A lot of talk has been made about General Motors having ignition problems with the Chevrolet Cobalt, a car that was discontinued almost four years ago. The automaker is facing lawsuits and is leaving questions as to whether the post-bankruptcy GM is the same GM as before that didn’t care about the quality of their cars.
As much as those who write for car magazines such as Motor Trend and Car and Driver do long-term tests on a car, how many of those writers actually own the car in question?
Well, it’s been four years since I owned a 2006 Chevy Cobalt LS coupe, but it’s still fresh in my mind what I went through with it, and let me go straight to the point: while it’s not as bad as the media is making it out to be, there’s a reason it was still a GM.
For starters, I technically didn’t own it: I made the mistake [in hindsight] of essentially leasing the car through GMAC (now Ally Bank) through the so-called GM SmartBuy, something that GM quit offering due to their bankruptcy. Sure, my monthly payments were lower, but after four years when I had the option of returning the car or buying it with a balloon payment, I still owed over $7,000 for a balloon payment for a car that was only worth about $2,500. Yes, new cars depreciate as soon as you leave the dealership lot. But it was worth over $14,000 in 2006 as a new car. It shouldn’t have lost that much value in just four years. For comparison’s sake, my 2009 Kia Rio that replaced my Cobalt (due to the SmartBuy, I couldn’t trade it in) was over $15,000 brand new, and today is worth about $5,600, a more normal depreciation. Funny how a car that is five years old is worth more than double a car that was four years old at the time I got rid of it.
Then there was maintenance. I’m pretty OCD on keeping up on routine maintenance on my cars. With that said, the Cobalt ate through tires. I was buying new tires on the car at least once a year. In almost five years, I have only had to buy tires for the Rio twice. Barring a blowout or something else catastrophic, I probably won’t have to buy tires again for it until after it’s paid off. Oh, and in typical GM fashion, I had to get a wheel bearing replaced at about 65,000 miles.
But now let’s go to the big clicker: the ignition problems. The main problem that has gotten a lot of headlines lately has been the ignition shutting the car off while at highway speeds. In four years I didn’t encounter that problem. My problem was more basic: it simply wouldn’t go past “Accessories” while the car was in Park. My Cobalt, which had an automatic transmission, had to be shut off while in Drive or Neutral, then move it into Park.
Eventually, this led to my car not being able to start at all, and I had to get the shifter replaced in order to fix the ignition. The bill for such work at the Chevy dealership? $300. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one having this problem. It was a common problem with the Cobalt, enough so that GM should issue a recall, and a refund for those who had to get it paid to be fixed. (Note to GM: I’m not asking for a refund personally at this point.) Replacing the faulty ignitions won’t fix this problem, as it’s the transmission shifter that’s the problem.
On the plus side, my Cobalt actually made a brief appearance in the 2011 movie Warrior, in which I was an extra in. Since it was black, it got to be used as a prop, since they needed cars in the parking lot for the scene in question. It can be seen about 20 minutes into the film. It was cool to see it, even though by the time Warrior was released in theaters I had long gotten rid of the Cobalt.
Overall, by GM standards, the Cobalt wasn’t a bad car, and I would probably still drive it if it wasn’t for the SmartBuy agreement. As I was in my early 20’s at the time, I didn’t care as much as to whether I was leasing a car or not. Compared to what Kia Motors builds, though, the Cobalt was junk. That’s why there’s a difference between “GM standards” and what most automakers have as their standards, especially ones that aren’t based in Detroit. I still see a lot of Cobalt’s today and still know a lot of people driving them. Of course, I also live within an hour of Lordstown, Ohio, where the car was built.
What probably should concern people more than a car that is appearing to be the 21st century version of the Chevrolet Citation or Chevrolet Corvair for GM is that while Cobalt production ended in 2010, the car that replaced it, the Chevrolet Cruze, does have some mechanical similarities to the Cobalt. The Cruze uses a refined version of the GM Delta platform that also underpins the Cobalt. Granted, it’s not the exact same platform–the Cruze uses the Delta II, while the Cobalt uses the original Delta platform–but they are close enough to cause some concern.
As this isn’t the first time that GM or any other automaker has discovered a defect in a car and has found it cheaper to settle lawsuits over a safety recall (hello Ford Pinto), one has to wonder if the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) might start issuing a hefty fine to any automaker that tries this method, in order to deter them from it and instead issuing mass recalls. It would be safer in the long run, and save more lives. Especially after we bailed out GM, who was still making the Cobalt while in bankruptcy.
Old habits are hard to die.