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2009 Chevrolet Cobalt LS

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From a manufacturer's standpoint, building and selling an economy car must be a thankless task.

For starters, it costs almost as much in terms of research and development to take an econobox from conception to production as it does, say, a family sedan or SUV, but once on the market, they can't command the same amount of money.

The whole point of the exercise is to put forward an affordable, usable automobile and costs must be kept down. But cheap out too much and you'll have a small white elephant on your hands.

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Consumers - especially Canadian ones - want maximum bang for their buck and if a manufacturer's entry-level model cuts corners and isn't up to scratch, they're outta there.

It's one thing to build a cheap car, quite another to build one that has a decent level of standard equipment and good fit and finish.

As well, economy cars have to sell in big numbers to make any money for the manufacturer, and the profit margin on a Chevrolet Cobalt, for example, is significantly less than on a Cadillac Escalade or Buick Allure.

And since they have to be produced in huge quantities, quality control is always an issue. Some manufacturers - Honda and Toyota, for example - have mastered the art of building and selling top-quality economy cars, while others - well.

Unfortunately, General Motors falls into the "others" category, at least as far as the Chevy Cobalt is concerned. When put up against rivals such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, it falls short in a number of areas. Coincidentally, I had a Civic Sport sedan in my driveway during my time with this particular Cobalt LS, and sorry, GM, but the Civic is a better automobile in just about every area.

Let's start with the engine. The Cobalt's 2.2-litre Ecotec four-banger, while bigger than many of its rivals, with higher horsepower numbers, feels agricultural. It bangs and rattles away like a tractor engine, starts with an abrupt roar in the morning and will occasionally stall when it's cold.

Yes, it does return decent fuel economy, but not enough to make a huge difference at the pumps. And the manual gearbox! What were GM designers thinking?

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My tester came with a five-speed manual and it was terrible. It's poorly placed, clunky, imprecise, awkward and noisy. The linkage is wonky and the shift lever is located so far back along the console you have to kind of kink your arm backwards to get at it. Taller folks, or those who drive with the seat pushed further back, may like it, but I never got used to it.

My tester also had the up-shift indicator light. A little yellow light located within the instrument cluster flashes at you when optimum shifting points are reached. "Optimum" meaning driving so that you get the best fuel economy. And, yes, if you obey the light fastidiously, your gas bill will probably be lower, but the driving experience itself will be awful.

I attempted to follow the up-shift light carefully, and it was just about impossible to stay with it. I started out trying to use it as a rough guide and ended up ignoring it altogether.

Interestingly, the optional four-speed automatic ($1,250) is only slightly less economical than the manual gearbox and, all things considered, I'd recommend spending the extra money and saving yourself a lot of aggravation.

One thing the Cobalt LS does have going for it is a reasonable base MSRP. Without any extras, it starts at just over $15,000, which makes it one of the lowest priced four-door sedans sold in Canada.

My tester, with air conditioning ($1,150), ABS ($600), extra airbags ($395) and a few other odds and ends came in at just under $19,000, which kind of changes everything. I hate to beat a dead horse here, but you can also get decent Civic for that kind of money.

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So I guess the message here is get the base model and put up with manual roll-up windows, hot summer weather and a balky gearbox. That said, the Cobalt does feature a slightly larger trunk than the Civic (394 litres versus 340 litres) and has better interior headroom.

I don't want to seem like I'm beating up on the poor Cobalt here and my opinion of it is the least of General Motors' concerns these days, but, the fact is, it's an inexpensive car and feels like one.

The secret to this market, it seems to me, is to build a cheap car without being obvious about it. The Civic, like it or not, has a much higher level of quality than the Cobalt (and many other competitors, for that matter) and has the sales numbers to prove it.

***

2009 CHEVROLET COBALT LS

Type: Five-passenger compact sedan

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Base Price: $15,225; as tested: $18,990

Engine: 2.2-litre, four cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 155 hp/150 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel drive

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city/5.4 highway; regular gas

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Alternatives: Honda Civic DX, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Suzuki SX4, Ford Focus, Nissan Versa

***

Like

Economical

Decent elbow and storage room

Don't like

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Overall "cheap" feel

Unrefined drivetrain

Wretched shift linkage

globeauto@globeandmail.com

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