The Pontiac Vibe has been given an ever-so-slight freshening for 2005. An economical, extremely practical, yet very stylish 5-door hatchback (actually, a small station wagon), the Vibe exhibits Japanese build and drive quality with European flare. Almost identical to the Canadian-built Toyota Matrix (tested by Aaron Gold, see link below), the California-built Pontiac Vibe is available in Base, GT and AWD trim levels. MSRP range is $17,690 - $21,015; Warranty: 3/36,000 miles entire vehicle.
The Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix are the result of a joint venture manufacturing agreement between General Motors and Toyota. Although the base models of both cars are very similar, some key differences between the two brands begin to show up when you get into the upper trim levels. Both the Vibe and the Matrix come in one body style only - a 5-door hatchback or, more accurately, a small station wagon. Nominally a sub-compact, the Vibe actually has an immense interior. It can accommodate four adults and their weekend gear. With the split rear seats folded down and the front passenger seat folded flat, you can carry almost anything in a Vibe you can in a big SUV. Build quality of the Vibe is first rate - looks to be every bit as good as any Toyota. Two other trim levels are also available on the Vibe: a sporty GT and an all-wheel-drive (AWD). The GT comes with a 170hp version of the 1.8L, a 6-speed manual, 4-wheel discs, 17-inch alloys and stability control. The AWD version comes with (you guessed it) all wheel drive plus automatic. The 170hp engine with 6-speed manual is not available in the Vibe AWD.
In the Driver's Seat
The height-adjustable driver's seat in the Vibe allows the driver to sit up and over the smallish, well-positioned steering wheel. View of the road and overall visibility is superb. The thoughtful placement of the instruments and dials means no searching. Everything is right there where you want it in classic Japanese tradition. Headroom is immense. Rear seat passengers have ample legroom and, just as important, great forward views over and around the well-designed front headrests. The base Vibe comes well equipped with Toyota's durable 130hp 1.8L DOHC 4-cylinder engine, a stainless steel exhaust, a sophisticated suspension system with gas struts and shock absorbers, dual stage front driver's and passenger's air bags with seatbelt pre-tensioners, fold down split rear seatbacks, air conditioning, etc. Of course, there are dozens of places to put all the stuff none of us seems willing (or even able) to leave home without and cupholders galore. A very smooth shifting 5-speed manual transmission comes standard on the base Vibe while a 4-speed automatic is optional.
On the Road
The engine features Toyota's brilliant "intelligent" variable valve timing (VVT-i) and sequential fuel injection. Although this is very sophisticated technology, promising both performance and fuel economy, it's well proven and should give no grief whatsoever for the first couple hundred thousand miles. My test car, a front-wheel-drive base Vibe with 4-speed automatic, was a delight to drive. While it doesn't have asphalt-shredding acceleration, it pulls hard up to 50 mph before it starts to puff a bit. It will even pull a 1,500 trailer. Handling is very confidence-inspiring. You never feel you ever come close to reaching the vehicle's limits. Turning radius is exceptionally tight. With its short length and minimal overhang, parking in small spaces is a snap. While you can get the 170hp engine (in the Vibe GT only) be forewarned you'll pay a price in overall driveability. The 170hp engine demands your full attention all of the time. It wants, indeed needs, to be worked hard. Acceleration is actually a bit on the sluggish side until the rev counter passes 6 grand, at which point this little powerhouse starts to behave like the closet street-racer it really is. If you're not a street racer, stick with the base engine.
Pontiac has a tendency to low ball prices on some of its models - for that matter, so does Porsche - so pay attention to the options sheet. By the time you get your vehicle equipped with all the stuff you should have (like ABS, side curtain air bags and, perhaps, stability control), you're approaching sticker-shock territory. Although you'll pay more for the Vibe (a lot more depending on the options you order) than you will for certain other domestic built products, you can be confident you'll pick it up on the back end. With its projected above-average resale value, you'll find a well-built, highly engineered vehicle like the Vibe will actually cost you less to own and operate over a typical four-year ownership period than most lower-priced domestics. My wife is not by any stretch a car enthusiast - she brags she can't tell one from another - but there are some automobiles that catch her fancy immediately. The Audi A8, the Porsche 911, the Lexus LS 430 all come to mind, along with the base Vibe. She said she liked its looks and she liked riding in it. She even allowed as she might like to own one. From her this is indeed high praise.