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 By Barry Winfield
March 12, 2008

BUTTONWILLOW, Calif. — It’s hard for many of us to see a Chevy Cobalt as a real performance car—even when it’s wearing low-profile tires, a body kit and a big rear wing. But swing the 2008 Cobalt SS into a 100-mph sweeper at the raceway here, and some of those preconceptions blow right out the window.

The new SS differs from the previous supercharged SS in a number of significant ways: For 2008, the Cobalt gets a turbocharged version of the 2.0-liter Ecotec four, complete with direct fuel injection and a relatively high 9.2:1 compression ratio.

This combination provides a high specific output (260 hp at 5300 rpm and 260 lb.-ft of torque from 2000 rpm) with rather economical performance—Chevy is claiming 22 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway. Controlled by an electronic wastegate, the Borg-Warner twin-scroll turbo supplies boost at very low revs, yet can pump as much as 22 psi when required for maximum power.

And the results are impressive: If you can avoid excessive wheelspin off the line (difficult even with the optional Torsen limited-slip diff installed), the new Cobalt SS will snarl to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. Because of the rapid arrival of boost and the likelihood of wheelspin, GM has fitted the SS with a launch control system. Simply tap the Stabilitrak button twice for the competitive mode, wait for the words “launch control” to appear on the info panel, and you’re set.

Standing on the throttle gets you a surging response that tops out at no more than 5100 rpm. Then you can release the clutch normally for a run down the strip that will result in times to 60 mph within a few tenths of Chevy’s claim. And check this out: As you’re ripping through the gears, there’s no need to pull off the throttle, thanks to the Cobalt’s no-lift shift capability that allows full-throttle shifts. All you hear is a crackling exhaust note as the electronics cut power, then it’s back on the gas to the red line.

Direct injection, launch control, and no-lift shift on a Chevy Cobalt? What’s going on? Well, it doesn’t end there. This cheeky new Chevy has a chassis tuned on the famous Nurburgring’s Nordschleife (northern loop), resulting in the adoption of a new front suspension knuckle, monotube Sachs rear shocks, specially valved Delphi struts, 30-percent stiffer springs and beefed-up stabilizer bars.

To keep a rein on the spunky turbo 2.0-liter, Chevy engineers adopted Brembo four-piston fixed calipers on 12.4-in. vented rotors on the front wheels. In combination with a firm pedal feel, the system worked great in all circumstances.

As a result of all this tuning, the little Cobalt performs like a serious race car at the track. It turns in predictably and clings to the line with a tenacity that speaks volumes for its 225/40ZR-18 Continental Sportcontact 2 summer tires. (The company claims 0.9g of skidpad grip.) Left-right transitions can be finessed beautifully by throttle and steering sequences that allow the car to rotate and then drive out of bends with no lost effort thanks to the Torsen diff and Stabilitrak system. The diff sends torque to the wheel with the most grip, while the traction control system gently brakes the wheel wanting to spin.

The Cobalt chassis team discovered that the suspension worked better on the Nordschleife with somewhat less rebound control than initially estimated, but with firmer spring and stabilizer bar rates. The result is a reasonable ride out in the real world, with plenty of body-motion control for fast track or road work. We circulated at Buttonwillow with the Stabilitrak system in “competitive mode,” where it was completely unnoticeable unless the driver seriously overcooked a corner.

And here’s something to write home about: The electric power steering system feels more natural than the one in Toyota’s Corolla. Plus, the supportive seats, with their grippy ultrasuede inserts, are trumped only by the Pontiac G8 in GM’s sporty car lineup.

While we considered the cable-operated gearshift mechanism a bit stiff and balky for our taste, that concern disappeared on the track, where all control inputs tend to be firm and decisive. It certainly facilitated double-clutched downshifts with no problems. Besides, the cars were all low-mileage examples, so perhaps the linkage will lighten up with use.

The Cobalt SS was called a compact muscle car in its previous iteration, and while you might have argued with that appellation at that time, you have to admit that there isn’t a better way to describe this one. At $22,995, it’s a performance bargain.

By Norihiko Shirouzu  
March 13, 2008

DETROIT — Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. is tapping the brakes on production of big pickups and sport-utility vehicles in its Texas and Indiana plants as part of a response to slowing demand those types of trucks in the U.S. market.  

