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A Road Test
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of the Vibe

2003 Pontiac Vibe Road Test

By Brian Moody
Photos by Charles Ofria

Category: $20,000 - $25,000 Sport Wagon
Who should buy this car: Single people and small families who want to make a statement, but still be practical
Comparable models in this class: Chrysler PT Cruiser, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Matrix

"Thatguy is giving me a creepy Vibe" a friend once said. Even without adictionary definition we all know what she meant. Like the word"vibe," the vehicle Vibe is one of those things you can't quite putyour finger on when looking for a written definition, but you know what it iswhen you see it.

The Pontiac Vibe is not so easy to understand, and at the same timequite simple. Part crossover vehicle, part station wagon, part mini-SUV, andpart really cool, the Vibe seems to be a whole bunch of things rolled up intoone. While "a whole bunch of things rolled up into one" is usually arecipe for disaster (remember the Suzuki X90 and Isuzu Vehicross?), the Vibeactually works quite well. More importantly, it seems to appeal to the age groupit is being marketed toward.

On a recent trip to a local Disney attraction, we were met, as always, by ayoung and very polite attendant (Disney seems to have a knack for finding everypolite 19 year-old kid that's left in Southern California). As we enter theperfectly planned and meticulously landscaped parking area, the young attendantasks "is that like a van or something?" "Well kind of; more likea SUV combined with a sporty wagon" I respond. "Cool" he says ina rather matter of fact way.

Now,for those un-versed in teen-speak, a mild mannered "cool" is actuallyquite a ringing endorsement - see these days it's not very cool to let on thatyou think something is really great; that is not cool.

As our small talk conversation continues, the young Disney employee asks"is it kinda like the Toyota Matrix?" At first I think it's a loadedquestion and that my young friend knows more than he is letting on, but alas Iam wrong. He really doesn't know that the Matrix and Vibe share a basicmechanical architecture. When I respond "Yes, it is exactly like a Matrix,in fact it is a Matrix underneath, but with a Pontiac body and badging," heagain says "Oh, that's cool." The point is, he was interested enoughto ask and to ask follow up questions. However thinly disguised under a veneerof "I don't really care" the questions were, the truth is, that passesfor genuine interest in the world of teen-age target markets. Try getting a 19year old kid to ask you about your Taurus or Malibu - ain't gonna happen.

My guess is that the Vibe is the first Pontiac that anyone under 26 has beeninterested in for more than a decade. OK, the Firebird maybe. But seriously whenis the last time a non-auto enthusiast, computer savvy, PS2 playing,lowered-Civic-was-my-first-car, Nirvana-is-old-school type kid expressed anyinterest in a Pontiac? Awhile I'm guessing - until now that is.

And just as I feel totally justified in calling the Vibe a youth market car,Steve Morrison of Culver City Pontiac/GMC says they just sold one to a 60 year old,and, the people who bought a Vibe seemed to make that decision the instant theysaw the car. This is good news and suggests a bright future for the local dealerin a post-incentive market (whenever that day comes). Of course it doesn't hurtthat the Vibe is an excellent value as well, but more on that later. A car thatpeople buy based on emotion is exactly what Pontiac needs - the Vibe could bethe answer to a question everyone was asking; why would I want to buy a Pontiac?

Isthe Vibe worth even a fraction of the hype? Yes and no. From a journalisticpoint of view, the Vibe is really nothing more than a dressed up small stationwagon; similar to a Subaru Impreza Outback Sport or a mini-Audi All Road.However, from a performance standpoint, a 180 hp Pontiac crossover vehicle thatoffers unique features and a reasonable price with Toyota reliability issomething worth mentioning.

The Vibe is available in a variety of mechanical configurations. Front-wheeldrive or all-wheel drive with a choice of automatic or manual transmission.

The all-wheel drive version is available only with an automatic. Now, here isthe interesting part of all this - all Vibes come with the same Toyota based1.8L VVTi engine, but each has a different horsepower rating. The front-wheeldrive Vibe GT makes 180 hp - a fairly impressive number. The front-wheel drivenon GT makes 130 hp - still not bad, and certainly more than adequate. Thestrange part is that all-wheel drive Vibe, with the same 1.8L engine makes only123 hp - this makes no sense, shouldn't the all wheel drive version be the morepowerful?

