- Two powerful and fuel-efficient engines
- Stabilitrak standard on all models
- Flexible and Usable
- Options Galore
- Poor visibility out rear window
- Rev limiter kicks in right at redline
- Options Galore
Ruling: For those who like options with their small utility vehicle, look no further.
When the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix – sister cars built through a joint venture in Fremont, CA – were released in 2002, they represented a new direction in practical yet fun cars. When people first saw them, some were confused as to what they were supposed to be. It looked part minivan, part hatchback and part sports sedan. Some call it a “small crossover”. Whatever the classification, after six model years of successful sales, the Vibe and Matrix have sold quite well. But like any car that’s gone six years without a redesign, it’s look has become a bit tired. So when GM designers and engineers sat down to create the 2009 Pontiac Vibe, they wanted to make sure the ‘part minivan’ part no longer registered in the minds of potential buyers, so they styled it, contoured it and chopped a little off the roof. They also focused on improving it’s ride quality, powertrain options and interior noise levels.
But what else is new about the Vibe? At a recent GM event, along with getting a chance to drive the new and Buick Lucerne Super, we also got the opportunity to test a variety of Vibes which included the base, AWD and the top-flight model, the GT.
Upon entering the base Vibe, by the looks of the interior, it was clear that we were driving a rebadged Toyota. Instrument cluster gauges, door handles, seats; they all are distinctly Toyota. And of course, in an entry-level, budget segment, this is a very good thing. Nobody does sparse, functional and quality interiors quite like Toyota, and the Vibe clearly benefits.
The base is equipped with a very capable Toyota-sourced 1.8 liter four-banger with dual variable valve timing which puts out 132 horsepower and 128 lb. ft. of torque – a welcome power improvement over the previous generation Vibe. It’s especially welcome when buyers read the fuel economy numbers; getting as much as 26 in the city and 32 on the highway when equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission.
On the AWD and GT models, a Toyota-sourced 2.4 liter four-banger comes standard (optional on the base), and transfers 158 horses and 162 lb. ft. of torque to the ground. Although not as miserly on petrol, the 2.4 still sports acceptable numbers; as much as 21 in the city and 28 on the highway for the GT, with the AWD coming in at 20 and 26 respectively.
On the drivetrain front, we were miffed to learn that the AWD model only comes with a 4-speed automatic, while base and GT models, when equipped with the 2.4L, got the choice of either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic with Driver Shift Control (DSC), to manually shift for optimal fuel economy and performance.
On the road, the base 1.8L engine provides adequate – if not a bit wheezy and whiny – power and acceleration. Thanks to the variable valve timing, power is linear all they way up, but once the motor even thinks about hitting redline, nanny 911 kicks in with a rev limiter, killing all further high-rev fun. Although we’re not big fans of the dash mounted shifter, the Vibe’s 5-speed manual is smooth and shift inspiring.
Handling, even on the base model, is solid for a car ranging between 2,800 (base) and 3,200 pounds (AWD). But make no mistake, even though the Vibe is a bit lower-slung than before and looks sportier, it’s still no match for cars like the Rabbit and Mazda 3. It understeers when pushed, the brakes aren’t stomptacular and it’s driver position is more upright like a minivan than down low like a sporty hatchback. Pure driving enthusiasts will opt for the Rabbit and Mazda 3 over the Vibe, but that still leaves a gigantic audience of people who put fuel economy and practicality ahead of all-out handling and engine performance.
As was mentioned, the interior on all models from the base to the GT have a distinct Toyota feel. The 2009 Vibe has been enhanced to focus more on performance, and is clearly sportier than it’s predecessor. Although we’re not big fans of silver-finished plastic due to it’s tendency to show its age quickly, the dash and door panels are tastefully styled up with the stuff. We’ll see how long owners can keep the silver finish from being scratched off, exposing the black plastic underneath.
Seats in the Vibe are quite comfortable for both long hauls and backroads jaunts, with GT models equipped with leather trim and “GT” embroidered on the seatbacks. Although the seats are leather-trimmed, unfortunately, even on the GT, the three-spoke steering wheel isn’t. It’s a woefully rubbery affair, and not very inspiring to the touch.