As a first step, the company over the past several weeks has cut the pace of production of full-size Tundra pickup trucks and Sequoia SUVs at the Texas and Indiana plants, Toyota spokesman Mike Goss said Thursday. He declined to elaborate on the reduction in output. The move stems from increasingly sluggish demand for those vehicles in the face of record gasoline prices, among other reasons.  

“We are slowing down the assembly to reflect the market,” Goss said. He noted that there would be no layoffs as a result of the move at both manufacturing sites. Toyota is going to keep “all of our people employed” at those plants, he said.  

Toyota’s San Antonio, Tex., plant has capacity to produce 200,000 full-size Tundra pickup trucks a year. The company can also produce Tundras in Princeton, Ind., at a pace of 100,000 vehicles a year. The Indiana plant also produces Sequoias on the same assembly line that produces the Tundra.  

Additionally, in order to boost production at the Texas plant and keep it more fully utilized, company executives who spoke on condition of anonymity said Toyota has begun weighing an option of shifting Tundra production completely out of Indiana and consolidating that work in San Antonio. A final decision on the move is still pending and isn’t expected to be made for a while, the executives told The Wall Street Journal.  

If Toyota decided to consolidate Tundra production into Texas, as one option, the Japanese auto maker would make one of the two assembly lines in Indiana, which currently can produce a total of 150,000 Tundras and Sequoias in two shifts, a single-shift line dedicated to produce the Sequoia. It would produce as many Sequoia SUVs as possible in that case and try to “weather the storm,” as one of the knowledgeable executives put it.  

The other option, the executives said, is to introduce an additional vehicle, probably a fuel-efficient car-SUV crossover, for the Indiana plant and produce it on the Sequoia line and try to keep it as a two-shift fully utilized assembly line.  

Toyota last year decided to build a new plant in Mississippi to produce the Highlander car-SUV crossover at a pace of 150,000 vehicles a year. “We really didn’t have to do that; we could have used excess capacity we have with the Tundra and the Sequoia to produce Highlanders,” one of the executives said.  

Toyota spokesman Goss said Toyota is weighing “all kinds of options but no decisions have been made on moving products around.”  

By Steve Finlay
Feb. 12, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – It’s bad out there when Toyota dealers complain about slow sales.

That’s what is happening, demonstrating even the strongest automotive brands aren’t immune to the nation’s economic slowdown.

It’s a situation that prompts James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. to try to rally the troops at an event during the National Automobile Dealers Assn.’s 2008 convention here.

“When good Toyota dealers say some sales are off 60%, I know things are out of kilter,” he tells a meeting of the American International Automobile Dealers Assn.

But Lentz remains optimistic, saying, “We’ll get through this year, and the challenges will make us stronger.”

He cites a growing population and Baby Boomers living and driving longer as reasons for declaring good times are not gone forever.

“By 2011, we’ll be selling to five generations at the same time,” he says. “That has never happened before in the U.S,” noting annual U.S. sales could reach 18 million sometime in the next decade.

Meanwhile, Lentz forecasts 2008 sales at 16 million units, a number that is more hopeful than some predictions.

Paul Taylor, NADA’s chief economist, earlier told conference attendees he sees sales dropping to 15.7 million units this year, compared with 16.1 million in 2007.

“Not long ago, 16 million units was seen as a great year, not just an industry birthright,” Lentz says.

Given that customer traffic will be “a touch down this year,” he sees it as a perfect time for dealers to streamline processes and speed up the buying experience so it is more convenient.

It’s also a good time to focus on the service department, a strong profit center and where customer satisfaction is crucial, Lentz says. “If we make a great impression in the service lane, we increase the chances of a vehicle purchase in the showroom.”

“So hang in there,” he says. “Skies will be clear. Things will be better.”

Listening to those exhortations is Charles Dean, general sales manager at Roseville (CA) Toyota, north of Sacramento. “There was a time when people were lined up asking us to sell them a Toyota,” he says.

But that’s changed. The nation’s economic slowdown has hit his area hard, particularly the real-estate downturn, leading to softer dealership sales and more customers keeping their cars longer.

Dean wonders if all dealers will make it through the tough times. “The proactive and creative dealers will survive, but there are others

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