When I first found that there are three styles of Vibe to choose from, myfirst assumption was that the all-wheel drive version was the GT. Just think howfun an all-wheel drive, manual transmission, 180 hp Vibe GT would be; can anyonesay WRX wagon? But it's just not meant to be. This is a problem for the Vibe asI'd be willing to bet WRX wagon shoppers would possibly consider the Matrix orVibe as an alternative.

Pontiac has always been the performance brand of General Motors and both the130 hp and 180 hp version are in keeping with that heritage - granted, it's no300 hp V8, but many of today's V6 and inline-4 powered cars would make shortwork of the gas guzzlers from yesteryear. Acceleration from the 130 hp versionis more than adequate, but the optional automatic transmission saps some power.By the way, 180 hp is the same as the blisteringly fast VW Beetle Turbo S, andonly 20 hp shy of the much bigger, truck-based Ford Escape V6.

While many Pontiacs of the past seemed content with only straight lineperformance, the Vibe combines spunky acceleration with downright sportyhandling. The Vibe is very tossable in tight corners and exhibits little leanwhen sawing the wheel back and forth. This car feels like it was built toslalom. Blast through a high-speed sweeper, lift the throttle a little and therear steps out ever so slightly - not in an alarming way, but in a controlled,point-and-shoot kind of way. There is a definite sports car element to the Vibe.Also, in hard cornering, the Vibe's front end does not push or "plow"in typical front-wheel drive fashion. Spirited driving in the Vibe is actuallyquite rewarding.

Generally cars with sporty handling sacrifice smoothness on the open highwayor around town. Somehow the Vibe manages to deliver fun, sporty handlingcombined with a certain civility on the open road. The Lexus IS300 is a perfectexample of a car that places razor sharp handling over open highway comfort. TheVibe is more of a compromise, and neither handling prowess nor open highwaycomfort seems to suffer as a result. Certainly the Vibe is no slot car like theIS300, but it is much better suited to everyday driving.

The quality, quietness and solidity of the Vibe's road manners are muchbetter than that of similar priced cars such as the Ford Focus, Subaru Imprezaand Nissan Sentra.

At first the slightly raised suspension seems like just a gimmick, but thosewho like the view afforded them by driving a truck based SUV, but want car-likeride and handling will find much to praise in the Vibe. Also, parents with smallchildren can save some back strain while loading and unloading the little onethanks to the higher stance.

Inside the Vibe is a rather racy interior, chrome rimmed gauges andrally-style shifter placement matches the exterior's bold look. Although thechrome on the gauges can sometimes be a little distracting as the reflection inthe windshield is noticeable at certain times of the day. Seats are comfortable,supportive and offer plenty shoulder room, while hip room feels slightly tight.Rear seats look quite small, but sitting in them reveals just how much interiorspace there is. Expect an adult to ride comfortable in the rear seats for morethan an hour - kids will have a bunch of space. Because of the wagon typeconfiguration of the Vibe, headroom is plentiful, even with the sunroof/moonroof option.

The 200 watt upgraded stereo sounds very good, and while it may be slightlyannoying that the moon roof/sunroof is packaged with the upgraded stereo, theMSRP for those two options bundled together (aptly called the "moon &tunes package") is $800. That is less than a sunroof alone can cost on manyother cars.

Areally cool feature worth mentioning inside the Vibe is the home styleelectrical outlet which can be used to power almost any household appliance witha two prong plug - laptop, guitar amp, hairdryer or electric shaver (passengeronly please!) are just a few of the possibilities.

Small storage bins are plentiful and very useful for storing wallet, sparechange, sunglasses etc. Front and rear seat cup holders add to the overall"utility" theme of the interior.

Rear seats fold down in a 60/40 manner and are effortless to convert. Withboth rear seats folded down, there is a HUGE cargo area which is completelycovered in a hard plastic surface. This is cause for both cheers and jeers - Iapplaud the durable nature of the Vibe's rugged cargo area, and at the same timewonder if all that hard plastic might not cause cargo to slip and slide aroundin a manner that simple carpeting would prevent. This is a minor point andopinions will vary by how a customer uses the car.

