ($75; Cobalts without a spare get an emergency repair and inflator kit) brought my test car's price to $16,325. That's about $500 less than the similarly-equipped Honda Civic DX-VP (though at that price the Civic also gets power windows) but $255 more than a base-model Toyota Corolla. Prefer to buy domestic? A 2009 Ford Focus sedan equipped like my tester lists for $110 more. (Bear in mind that you'll probably be able to negotiate a better deal on the Chevy and the Ford than you will on their Japanese rivals.)
On the Road: Stretching your gas-buying dollar
There's not much in the way the Cobalt XFE drives to indicate its fuel-miser mission. Even with its higher gearing, which should, in theory, penalize acceleration, the Cobalt had plenty of get-up-and-go. Our trip included a lot of hills, and the Cobalt was able to climb all but the steepest of 'em without my having to downshift.
So what about fuel economy? I saw figures of 25 to 28 MPG in town; not bad at all, considering that included a run on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road. I drove one highway leg with the air conditioning off and my speed between 65 and 70 MPH, and averaged 37 MPG. Driving like I normally do -- 75 to 80 with the A/C on -- dropped that down to around 33 MPG. Our test car didn't have cruise control, which is too bad -- I bet I could have squeezed another 1 or 2 MPG out of it.
The Cobalt's handling is what we in the auto-writing biz are talking about when we say "safe and predictable" -- long before you reach the Cobalt's limits of traction, the tires alert you with a muted squeal (which, if you keep pressing, changes to a frantic howl). And if the Cobalt does lose its grip on the pavement -- as it might in a sudden panic swerve or on a slippery road -- it packs no surprises; it just tries to keep going straight ahead. Such predictable behavior is not just commendable, it's necessary -- electronic stability control isn't available on the Cobalt XFE, so you're always performing without a net.
Journey's End: Back to reality
I've gotten all the nice stuff out of the way, so now it's Harsh Reality time. The Cobalt XFE's biggest problem is that it only comes with a manual transmission. Don't get me wrong, I love stick-shifts, but the fact is that roughly nine out of ten cars sold in this country are automatics. So the XFE loses 90% of its potential buyer base right out of the gate. And while the Cobalt XFE's EPA fuel economy estimates (25 MPG city/37 MPG highway) are impressive, its rivals aren't far behind: The Honda Civic is rated at 26/34 with a manual and 25/36 with an automatic, while the Toyota Corolla is rated at 26/35 with a manual and 27/35 with an automatic. The automatic Cobalt trails them all at 24/33. Granted, the Cobalt has a bigger engine and noticeably more power than the Civic and Corolla, but I'd be willing to trade a bit of urge for even better fuel economy, especially with an automatic transmission.
Much as I like the Cobalt, I wouldn't buy one. It's just too... bland. If the Cobalt were better looking, or if it handled better, or if it was a lot cheaper, or if it had great crash test scores (which it doesn't; they’re actually quite mediocre), or it offered something unusual in this class (like electronic stability control or navigation or a nifty multimedia system like Ford's SYNC) I might be more excited about it. But it doesn't, and I'm not. I actually feel a little bad for the Cobalt -- it's a perfectly good little car, but it's competing in a field were perfectly good just doesn't stand out. -- Aaron Gold