But where the Vibe’s interior really shines is with it’s unconventional accouterments. The Vibe is one of the few vehicles, car or truck, which offers a standard 110V, three-prong, AC outlet – but you’re dreaming if you think your days of blow-drying your hair in the house are over. A full tilt and telescoping steering wheel is quite a nice standard feature on a vehicle with a sub-$20,000 pricepoint, as is the AM/FM stereo with CD player and integrated XM Satellite Radio. But if you want a deluge of sound, then those who wish for a downpour of decibels should opt for the premium Monsoon 320-watt, 7-speaker audio system which comes standard on the GT.
What we liked most about the Vibe’s interior was the cargo area. If there’s any advantage that the Vibe has over other small crossovers or hatchbacks, this is it. With the rear seats down, the Vibe offers nearly 50 cubic feet of cargo space with super-functional, Tupperware-esque, rubber cargo floor strips to help prevent sliding and scuffing. GT models even come equipped with a front passenger seat that has a rubber back and folds flat for those oversize loads we Americans are so familiar with. The Vibe also features nifty extras like an oversized glove box, overhead console and other integrated cubbyholes. Oh, and this is an American car after all, so how can we forget one of the most important feature – Eight, count ‘em, eight cupholders. Hydrated? Yes. Ridiculous? Absolutely.
On Vibes equipped with the 2.4 liter engine, a rear cargo compartment storage organizer comes standard. Although Pontiac claims it provides an “almost unlimited number of cargo solutions thanks to a multitude of hooks and net-divided compartments”, it didn’t seem to house our oblong, bulbous and misshapen arrowhead collection very well, so we’ll have to assume that falls outside the “almost unlimited” category. However interesting, with all the hooks and nets, we couldn’t help but imagine how awesome the organizer would be for a little kid and his GI Joes. It’s looks like a mini American Gladiators obstacle course.
Another quote from Pontiac comes in regards to the exterior design, which has “clean, purposeful shapes and a decidedly sophisticated aesthetic”. The description comes close, especially with the fully-optioned GT in red, however they left out the decidedly unsophisticated word, “sporty” – which fits the description of the GT, but not quite the base model.
All sheet metal is new, and greater rake on the windshield helps reduce drag to improve fuel economy. The three models are also distinguished by exterior cues. AWD models are equipped with roof racks to fit the outdoorsy type, GT models are equipped with larger fog lamps, rocker moldings, chromed exhaust and a lower air-intake fascia to fit the sporty type, and base models are equipped with none of these items to fit the
cheapskate practical type.
All models offer a bevy of wheel options from 16-inch steelies with plastic caps to 17-inch and 18-inch blinding-bright mags with 215/45 series performance treads.
Since Pontiac set out to make the Vibe one of the segment’s safest vehicles, lets have a quick word on safety. Unlike competitors, every Vibe, from the base to the GT, comes standard with Stabilitrak – an electronic vehicle stability system, tire pressure monitoring system, dual stage front airbags, head curtain sides and side thorax bags to bring the total to six.
And of course, what would a GM product be without good old OnStar. Besides telling a mission control center somewhere in America’s heartland where you are at any given second of the day, with the push of a button, OnStar can rescue drivers from imminent danger and allow them to make and receive hands-free phone calls. Sometimes convenience and peace of mind can far outweigh the looming image of Big Brother. Or can it?
With the base model starting at $15,895, the AWD starting at $19,495 and the GT making its entrance at $19,895, Pontiac has managed to keep this versatile vehicle underneath the critical entry-level $20,000 price point. Although there’s a wide variety of competitors in this segment from the Honda Fit and Scion xB to the VW Rabbit and Mazda 3, the Vibe offers something that most buyers, especially American buyers, always look for – options. This element combined with its sportiness, utility and price point make the Vibe a very competitive value.
Who Should Buy It?
People who are big on cargo but short on cash, love the plethora of choices at all-you-can-eat buffets or enjoy reading books where you get to choose a variety of endings.
The first-generation Vibe was an immediate success with customers who were looking for a sleek, efficient, economical and roomy utility vehicle that didn’t reek of minivan. By the end of 2007, Pontiac sold nearly 300,000 units – an impressive number for only six seasons with one generation. The 2009 model marks a clear improvement over its predecessor highlighted by a far more appealing exterior, a more functional interior, and yes, of course, options galore. But sometimes we wonder, at what point is there a diminishing return on options galore? It seems GM has figured out the formula, and is keeping it just below the threshold.
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>> www.pontiac.com – the official website of GM/Pontiac division