2009 Pontiac Vibe car reviews

2009 Pontiac Vibe AWD Automatic

2009 pontiac vibe AWD car reviews

Personality Pleasant economy car
Why we’d buy it Great cornering, good mileage, adequate acceleration, quiet, history of reliability, good balance overall
Why we wouldn’t Sound system; lacks that je ne sais quoi; overdoes the velvet cushion treatment
Mileage EPA 20/26 (manual is 21/28)
1.8 liter version: 26/31 auto, 26/32 stick
Reviewer David Zatz

For many years now, the joint-venture NUMMI plant in California has been pumping out Toyotas with General Motors nameplates. For a time, the GM versions had a unique intake manifold and stereo; now, however, the sheet metal, nameplates, and OnStar appear to be the only differences.

For 2009, the old Celica 1.8 liter engine was replaced by a 2.4 liter four-cylinder that’s easier to live with, if not quite as economical. The 1.8 didn’t do much until it was revved high; the 2.4 is much more even-tempered. Hooking up the 2.4 to an automatic transmission saps much of the sportiness out of it, though.

Even though the four-speed automatic shifted quickly and downshifted without hesitation or much provocation, while in gear, it was hard to feel the 2.4’s power or torque to any great degree. It does have good power for a small car: 158 horsepower, with 162 lb-ft of torque, a respectable amount of oomph. The 1.8 makes do with 132 hp and 128 lb-ft. Still, the Toyota velvet-glove treatment makes the powertrain seem distant and not quite as responsive as it might objectively be.

Acceleration is good for the class with the manual transmission (0-60 in 8 seconds), but it doesn't feel strong with the automatic; again, that’s perception as much as reality. Drivers will rarely find themselves without enough power; on the highway or around town, the transmission quickly downshifts to get into the engine’s power band.

Numerous changes have been made since the 2008s. The Matrix has abandoned its SUV pretensions with coupe-like styling, and better interior utility. New air conditioning with larger vents has lower power consumption but better heating and cooling. The car as a whole is wider, with a lower stance, and the “falling roof” that helps aerodynamics and style, but limits rear-seat headroom and hatch space somewhat. The new roofline is, indeed, rather similar to the Corolla. The interior is nearly identical to the Matrix, with different colors and a Pontiac logo in the steering wheel.

The front suspension uses MacPherson struts as in the past; in the rear, either a torsion beam rear suspension or a double-wishbone setup is used, depending on the model (Vibe AWD gets the double wishbones). The torsion beam helps to make the ride smoother, while the double wishbone setup increases agility. All wheel drive is now handled electronically, as on the RAV4, rather than with a fluid link; the result is surprisingly good cornering and faster reactions on poor surfaces. The steering still seems rather numb, and while the Vibe can be hurled around sharp corners with surprising speed and still stay composed, it just doesn’t feel sporty. This is not the kind of Pontiac that John DeLorean would approve of, I suspect, and not just because it was designed by the Japanese.

Visibility was good in front, with well-focused headlights; the rear quarter suffered from the usual fat pillar and the stylish “roof and beltline meeting in the middle” design. The front wipers seemed better designed than many. Like any product sold by General Motors, it had daytime running lights, seemingly running the headlights at almost full strength; at least GM didn’t use the brights, as they’ve been known to do. The usual pointless GM warnings about having a passenger (or not) and not having the headlights on during the day were absent, a pleasant change.

Pontiac Vibe

The stereo deserves a special mention for its intelligent control interface, and for its poor sound. The audio seemed muffled, fuzzy, and unclear, and was almost painful to listen to, in a way that most bad stereos are not. An optional, high-power Monsoon stereo with seven speakers might or might not fix the problem, but it’s probably worth a try.

On the lighter side, the standard stereo made it easy to flip through equalizer settings, play with the manual bass/treble/midrange options, and such; the satellite radio system was integrated well into the conventional radio and CD controls; and the clever LED display took up no more room than a conventional stereo, and added to rather than interfered with the process of selecting stations and tuning sound. An easily accessed set of preferences went further than the options in most stereos in tailoring the system to individual needs.

Other controls generally made sense as well. The climate control was easy enough to use, though the knobs have an oddly mechanical feel; the gated automatic transmission shifter was also driver-friendly, with or without the optional manual override, which in itself was far more sensible than the one used by Chrysler or Mercedes. The cruise control is Toyota’s standard, easily used mini-stalk. Gauges were clear enough, though the 140 mph speedometer is an affectation, and the tachometer, like most, devotes much of its space to engine speeds that you can’t reach with the rev limiter in place. The Vibe uses Pontiac’s usual crimson backlighting, but the numbers are in a readable white.

