Pontiac Tunes Up Its Vibe

The new and improved GM five-passenger hatchback is a nearly identical twin of the Toyota Matrix, but U.S.- and union-builtand cheaper

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Versatility, price, standard safety gear, available all-wheel drive

The Bad: Pokey acceleration, clunky transmission in all-wheel drive version

The Bottom Line: A pioneering crossover vehicle that's much improved for '09

Up Front

Kudos to General Motors (GM) for the dramatic improvements it has made in the Pontiac Vibe, which the company had allowed to dwindle to a shadow of its former self in recent years. The new Vibe, which is just hitting showrooms as a 2009 model, is a practical five-passenger hatchback that is safer, better looking, cheaper, and far more versatile than the model it's replacing. Among other things, the '09 Vibe has a more powerful engine than the old one. Once again, it comes in an all-wheel-drive version, a variation that had been dropped in recent years.

Of course, General Motors doesn't deserve all the credit for the redesign. The Vibe is the nearly identical twin of the Toyota Matrix (which in turn is based on the new Corolla), and its mechanical guts come from Toyota (TM). The Vibe is manufactured at a GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, Calif., in a plant organized by the United Auto Workers, while the Matrix is made at a nonunion Toyota plant in Canada. If you wish to support a domestic manufacturer and union workers but would secretly prefer a Japanese model, the Vibe is the vehicle for you.

The contrast between the '08 and '09 Vibe is stark. The '08 was only available with front-wheel drive and a too-small 1.8-liter, 126-hp four-cylinder engine. It also lacked standard safety features: Antilock brakes, stability control, and side and side-curtain airbags (which protect against head injuries) were all optional.

The '09 comes in three trim lines: Base, all-wheel-drive, and the sporty GT. There are two choices of powerplant, both more powerful than the engine in the previous Vibe. A 1.8-liter, 132-hp four-cylinder engine is standard on the base model, while a 2.4-liter, 158-hp four-banger is standard on the GT and all-wheel drive versions, and optional on the base model.

There are also more choices of transmission on the '09. The base model with the smaller engine can be had either with a four-speed automatic or a five-speed stick shift. The GT and the base model with the bigger engine can be had with the five-speed stick or a new, electronically controlled five-speed automatic. Unfortunately, the AWD Vibe only comes with the clunky four-speed automatic.

The '09 Vibe doesn't yet have crash-test ratings, but it has an impressive list of standard safety gear, including OnStar, antilock brakes, stability and traction control, and active head restraints. It also comes with six airbags, including cabin-length side curtain bags.

Considering all the standard safety gear, the new Vibe is actually less expensive than the '08, which started at $17,440 with a stick shift and $18,290 with a four-speed automatic. The front-wheel drive '09 starts out at a mere $15,895 with the small engine and $16,295 with the larger one (though air-conditioning now costs $950 extra on the base model). The '09 Vibe's starting price rises to $19,495 for the all-wheel drive version and $19,895 for the GT.

With the small engine, front-wheel drive, and an automatic transmission, the '09 Vibe is rated to get 25 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway, about the same as the '08. Mileage drops to 20 mpg and 26 with all-wheel drive. In 730 miles of mainly highway driving, I got 22.9 in the all-wheel drive.

It's too early to tell how well the new Vibe will do, but the previous model's sales have suffered in recent years: Sales fell 17.8%, to 37,170, for all of 2007, more than twice as great a percentage decline as GM's overall car sales. (Toyota doesn't break out sales of the Matrix but says it accounted for 12% to 13% of the Corolla's volume, or about 46,000 units, last year). Vibe sales have continued to dwindle so far this year, dropping a total of 14.7%, to 1,390 in January and February.

Behind the Wheel

The new Vibe's strong points are its versatility and practicality, rather than its driving dynamics. The '09 is the same size and has the same "tall wagon" format the old Vibe had.

This means you sit up relatively high, and there's plenty of headroom and cargo space despite the vehicle's compact size.

With the bigger engine, the new Vibe is faster than the previous model, but it's still no Porsche. I clocked the AWD version at about 9.2 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60. That's decidedly quicker than the Dodge Caliber, which I timed at over 10 seconds in zero to 60 runs, and about the same as the new '08 Saturn Astra. I hated the four-speed automatic transmission—the only choice on the all-wheel drive Vibe. It's racy and has a hard time choosing the proper gear on hills and on the highway. The AWD version also doesn't have much zip when you punch the gas at highway speed.

If sportiness is your priority, Pontiac says the new Vibe GT will do zero to 60 in a more respectable 8.4 seconds. The GT also can be had with the new five-speed transmission featuring a manual shifting function, which just about has to be smoother and more fun to use than the four-speed. It also comes with its own front fascia with bigger fog lights than the other versions of the Vibe.

The new Vibe's interior is far more attractive than the old one's, which had a made-for-the-rental-car-market look. The center console has an appealing brushed-satin surface, and the instruments are encircled by quirky, multi-shaped chrome housings. Designers have made good use of low-gloss surfaces to improve the looks of inexpensive materials. For instance, the dash is the color of carbon fiber with minute cross-hatching that makes it look almost like velour in some lights. The standard cloth seats are reasonably attractive and look durable. Leather-trimmed seats are standard in the GT.

The cabin also contains multiple storage systems. The glovebox is huge, and there's an ingenious rack that folds up out of the floor of the rear cargo area to hold grocery bags in place. The bench-style rear seat folds down flat in a 60/40 pattern. Cargo space is 20.1 cu. ft. with the back seats up and 49.4 cu. ft. with the back seats down.

Buy it or Bag It?

The first thing you have to decide is whether to go with the Vibe or the Matrix. Partly that's a matter of taste, since styling is different in each model. Otherwise, the big difference is the Vibe's lower price.

The base models cost about the same. The Matrix starts at $16,850, about a grand more than the Vibe, but includes air conditioning, which now costs an extra $950 on the base Vibe. However, the AWD Matrix starts at about $1,500 more than the comparable Vibe, and the sporty Matrix XRS at about $2,600 more than the Vibe GT.

Pontiac dealers also seem more willing to bargain on price than Toyota dealers. The '09 Vibe's average price is $19,766 after an average cash rebate of $1,577, according to the Power Information Network, compared with an average price of $20,246 for the Matrix, which is not being discounted.

However, the Matrix retains its value better than the Vibe. A 2003 Matrix sells for an average of $10,298, according to the Power Information Network—$770 more than a 2003 Vibe. "Everything else being equal, Toyota has a better reputation than Pontiac, and that shows up in the price," explains J.D. Power analyst Tom Libby. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN and J.D. Power are units of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP)

There are a number of similarly priced alternative models from which to choose. The '08 Dodge Caliber sells for an average of $17,699, the '08 Saturn Astra for $18,493, and the '08 Mazda3 for $18,517. However, only the Caliber is available with all-wheel drive.

In the end, it's hard to beat the practicality and versatility of the new Vibe (unless, of course, you prefer its sister model, the Matrix).

See BusinessWeek.com's slide show for more of the 2009 Pontiac Vibe.

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