Pontiac Vibe – a stylish compact adventurer

By Ted Biederman and Jim Meachen

Our 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT test car may be the only one in existence that has spent a day visiting neglected graveyards in search of family ancestors.

It was a comfortable way to go cemetery hunting.

We eventually narrowed our search down and the Vibe playfully bounded over a grassy pasture to the edge of a field where a small island of trees sat a hundred yards in the distance. Disguised in the underbrush was a family burial ground where the weathered and toppled tombstones had end-of-life inscriptions pre-dating the horseless carriage — from 1879, 1882, and 1888.

Among the dozen or so markers were those of two children who died in the slower moving and probably less frantic pre-gasoline engine 19th century. The family gravestones were recovered and loaded up and eventually will be replanted in a section of an old city cemetery far from the brambles, weeds, fallen trees and overgrown brush that made up the forlorn island among vast acres of plowed fields.

The second-generation Vibe we used on our Indiana Jones adventure that day has been redesigned with a more athletic, edgy appearance that thankfully has not lost its focus as a compact sport wagon combing such features as an elevated driving position, excellent passenger space and a roomy cargo area. And the Vibe thankfully has not grown larger maintaining a very compact and maneuverable driving experience.

If you want small and fuel efficient, but need true four-adult passenger space with reasonable cargo room, the Vibe is the answer just as it was five years ago when it first hit the market. Granted, rear passengers will have to gain a compromise with the front-seat people to enjoy decent leg room. But remember this is a compact. We hauled four people on our gravestone-robbing mission without complaint. Shoulder room is excellent and head room at nearly 41 inches is never an issue. By comparison, the head room in a mid-sized Toyota Camry is 37 inches.

We also hauled tools necessary for work in a neglected cemetery such as shovels, spades, loppers and machetes in the generous 20-cubic-foot cargo space that comes with a washable plastic and rubberized load floor.

The new Vibe, which is a mechanical twin to the 2009 Toyota Matrix built on the same assembly line in Fremont, Calif. (a joint venture of GM and Toyota), retains all the intriguing features of the 2003 original while eliminating numerous shortcomings.

The guts of the two vehicles are nearly identical and the interior layout is similar, but the Vibe gets more unique exterior styling than before. Parked side by side, there will be no doubt as to which one is a Toyota and which one is a Pontiac. The biggest difference between the two is in the front end where the Pontiac kidney-shaped grille is prominent. The muscular rear haunches of the car climb to the stylish taillights that are artfully cut out and visible from the side. Wheels pushed to the corners give the Vibe a solid, planted look.

There are three variations and two engine options in the revitalized 2009 lineup. Pontiac figures nearly half its Vibe buyers will opt for the base model outfitted with Toyota’s 1.8-liter inline-4 delivering 132 horsepower. The optional engine, the one we drove for a week, is a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder developing 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque and is found in the upscale GT trim level and in the all-wheel drive model.

We think most buyers will be satisfied with the 1.8-liter version, which starts at a budget-minded $15,895 for the five-speed manual and $16,745 for the four-speed automatic and delivers 26 mpg city and 32 mpg highway with the manual transmission and 25/31 with the automatic.

We drove the 132-horsepower engine in a 2009 Corolla and found it acceptable in all situations. Although the Corolla weighs about 200 pounds less, we think performance should be about the same in the Pontiac.

But here’s the thing. For just $400 more, the base trim level can be outfitted with the bigger and more satisfying engine. And the five-speed automatic that comes with the bigger engine, is a better choice for a more rewarding driving experience. Gas mileage suffers, however, rated at 21/29. The all-wheel drive model begins at $19,495 and the GT starts at $19,895.

The first-generation Vibe through 2006 — the lineup was reduced to one trim level in 2007 and 2008 — actually had a more potent 4-cylinder developing 164 horsepower, but it was necessary to visit the higher end of the rev band to gain the extra performance, something most people are reluctant to do.

The new optional engine is reasonably athletic with a wide power band that drivers will find useful and rewarding in most driving situations.

If you desire a bit more adventure in your daily driver, the GT trim level comes with an independent rear suspension that enhances control on the back-road twists and turns. The Vibe is certainly not a sports car, but we found the GT well buttoned down during some aggressive driving. And the electric power steering offers a decent feel of the road.

One of the aspects of the Vibe is its commanding view outward. For those people who say they like SUVs because they sit up higher you may find it to your liking.

You may also find a high level of interior solitude at highway speeds to your liking. This is no Lexus —there is some obvious road noise — but we applaud Pontiac/Toyota for its efforts in strengthening the body structure to help eliminate noise.

The dashboard is well thought out with easy-to-read recessed gauges and uncomplicated switch gear. The audio system offers excellent satellite radio readout for song and artist. We found the seven-speaker 320-watt Monsoon audio system a delight. It’s standard in the GT and optional on the base vehicles.

There is more storage in the new Vibe including a cubby at the front of the center console, a large glove box, an overhead console and a dual-tier center console. The center storage features a 115-volt three-prong auxiliary power outlet. Folding cargo dividers that flip out of the rear floor is a neat and useable idea, a real advantage for grocery shoppers to keep their items from rolling around on the way home from the market.

The interior is attractive with an abundance of low gloss satin-metal accents and textured plastics. Fit and finish is excellent.

Our GT test vehicle came with two options, the $1,050 automatic transmission and a $700 sunroof bringing the bottom line to $21,645.

The Vibe proved to be very stylish and comfortable. Whether you are undertaking a weekend Indiana Jones adventure or simply commuting to and from work, the new Vibe is a solid choice.


Base price, $15,895; as driven, $21,645 

Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 158 @ 6,000 rpm 

Torque: 162 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm 

Transmission: 5-speed automatic 

Drive: front drive 

Seating: 2/3 

Wheelbase: 102.4 inches

Length: 172.1 inches 

Curb weight: 3,085 pounds 

Turning circle: 36.9 feet 

Luggage capacity: 20.1 cubic feet 

Cargo capacity: 49 cubic feet 

Fuel capacity: 13 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 29 highway, 21 city 

0-60: 8 seconds (estimated) 

Also consider: Toyota Matrix, Mazda3 five-door, Scion xB 

The Good 

• A lot of utility in a small package 

• Nicely styled interior with excellent fit and finish 

• Acceptable gas mileage 

The Bad

• You will pay close to 20 grand for AWD version 

The Ugly

• Resale value probably won't be as good as its Toyota Matrix sibling