2003 Pontiac Vibe Road Test

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“That guy is giving me a creepy Vibe” a friend once said. Even without a dictionary definition, we all know what she meant. Like the word”vibe,” the vehicle Vibe is one of those things you can’t quite put your finger on when looking for a written definition, but you know what it is when you see it.

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

On a recent trip to a local Disney attraction, we were met, as always, by a young and very polite attendant (Disney seems to have a knack for finding every polite 19-year-old kid that’s left in Southern California). As we enter the perfectly planned and meticulously landscaped parking area, the young attendant asks “is that like a van or something?” “Well, kind of; more like an 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 actually quite a ringing endorsement – see these days it’s not very cool to let on that you 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 loaded question and that my young friend knows more than he is letting on, but alas I am wrong. He really doesn’t know that the Matrix and Vibe share a basic mechanical 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,” he again says “Oh, that’s cool.” The point is, he was interested enough to ask and to ask follow up questions. However thinly disguised under a veneer of “I don’t really care” the questions were, the truth is, that passes for 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 been interested in for more than a decade. OK, the Firebird maybe. But seriously when is the last time a non-auto enthusiast, computer savvy, PS2 playing,lowered-Civic-was-my-first-car, Nirvana-is-old-school type kid expressed an interest in a Pontiac? While I’m guessing – until now that is.

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

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 they saw the car. This is good news and suggests a bright future for the local dealer in a post-incentive market (whenever that day comes). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Vibe is an excellent value as well, but more on that later. A car that people buy based on emotion is exactly what Pontiac needs – the Vibe could be the answer to a question everyone was asking; why would I want to buy a Pontiac?

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

The Vibe is available in a variety of mechanical configurations. Front-wheel drive 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 is the 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-wheel-drive Vibe GT makes 180 hp – a fairly impressive number. The front-wheel-drive GT makes 130 hp – still not bad, and certainly more than adequate. The strange 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 more powerful?

When I first found that there are three styles of Vibe to choose from, my first assumption was that the all-wheel-drive version was the GT. Just think how fun an all-wheel drive, manual transmission, 180 hp Vibe GT would be; can anyone say 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 short work of the gas guzzlers from yesteryear. Acceleration from the 130 hp version is 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, and only 20 hp shy of the much bigger, truck-based Ford Escape V6.

While many Pontiacs of the past seemed content with only straight-line performance, the Vibe combines spunky acceleration with downright sporty handling. The Vibe is very tossable in tight corners and exhibits little lean when sawing the wheel back and forth. This car feels like it was built to slalom. Blast through a high-speed sweeper, lift the throttle a little and the rear 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 actually quite rewarding.

Generally cars with sporty handling sacrifice smoothness on the open highway or around town. Somehow the Vibe manages to deliver fun, sporty handling combined with a certain civility on the open road. The Lexus IS300 is a perfect example of a car that places razor-sharp handling over open highway comfort. the vibe is more of a compromise, and neither handling prowess nor open highway comfort 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 much better than that of similarly priced cars such as the Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza and Nissan Sentra.

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

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

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

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

Small storage bins are plentiful and very useful for storing wallets,  , 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. With both rear seats folded down, there is a HUGE cargo area that is completely covered in a hard plastic surface. This is cause for both cheers and jeers – I applaud the durable nature of the Vibe’s rugged cargo area, and at the same time wonder if all that hard plastic might not cause cargo to slip and slide around in a manner that simple carpeting would prevent. This is a minor point and opinions will vary by how a customer uses the car.

Someone who SCUBA-dives or surfs will probably love the rugged cargo area as there is no carpet to ruin with sand and saltwater, while another person who wishes to haul antiques would most likely wince at the thought of a precious collectible sliding around. In Pontiacs defense, the Vibe does come with a nifty rack system. Also, the cargo cover is less than ideal, whereas most hatchback or wagon type cars employ a retractable or hinged cargo cover, the cargo cover on the Vibe must be installed and/or unhooked manually – it’s a pain. Plus the storage area for the cargo cover (when not in use) is a little difficult to get to as well.

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

A more than minor complaint with regard to the interior which I consider more than mere nitpicking is the difficulty in getting to the spare tire. Two plastic panels must be removed just to access the spare, then you can unscrew the space-saver spare. It’s not a big deal when removing the stuff for demonstration purposes in your own driveway, but a flat tire on a dark, unlit stretch of highway 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 tire storage area and is far enough back that the flip-up panel will not cast an-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 been one to find the value in listing features and options, Pontiac does a fine job of that in their literature and on the Pontiac web site ( but there are some features worth noting given the bargain-basement price. A nicely equipped Vibe will have an MSRP of about $19,000. For that price, you’ll get such features as variable valve timing, 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, remote keyless entry, A/C, CD player, roof rack and a two-prong, household-style electrical outlet. Expect a loaded GT to run about $23,000. Compare this to a loaded 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 cars makes this almost a moot point. Pontiac’s 24-hour roadside assistance is also worth mentioning when cross-shopping the Matrix and Vibe.

Overall the Vibe is a worthy alternative to much bigger and expensive SUVs, and at the same time, it’s really just a compact wagon with a raised ride height and off-road pretensions. The Vibe is a good-looking, useful, fun and value-laden vehicle. If Pontiac can get the word out about this car, it should be a moderate 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 slightly edgy companion.

2003 Pontiac Vibe

Engine Type 1.8L double overhead cam (DOHC) 16 valve inline 4 cylinder
Horsepower130 @ 6,000
Torque125 @ 4,200
Fuel RecommendedRegular  Unleaded.
Transmission Std.

Transmission Opt.

5-speed manual

4-speed Automatic

Drive TypeFront-Wheel Drive (All-wheel drive Optional)
TiresP205/55R16 all-season tires
Overall Length171.9″
Turning Diameter36.7 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight2,700 lbs.
Fuel Tank13.2 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon28 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

Major Available Options

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Brian M. Moody

Automotive Expert

Brian M. Moody has 7 years of dealership experience to show for his effort. After earning a Bachelor's degree in Television and Film in 1993, Brian worked as a broadcast graphic designer for 5 years prior to making the decision to change his career and pursue work as an automotive journalist full-time. Based in Los Angeles, Brian is a writer for several local, community newspapers.

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