It is hard to find better performance for the price.
The Chevrolet Cobalt is a car not many people will remember with fondness. It was Chevy's compact economy car, available as either a coupe or sedan, built from 2004 to 2009 and later replaced by the Cruze. Throughout its life, the Cobalt was ranked towards the bottom of its segment as a decent successor to the maligned Cavalier, but a poor rival for the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
However, the Cobalt was one of several Chevy models in the mid-2000s to be blessed with the performance 'SS' badge, transforming it into something far more special.
Throughout the Cobalt's life, Chevy actually sold three different versions of the SS trim level. The first Cobalt SS (later renamed the Cobalt Sport) featured a not-so-special 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder. There was also a 2.0-liter model (coupe only) with an Eaton supercharger, which was substantially better. But the Cobalt SS truly took off in 2008 after the supercharged engine no longer met emissions requirements and GM's contract with Eaton had expired.
This final turbocharged Cobalt SS was by far the best and was possibly the fastest front-wheel-drive car of its era. It was powered by the same 2.0-liter LNF Ecotec engine found in the rear-wheel-drive Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, giving it some incredible performance statistics that would be impressive even today.
Unlike some of the other GM models with the LNF engine under the hood, the Cobalt SS is remarkably cheap. We ran an online search and even the best examples we found rang in at under $10,000. If you are willing to take one with higher mileage, the prices start at around $5,000. Don't be tempted by the cheaper supercharged Cobalt SS or the normally aspirated model because neither comes close to the potential of the later turbocharged car. These cars are now more than a decade old, so don't expect to find one with a factory warranty. It is also worth noting the sedans were less common than the coupes, meaning they are a bit more expensive.
The Cobalt SS may be more than a decade old now but there is nothing old about its performance. It's 2.0-liter engine produced 260 horsepower and an equal amount of torque, which is more than you'll get from a brand-new Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, or Volkswagen Golf GTI. Power is sent to the front wheels through a five-speed manual with no-lift-shift and launch control, netting a 0-60 mph time of just 5.5 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 13.9 seconds. GM even offered a dealer-installed Stage 1 kit, boosting the output to 290 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque.
In a testament to how quick this car was, Chevy sent a Cobalt SS around the Nurburgring where it recorded a lap time of eight minutes and 22.9 seconds. This made it the fastest front-wheel-drive production car of its era and truth be told, the Cobalt SS could likely keep up with most of the affordable performance cars on the market today.
The biggest downside of the Cobalt SS, as with most GM performance cars of the era, is the interior. This is an economy car after all, and not one praised for its upmarket cabin. There are cheap plastics and hard surfaces galore, made only slightly better by suede-like UltraLux inserts, a reconfigurable performance display, and an optional boost gauge in the A-pillar. Don't hop into a Cobalt SS expecting a cushy cabin and just remember this was a car built on a budget at a time when GM was nearing bankruptcy. There's a reason why these cars are so cheap now.
If you can get over the flimsy interior, the Cobalt SS sticks out as a tremendous performance bargain. Even by today's standards, its performance is ballistic for a front-wheel-drive vehicle, making it the ideal starter car for a budding enthusiast on a budget. If you want a bit more space and enjoy a car with a more "funky" design, Chevy also shoved this drivetrain into the HHR SS, which was even available as a panel van. There are plenty of depreciated economy performance cars on the used market but if you are looking for the fastest one on the smallest budget, the Cobalt SS is unmatched.