Someone who SCUBA-dives or surfs will probably love the rugged cargo area asthere is no carpet to ruin with sand and saltwater, while another person whowishes to haul antiques would most likely wince at the thought of a preciouscollectable sliding around. In Pontiacs defense, the Vibe does come with a niftyrack system. Also, the cargo cover is less than ideal, whereas most hatchback orwagon type cars employ a retractable or hinged cargo cover, the cargo cover onthe Vibe must be installed and/or unhooked manually - it's a pain. Plus thestorage area for the cargo cover (when not in use) is a little difficult to getto as well.

Admittedly this criticism could be construed as nitpicking - fine, but a lookat the large picture reveals that the Vibe is so unexpectedly good thatnitpicking is all that is left.

A more than minor complaint with regard to the interior which I consider morethan mere nitpicking is the difficulty in getting to the spare tire. Two plasticpanels must be removed just to access the spare, then you can unscrew thespace-saver spare. It's not a big deal when removing the stuff for demonstrationpurposes in your own driveway, but a flat tire on a dark, unlit stretch ofhighway could be a big hassle. And yet, unlike other wagon-style cars, the Vibehas two interior lights, luckily one is placed directly over the spare tirestorage area and is far enough back that the flip up panel will not cast anun-helpful shadow on your work area.

Inevitably, cost always factors into any decision about a new or used car.One of the Vibe's biggest assets is good old fashioned value. I've never beenone to find the value in listing features and options, Pontiac does a fine jobof that in their literature and on the Pontiac web site ( but thereare some features worth noting given the bargain basement price. A nicelyequipped Vibe will have an MSRP of about $19,000. For that price you'll get suchfeatures as variable valve timing, 16 inch alloy wheels, fog lights, remotekeyless entry, A/C, CD player, roof rack and a two prong, household styleelectrical outlet. Expect a loaded GT to run about $23,000. Compare this to aloaded RAV4 with poorer handling, and less horsepower at just over $26,000.

The nearly identical (mechanically) Toyota Matrix does offer a 5/60,000 powertrain warranty over the 3/36,000 of the Pontiac, but Toyota quality in both carsmakes this almost a moot point. Pontiac's 24-hour roadside assistance is alsoworth mentioning when cross-shopping the Matrix and Vibe.

Overall the Vibe is a worth alternative to much bigger and expensive SUVs,and at the same time it's really just a compact wagon with a raised ride heightand off-road pretensions. The Vibe is a good-looking, useful, fun and valueladen vehicle. If Pontiac can get the word out about this car, it should be amoderate hit for GM and an above average value for the consumer. If you can overlook some minor irritations, the Vibe should prove to be competent and slightlyedgy companion.

2003 Pontiac Vibe
Engine Type  1.8L double overhead cam (DOHC) 16 valve inline 4 cylinder
Horsepower 130 @ 6,000
Torque 125 @ 4,200
Fuel Recommended Regular  Unleaded.
Transmission Std.
Transmission Opt.
5-speed manual
4-speed Automatic
Drive Type Front Wheel Drive (All-wheel drive Optional)
Tires P205/55R16 all-season tires
Overall Length 171.9"
Wheelbase 102.4"
Width 69.9"
Turning Diameter 36.7 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 2,700 lbs.
Fuel Tank 13.2 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon 28 mpg City, 36 mpg Highway
(28 mpg City, 33 mpg Highway with Automatic)
Base Sticker Price  $16,485.00   Plus $560 Destination Charge.

Standard Equipment

  • Roof rack
  • Intermittent Rear Wiper
  • Ventilated front disc and rear drum brakes
  • Automatic headlights with auto delay off
  • Fog lights
  • Height adjustable driver's seat
  • Power mirrors
  • Rear heating ducts
  • Air conditioning with interior air filtration
  • Dual vanity mirrors
  • Cargo area light
  • AM/FM in-dash single CD player stereo with 4 speakers

Major Available Options

  • DVD based Navigation System
  • Power Package
    Includes: power windows, power door locks, remote keyless entry, & cruise control
  • Moon & Tunes package
    Includes: power glass moonroof and 200-watt premium sound system with 6 speakers.
  • 4-Speed Automatic Transmission
  • 16" Aluminum wheels
  • 17" Aluminum wheels and tires
  • 4-wheel antilock brakes
  • Side impact air bags
  • In-dash 6 disc CD changer
  • Security system

For more information on the Pontiac Vibe, visit

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