The air conditioner seemed reasonably powerful, and didn’t affect the engine power much. Vents were fairly easy to direct, rotating around in circles as needed on a clicky but smooth mount, and avoiding the plasticky feel common to many vents.

Front seats are moderately padded, and moderately adjustable with manual controls; rear seats seemed comfortable enough. Knee room and headroom were both good for a small car, and rear row access was good.

Storage spaces were generally well designed, including a rubber-lined storage area in the center stack which gripped an EZ-Pass or sunglasses well; and a divided set of compartments between the front seats which could be used for cups or other items, or, with the dividers out, for pens and letters. The covered center compartment had two small storage bins, one shallow and one deep.

Even in the cargo area, someone considered the owners. The cargo area was lined with an effective anti-skid material, which made transporting a pizza far safer; two hinged covers revealed separate storage units, one containing the spare tire and ancillary materials, and the other converting into several grocery-bag holders with small nets to hold things in place. We have to give Pontiac or Toyota high ratings for cargo considerations.

Overall, it was hard to find definite criticism for the Vibe. While it didn’t feel especially fast, it is objectively quick, especially for an inexpensive AWD vehicle. The newly redesigned all wheel drive system improves on the car’s agility and footing in bad weather, and makes just about every launch sure-footed. Gas mileage is not bad, and if it’s not quite as good as the 172 hp Patriot or Caliber, the Vibe itself is as quick and responsive as those competitors. The sound insulation is excellent, and the ride is good — poor surfaces and minor bumps are soaked up nicely, and bad pot-holes and cracks don’t interfere with stability or control. Wind noise is minimal, with no road drone, and the engine is generally quiet even under heavy load.

In short, all the pieces are there, but the package left me cold. I found myself wanting to drive less “refined” cars, with less of the velvet touch — missing the Patriot and Mazda3. Something has been lost for me; maybe too much has been filtered out. That’s my perception, though. Perhaps most people will not find anything wrong, and the Vibe will serve them well, especially if they don’t listen to music on the stereo.

The Vibe AWD, with the standard 2.4 liter engine, checks in at $19,495. That might seem like a lot for a small car, but it’s not all that small, and the all wheel drive system adds to the cost. Standard features are also plentiful, including front and side airbags, active front head restraints, one year of OnStar, four wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, air conditioning with rear ducts, tilt/telescope steering wheel, satellite radio with an input jack, cargo storage system, power mirrors, luggage rack, rear window wiper/defroster, and the ever-popular floor mats.

Our test vehicle had just one option, the “preferred package,” weighing in at $1,070. That included remote entry, power locks and windows, cruise, and intermittent front and rear wipers; it brought the price up to $20,565. One could pay a lot more. One could also pay less; the base Vibe, with the 1.8 liter engine, starts at $15,235, after destination and rebates. That’s a very good deal, and with the five-speed manual transmission, the Vibe would probably feel more satisfying.

The Vibe comes with a five year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty; it is made in Fremont, California, using parts almost entirely supplied by the U.S. and Canada (61%) and Japan (39%). The engine and transmission are Japanese.

The Vibe brings up a quandary. Is there a point to buying the American-label version of a Japanese car? On the one hand, it may support an American-car dealer, and provide a small profit to General Motors, which are both good things; and the Vibe is likely to come with a lower price or bigger rebate than the Toyota Matrix. On the other, the trade-in or resale value is likely to be much lower, because people automatically assume anything with a Japanese label is a better used car. We can’t help you with that decision except to say that there are arguments for making either purchase.

General Motors itself makes a competing vehicle, but they design and build it in Asia, which doesn’t really help the decision; the true domestic competitor is the Dodge Caliber/Jeep Patriot, which were designed in Michigan and are built in Ohio by an American company (with 20% Italian ownership). The Caliber and (mainly) Patriot are much better than they were when their bad reviews were written; both compete with the Vibe in size, mileage, utility, and price, but the feel is very different from the heavily, and perhaps overly, cushioned Pontiac/Toyota. For AWD buyers, the Patriot is a worthy contender to the Vibe; it has a particularly large interior, better mileage, and a good feature set. Import-friendly buyers may want to look at the Mazda3.

All of these cars have factors to recommend them; and they all can carry four people in some comfort or convert to carrying around a good amount of cargo, without using too much gas. The Pontiac Vibe is at the top of its class in quietness and has a smooth ride. If you hold out until 2010, you might even be able to get one of the last Pontiacs ever to be made. But don’t worry; Toyota will have service parts for a long time.