2003 Pontiac Vibe Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
January 14, 2002

2003 Toyota Matrix by John Pearley Huffman (12/3/2001)



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WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — In WeHo’s fabulous Skybar, celebrities trickle in just often enough to pump the civilian crowds into a frenzy. Meanwhile, those actually sleeping at the attached — vestigial? — Mondrian hotel simply try to park discreetly without adding to the insanity. Throwing a Marty Padgett or TCC Team into the mix would only cause more bedlam, wouldn’t it?

It’s a good thing we weren’t distracted by adoring crowds and hangers-on asking for our BlackBerry address and five minutes for their movie pitch. Big questions were to be pondered: is the Pontiac Vibe a starter kit for adventure, or is it a clever station wagon that’s small and cute enough to lose all those stodgy connotations? And is it the best Pontiac in recent memory?

Nothing like the rest

The Vibe’s like nothing we can recall from Pontiac’s history, and at first glance it’s a poor fit for the rest of the brand’s catchall portfolio of sedans, minivans and sporting machines. It’s sleek and compact, and in the grand scheme almost understated with its low-relief cladding. Apparently its smoothed-over looks have been controversial even inside GM walls — and we’re reassured that, finally, its cleaner demeanor is the look of the future for the rest of the brand’s vehicles.

2003 Pontiac Vibe

2003 Pontiac Vibe

Enlarge Photo
Its format is another seeming mismatch. It’s a tall five-door wagon with a flexible cargo area. You’ll see visible winces if you call it a wagon in front of Pontiac people, but it’s the most apt description; “crossover” doesn’t really fit the two front-drive Vibes. In all, there are three Vibes to catch: a base front-drive, 130-hp model with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission; an all-wheel-drive model with 123 hp and a four-speed automatic; and a front-drive 180-hp Vibe GT with a six-speed manual gearbox.

2003 Pontiac Vibe

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The final bit of distance is the Vibe’s heritage. Look underneath a Grand Prix and you’ll see stolid GM design, front-drive mechanicals and a V-6 engine. Under the Vibe’s nifty skin you’ll see Toyota bits, from the control-arm front suspension to the all-wheel-drive unit on those models, to the four-valve, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engines and transmissions that propel the Vibe.

In case you need a refresher, the Vibe is essentially similar to the Toyota Matrix we previewed last month. The Vibe is built in California alongside the Japanese-market Voltz, where the Matrix is built in Cambridge, Ont.

Performance issues

In all its versions, the Vibe is a competent handler. The engine range, though, doesn’t tickle the palate like a bigger motor could — a V-6 perhaps, or even a turbo four. Even the 180-hp powertrain seems a little slight, probably because it has just 130 lb-ft of torque, only 5 more than the base engine. (The AWD models are downrated to 118 lb-ft of torque). The Vibe GT can escape into the high revs for power, and its six speeds can access passing power when you need it. The base model and especially the 2975-lb AWD Vibe need more encouragement; mountain passes need to be well planned or postponed.

It bears mentioning that base and GT Vibes have MacPherson struts in front and a torsion-beam rear axle. The AWD Vibe, which uses a viscous coupling to send power to the back wheels when wheelspin happens, has the same struts but carries an independent rear suspension in the back. In spirited and slow driving, detecting a difference in the two setups was difficult; even the base cars ride on 16-inch tires and feel grippy, secure, and steer smoothly. On a gravel or slick road, the AWD’s virtues might be more obvious. Both base and AWD models have front disc/rear drum brakes, but the GT adopts rear discs.

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2003 Pontiac Vibe

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Access granted

What makes the Vibe so compelling — and such a watershed event for Pontiac — is the blending of compact size and truly innovative packaging. Flexibility isn’t just a mandate in the Vibe — it’s a mantra. The front passenger seat folds flat and has a perfect laptop spot molded into the seatback, close by the 115V power outlet, a brilliant why-not touch found on the center console. The rear seats fold completely flat as well, opening up a 57.2 cubic foot area big enough for an adult to sleep in, if necessary. The rear hatch also has a glass-only lift option, good for groceries or quick access to the last bottle of Powerade in the cooler. There’s storage everywhere with bins under the shifter and in the cargo area, for example.

2003 Pontiac Vibe

2003 Pontiac Vibe

Enlarge Photo
The cockpit, which is nearly identical on the Matrix, has headroom for nearly any frame. The dash is a handsome mix of chromed circles and metal-like panels, all of good-feeling and good-looking materials. The shifter sticks out from what looks like an incongruous spot on the dash, but shifts reasonably smoothly, although our preproduction tester (like a Matrix we drove in November) didn’t care as much for five-six shifts. Red lighting is one of the few Pontiac hallmarks to evade the style police.

Although remote CD changers are low on our desirability list, opting for the Vibe’s changer would be worth it when ordered with the optional Delphi navigation system. With a split screen for mapping and directions and DVD-based software, it’s no small leap to picture the system with added music capabilities. We see a homemade DVD loaded with MP3s – our own personal jukebox on one disc.

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GM has big plans for accessories on the Vibe, including bike racks, outdoor gear transporters, and even body kits as evinced in a concept Vibe shown at last year’s SEMA aftermarket show in Las Vegas. The standard roof rack is just the beginning of what the company hopes will be a customizer’s dream alternative to the class hottie, the Ford Focus.

We think the Vibe’s knockout combination of utility and good looks will bring even more distinction to a class that already includes the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus FX5 and Mazda Protégé5. It’s probably the best Pontiac we’ve sampled in two decades, and it’s likely the car that will make Pontiac relevant to twentysomethings once more.

2003 Pontiac Vibe
Base price: $16,900 (base); $19,900 (AWD) $20,100 (GT)
Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four, 123 hp (AWD)/130 hp (base)/180 hp (GT)
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 171.9 x 69.9 x 62.2 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2700-2975 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 30/36 mpg (base) - 21/28 (GT)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, daytime running lights (anti-lock brakes std. on AWD/GT)
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, 115V power outlet, flat-folding rear and front passenger seats, air conditioning, rear cargo track system, roof rack
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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2003 Pontiac Vibe 4-Door HB AWD


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