The Pontiac Vibe GT

Review Notes: Pontiac Vibe GT (similar to Toyota Matrix XRS)
Personality Pocket rocket in wagon form
Quirks Sudden power surge at high rpm
Unusual features Turbo-style power without a turbo; air filter; AC plug; nav system
Above Average: Brakes, acceleration (GT), economy, handling
Needs Work In: Torque steer, nav system usability

Click here for the Toyota Matrix XR (Pontiac Vibe)

The Pontiac Vibe GT is an unusual vehicle in many ways. Based on the comfortable but bland Toyota Corolla, it totally loses the Corolla's personality and ends up feeling more like a Celica. That's apt, since the Vibe GT uses the Celica's 180 horsepower engine (ordinary Vibes use 130 horsepower Corolla engines - detuned to 123 horses in four wheel drive models). It also has a four wheel drive option, unusual in such an inexpensive and small vehicle.

The Vibe is a so-called crossover vehicle, designed to attract younger buyers to Pontiac and Toyota (which sells it as the Matrix). If we did not have marketing names like "crossover vehicle" and "hybrid," we'd call it a station wagon or a hatchback, but those names are out of fashion now. In any case, it has four doors, room for five people, and a moderately small cargo area which is, nonetheless, larger than that of the Golf or Protege 5. The rear seating is not particularly spacious, but if you fold down the rear seats and the front passenger seat, you can shove in an eight foot long object - which is more than you can do in a Ford Escape or Mazda Tribute.

Speaking of SUVs, we would like the Vibe to attract a few potential SUV buyers, because the gas mileage is quite good. Rated at 29 city, 36 highway with its base engine, the Vibe easily beats any SUV and quite a few small cars. The Vibe GT cuts mileage down to 25 city, 30 highway, which still beats any SUV we've seen. All wheel drive, available with a base price of $20,100, may help SUV lovers to get used to the idea of a nimble, sporty car.

Our Vibe GT is aimed at providing the entire range with a sporty, youthful image. The 1.8 liter engine manages to get 100 horsepower per liter, and is hooked up to a six-speed manual transmission to convey an image of speed and sophistication. Handling is generally very good, though the car feels twitchy at highway speeds, and there is some torque steer and loss of traction on takeoff. The tires do not seem well suited to wet roads. Dry-road braking is very good.

The Celica engine is fast, but it needs to be revved high for full effect. Rather than resorting to a turbocharger, Toyota set up a high-performance cam and valve timing which takes effect at 6,000 rpm, and continues through an unusually high redline at 8,200 rpm. The engine really has considerably less than 180 horsepower until you suddenly hit this sweet spot, and get a sudden, exciting surge of power. The end result, though, is that in regular driving you do not have the full potential of the engine - even less so than with turbo vehicles - and when you do tap it, which normally requires a downshift, it is very noisy. Most drivers should try out the base engine as well, since it's better suited to day-to-day driving and is much quieter and fuel-efficient, even though it theoretically adds a second or two to zero-to-sixty times (assuming the GT is driven by a skilled driver who takes it up to redline). Note that the GT requires premium fuel, while base models take regular.

The six-speed manual shifts well, but it has a relatively low top gear, so it is still noisy on the highway. It beeps loudly when in reverse (within the car), which is annoying and distracting. Reverse is off to the left, in the European pattern. Overall, the clutch and stick are easy to work smoothly.

Visibility is surprisingly good, given the overstyled body. There are minor blind spots from the large rear pillars, and the rear headrests can get in the way if you're backing up. Headlights are unusually bright and well focused.

The interior is tastefully executed, with a black and silver motif that works better than it does in the Audi TT. The center stack has a dull silver finish, while the rings around the gauges, the stick-shift, and some other trim is bright chrome. Overall, it works well, without being a distraction. Some of the controls are less than ideal, but nothing stands out as being nonsensical, just counterintuitive or more complex than needed. The cruise control is straight out of Toyota's parts bin, and is the best design we've seen, sitting on its own convenient stalk.

The gauges themselves are totally black when the car is off, in deeply recessed circles. When the car is started, they are brightly backlit in Pontiac red, a snazzy effect.

The lighting system combines daytime running lights from the General with automatic headlights, and no option to shut the headlights off entirely. You can leave them on all the time, though. Unlike past Corollas, the automatic headlights will go on instantly at night when you start the car (in the past, they took 15 seconds), but the 15 second delay remains in effect after you start the car to avoid having the headlights blink on and off every time you go under an overpass or tree.

While the climate control is clear and easy to understand, with a relatively quiet fan, the navigation system / stereo (optional) is another story. We've encountered this unit before, and remain impressed with its capabilities but not its interface. Operating the radio while driving takes much more attention than with traditional systems, and the learning curve is very steep. Some of the buttons do double duty, and the enter/move button is hard to work without paying too much attention. We understand navigation systems that require your full attention, but not stereos. (The navigation system also requires that you have a map DVD in place, which means you can't play CDs and use the map.) On the lighter side, you can get vocal directions so you don't need to look at the map, and the system simply creates a new route if you skip an exit or turn. The navigation system can be surprisingly helpful, but be sure to stop the car before programming it. Seriously. It also, annoyingly, requires you to agree to drive safely each and every time you start the car before it'll show you a simple map.

There are zoom in and out controls for the map, along with many other options for setting the appearance. Destinations can be set by address, point of interest, or scrolling the map and picking a point. It's very flexible, and when the system is shut off, it defaults to a digital clock. You can also shut off the display entirely. Still, the General's system is far easier to use, and we wish Toyota had deigned to have their "partner" provide it.

Other somewhat unusual features are built-in air filtration, a power outlet in the covered center console, and a 115 volt AC outlet, with a standard plug, in the dashboard. This can be turned on or shut off with a neighboring button, and can be useful for powering a laptop or small appliance that takes up to 100 watts. The small center console has an upper and lower area to help with organization. There are also a pair of small but deep (stable) cupholders, a pair of hidden, hinged storage areas (one under the stickshift, one under the light/mirror controls), and a couple of small storage areas built into the center console. The coin holder is essentially useless. There are also map pockets built into the front doors.

Passenger space is good in front and back, though the back seats are not especially spacious. The cargo area is not especially deep, but it is tall, with movable hooks built into several surfaces.

The base Vibe is reasonably priced, but you have to pay for the GT model - to the tune of $19,900 without power locks and such. Adding the power package with cruise control puts another $600 onto the price, while the DVD navigation system adds $1,600 and makes it far harder to use the stereo. Overall, our test vehicle sold for $22,425, including a "premium monotone appearance package."

The Pontiac Vibe is a good entry into the SUV-replacement market, with a practical shape, efficient engines, good handling, and styling that appeals to younger buyers. Those who are seeking a car with the comfort of a Corolla, though, may prefer to look at the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which has equivalent speed (base to base, GT to GT), good handling, and similar price tags, with considerably more comfort and less of a cheap feel - even if they prefer the Vibe's styling. The PT has done well in quality rankings, and we expect the Vibe to do at least as well, so both are good in that area. On the other hand, though the New Beetle Turbo S will outrace the Vibe, we'll take the interior space and overall practicality of the Vibe.

The Pontiac Vibe is, in some ways, to have it both ways. You get SUV styling and even four wheel drive, with car handling, braking, and gas mileage; you get Toyota reliability from an American company and a car built in North America (Canada). With the GT, you even get turbo performance and turbo feel without a turbocharger. These are good combinations.

 Click here for the Toyota Matrix XR (Pontiac Vibe)