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Chevy's supercharged Cobalt SS Coupe definitely brings out the inner juvenile delinquent in a driver. With its supercharged 205-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, it's like a steroid-enhanced, blood-doped version of the Cobalt, the intelligently designed but sedate compact General Motors (GM) introduced last year to compete with the Honda (HMC) Civic and Toyota (TM) Camry.

My main gripe about the basic Cobalt was: Too bad it isn't more exciting to drive (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/12/05, "Chevy's Campus Cruiser").

The supercharged SS Coupe takes care of that complaint. It's a pocket-rocket sort of car that combines a compact, lightweight design with blistering speed. It's hard not to squeal the tires in this car: GM says the stock version will jump from zero to 60 in 6.4 seconds. As if that weren't fast enough, you can buy $500 and $750 booster kits from your Chevy dealer that raise the engine's rating to 236- and 241-horsepower, respectively. (Dealer installation costs extra.)

GENDER GAP To give you an idea of the target audience for this car: The supercharged version of the Cobalt SS comes standard with one of those high, wing-like rear spoilers mounted on the trunk lid. Fortunately, for those of us who think high rear spoilers look ridiculous on production cars, you can get a lower, less conspicuous spoiler as a no-cost option.

In addition, you can buy two kits to modify the car's exhaust note. The louder, performance version goes for $489, while the touring kit costs $589 and delivers more of a throaty purr, the company says. "When properly installed [i.e., when you pay extra for dealer installation], this system will comply with local and state [noise] ordinances," the company says. Other add-ons include brushed-aluminum foot pedals and chrome exhaust tips.

Not surprisingly, the Cobalt SS is more of a guy car than most compacts: Only 34.7% of buyers are women, according to the Power Information Network, as opposed to 43.9% for the conventional Cobalt, 45.5% for the Ford Focus, 44.6 % for the Honda Civic, and 47.6% for the Toyota Corolla. (Like Business Week and BusinessWeek.com, the Power Information Network is owned by McGraw-Hill, MHP

.)

2006 DISCOUNT The supercharged '06 Cobalt SS starts out at $20,490 (rising to $21,110 on the similar '07 model), and tops out at around $24,000 with a performance package that includes bucket seats and a limited-slip differential ($1,500), a power sunroof ($750), head-curtain airbags ($395), satellite radio ($325), and other optional gear. Adding the above-mentioned dealer-installed kits can jack up the price another grand or more.

With the model year winding down, however, GM is offering a $750 discount on the '06 Cobalt SS, and dealers will probably dicker on price. In July, the average transaction price of the Cobalt SS was $20,279, according to the Power Information Network. That compares with an average selling price of $14,157 for conventional Cobalts, $14,647 for the Ford (F) Focus, $18,653 for the Honda Civic, and $15,971 for the Toyota Corolla, Power says.

There's a lot of standard gear on the supercharged Cobalt SS already, including a trip computer, a tilt steering wheel, speed sensitive power steering, fog lamps, intermittent windshield wipers, and power windows, doors, and mirrors. The Cobalt SS also has good-to-excellent crash-test ratings and comes with standard safety gear that includes dual-stage front airbags and seatbelt extenders. It's rated to get 23 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, though it uses expensive premium gasoline.

In an otherwise horrible year for GM, Cobalt sales were up 10.3%, to 143,913, through the end of July. But the Cobalt isn't really selling very well except by the low standards set by other GM models this year. The model first hit the market in late 2004, and sales were still ramping up in the first quarter of 2005, so the comparison is a bit misleading. This July, Cobalt sales were actually down 9.3%, to 23,961.

The SS is a niche product, accounting for only 5.9% of the Cobalt's retail sales so far this year, but it adds a lot of excitement to the lineup.

Behind the Wheel

The interior of the supercharged Cobalt SS Coupe is designed to let you know you're in a performance car. The only available color scheme is black with leather trim and red, yellow, or black inserts in the seats and door panels. The seats have "SS" logos on their high backs and invite you to tilt them way back until you're in a race-car-style reclining position.

The Cobalt's supercharger system has an air-to-water cooler that increases power and reduces engine knock during fast acceleration by cooling air as it's sucked into the engine. Standard equipment on the supercharged SS is a boost gauge built into the A-pillar on the driver's side that measures how much air is being forced into the engine's injection chamber at any given moment, maxing out at 12 pounds per square inch.

It's a joy to wind this car out from a rolling start. I found that by keeping the boost gauge between eight and 10 psi you can achieve very smooth, rapid acceleration. I never got anywhere near the car's top speed, which Chevy pegs at 143 mph, but I did sometimes find myself inadvertently creeping up well above the speed limit on the highway.

BUNNY-SAFE BRAKES The car doesn't get the shakes at high speed, as flimsier compacts do. And Chevy has built a lot of sound-deadening and vibration-reduction features into the Cobalt so it stays relatively quiet on the highway. The Cobalt SS has a solid feel at lower speeds, too. For instance, it remained quiet on a bumpy back road that produced some annoying rattles in the much more expensive Cadillac CTS V (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/1/06, "V-Series Winner").

The supercharged Cobalt also handles better than many souped-up Detroit speedsters. Chevy beefed up the suspension on the Cobalt SS, and beefed it up even more on the supercharged version of the car. Included are front and rear stabilizer bars, four-wheel disk brakes, special shocks, sporty springs, 18-inch forged-aluminum wheels, and performance tires. As a result, there's very little roll when you throw this car into the curves, and it stops quickly when you hit the brakes hard (a rabbit running around rural Pennsylvania owes its life to those brakes).

Adding to the Cobalt's sportiness, the five-speed manual transmission on the SS also has a higher torque capacity and shorter shift-throws than the stick shift on other Cobalts. It really qualifies as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Buy It or Bag It?

If family considerations require you to go with an automatic transmission, consider buying a basic Cobalt SS coupe or sedan, which is quite peppy and starts at $18,340 for an '06 with an automatic, rising to $19,060 in '07. The supercharged Cobalt isn't for you, because it's only available as a coupe with a stick shift.

If you're shopping for an inexpensive performance car, though, the supercharged Cobalt is a good one for the money. However it faces a lot of very strong competition. Other models to consider include the Ford Focus ZX4 ST, the Mazda 3 (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/05, "A Mazda for Youths (And You)") , the Volkswagen Jetta (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/25/05, "Jetta: All the Betta for the Young"), and the Honda Civic Si. I'd also consider the Mini Cooper S (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/06, "Maximum Mini") if you can find one on the dealer lots.

The Cobalt is competitive with those other models on price, but it isn't as refined as most of its rivals. The Chevy's big weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is its interior. The materials used have a cheap feel to them—a complaint all too common with Detroit cars. And the remedial bench seat in the rear is cramped and uncomfortable. Even the seven-speaker Pioneer system sounded a little feeble compared with, say, the Bose system in the Mazda 3.

SPOILED VIEW If you do go with the supercharged Cobalt, I definitely would not get the high-mount rear spoiler, even if you think it looks cool. The spoiler bisects the rear window so you can't see cars coming up behind you on the highway, which is annoying and a potential source of speeding tickets. I'm of the mind that big spoilers on small, fast cars attract undue attention from state troopers, anyway.

My fantasy would be to have a body shop remove the spoiler entirely, making the supercharged Cobalt look like any old compact car. It would be fun to tool around in a Bruce-Wayne-looking vehicle, secretly knowing it had the engine of a Batmobile.

As I say, though, that's a fantasy. In real life, I would shop around and test-drive competing models before going with the Cobalt.

To see more of the Cobalt SS Supercharged,click here for the slide show


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