In late 2004, there had already been two installments of the Fast & Furious franchise, and the popularity of the tuner scene had reached an all-time high. While Vin Diesel’s 1969 Dodge Charger is instantly recognizable as the franchise’s halo car, Paul Walker’s Japanese cars had a far greater impact on the American automotive community by changing the perception of the tuner market in America.
As popularity grew, the imports once preyed upon by muscle car owners were no longer an easy kill. While few cared to admit it, the hunted were quickly becoming the hunter.
This left domestic auto manufacturers racing to catch up to foreign competitors with tuner offerings of their own. Ford’s Special Vehicle Team was the first to capitalize on the segment’s increasing popularity with the SVT Focus in 2002. Dodge followed suit with a turbocharged version of its compact Neon, became an instant icon in tuning circles. Dubbed the SRT-4, Dodge made it look easy to transform a modest economy car into a Fast & Furious-style tuner.
Chevrolet may have arrived late to the scene, but it did so with a dazzling red-carpet entrance. In 2004, Chevy unveiled a high-performance Cobalt SS — the brand’s first foray in the tuner scene. With ground effects and an obnoxious spoiler tall enough to be used as stepladder, the SS certainly looked the part. But did it have the cojones to back up its boy racer styling?
As you mashed the accelerator to the floor, the rabid hyena sound of an Eaton M62 roots-type supercharger gave you the answer loud and clear. Nobody dared question the manhood of this Cobalt — this bad boy tuner was blown.
Its supercharged 2.0-liter LSJ Ecotec made an impressive 205 horsepower and 200 pounds-feet of torque. Though its numbers were respectable for a newcomer in the segment, it still came up 95 horses short of a 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Japanese automakers like Subaru and Mitsubishi had certainly set the bar high, and GM engineers knew the Cobalt SS would have to be even better if they wanted to remain competitive in the tuner market.
Chevrolet’s solution? Give the people what they want — more power! GM Performance developed a series of three dealer-installed stage kits that could transform your speedy Cobalt into a Japanese dragon slayer on the street. If you opted for the Stage 3 package, you would receive a re-calibrated PCM, high-flow fuel injectors, a 2-pass intercooler end plate, and a smaller supercharger pulley for more boost.
The customizable PCM allows for the use of a 50-horsepower shot of nitrous, 100-octane racing fuel, and an adjustable redline from 6,750 to 8,000 RPM. Since the kit is intended for track purposes only, GM disabled the Cobalt’s air conditioning with the PCM recalibration. When topped off with racing fuel, a Stage 3 Cobalt SS boasts a remarkable 260 horsepower with the potential for even more with nitrous.
Once you start modifying a new car with aftermarket parts, you normally assume the risk of voiding the factory warranty if something goes wrong. It’s a huge gamble and certainly not a decision that should be taken lightly. However, GM Performance’s stage kits were covered under the factory warranty — giving SS owners every reason to mod away.
The Cobalt’s supercharged engine was discontinued after 2007, but the SS returned stronger than ever in 2008 with its forced induction roots still intact. A new turbocharged 2.0-liter LNF Ecotec engine rated at 260 horsepower provided Stage 3 output levels straight from the factory — only this time air conditioning wasn’t sacrificed. Four-piston Brembo front brakes, launch control, and a no-lift shift feature further increased the Cobalt SS’ nearly unbeatable fun-factor.
Now several years after its demise, a small but vocal group of die-hards still anxiously awaiting its successor. Ford’s trio of hot-hatchbacks show that sport compacts are still very much alive in the U.S. But Chevrolet and GM are nowhere to be seen.
Since the Chevrolet Cruze arrived stateside as the Cobalt’s replacement in 2011, there has been plenty of speculation and demand for an SS variant with nothing to show for it. Perhaps we’ll have better luck with the new Cruze hatchback.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter LTG Ecotec would be a potent powertrain choice for a Cruze SS if paired with a six-speed manual transmission. It’s also worth noting that the LTG has already been mounted transversely in the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Regal, so it’s not an unrealistic choice by any means.
Could 2017 be the year Chevrolet finally announces the long-awaited successor to the Cobalt SS? With the Cruze’s aggressive new styling and the perfect powertrain seemingly available in-house, the timing has never been better.