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The Pontiac Vibe offers sporty styling and performance with practical cargo and people-hauling capabilities. This five-door hatchback boasts a roomy interior for front and rear passengers. Its creatively designed cargo compartment features a track system with adjustable tie-down anchors. The seating arrangement is flexible, allowing the driver to flip down the passenger seat when hauling items up to 8-feet long. That seat can be used as a desk for a laptop computer, which can be plugged into the 115-volt electrical outlet.
For the tuner crowd, Pontiac offers the Vibe GT, tuned for performance and dressed to impress. A selection of over-the-counter accessories is available to enhance its look. Vibe comes in wild colors, including Fusion Orange, Lava, Satellite, and Envy. XM Satellite Radio, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a supercharger for the base model have been added to the options list for 2004. All-wheel drive is available for drivers in the snowbelt.
On the road, we found the base model pleasant and comfortable with a hatchback's cargo-hauling versatility. The GT offers more driving excitement, though the high-revving engine doesn't seem at home here.
Vibe was conceived by General Motors and is built to Toyota assembly standards, with Toyota components. (Toyota sells its own version of the car, called the Matrix, with different styling cues.)
Pontiac builds the 2004 Vibe in base ($16,605), AWD ($19,555), and GT ($19,905) versions.
The base Vibe comes with a 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, a four-speed automatic optional ($850). The Vibe comes standard with wind-up windows, manual door locks, and 16-inch steel wheels, but it is otherwise reasonably well equipped with air conditioning; a CD player; a two-prong, household-style 115-volt power outlet (as well as two automotive-style 12-volt outlets); and power mirrors. Anti-lock brakes ($500) are optional.
The all-wheel-drive Vibe (AWD) is similarly equipped, but its engine is de-tuned to 123 horsepower. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) and automatic transmission are standard; no manual transmission is available.
The Vibe GT is a factory-built sport compact with 180 horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission. It also gets four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 16-inch cast aluminum road wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. No automatic transmission is available.
Side-impact airbags are optional ($575) and come packaged with an alarm system. A Power Group ($750) adds cruise control, power windows, and power door locks with remote keyless entry to all models. The optional Moon and Tunes package ($850) adds a power glass moonroof and 200-watt audio system. An in-dash six-CD changer is also available as a stand-alone option ($325) or as part of a DVD-based navigation system ($1,650). New for 2004 are 17-inch aluminum wheels with 215/50R17 Dunlop all-season tires, XM Satellite Radio, and OnStar telematics.
Also available is a dealer-installed supercharger for the base model that will deliver 7.5 psi of boost for a 35-percent increase in horsepower and torque. The supercharger can be installed on either manual or automatic Vibes, and shares the Vibe's 3 year/36,000 mile warranty.
The Pontiac Vibe was designed using a two-box hatchback architecture, which makes for a practical car. To make sure the Vibe wasn't too boxy, however, the overhangs were kept short and more slope was put into to the rear section of the roof. In profile, the Vibe hints at a fastback shape. The encapsulated C-pillars almost look like inverted hockey sticks. And the short overhangs push the wheels out to the corners, improving handling while providing some traditional Pontiac "Wide Track" identity. Body contours were designed to present a muscular, athletic look.
Pontiac hasn't quite broken its habit of surrounding its vehicles with lower-body cladding. But at least the Vibe's bottom fringe is relatively simple, and is available in either low-key charcoal or even less conspicuous body color ($325). We think the charcoal looks best on the all-wheel-drive version, giving it some visual elevation and a more outdoorsy look.
Buyers who want to project more attitude can purchase dealer-installed extensions for the sides and front and rear fascias, plus spoilers for the roof and tailgate. The whole package ($1890) is offered in Salsa, Satellite, or Abyss (those are colors), or primered and ready for your own custom paint.
The 2004 Pontiac Vibe provides seating for five. Those seats are elevated for a good view of the road. The person at the wheel can gain an even better vantage by using the manual height adjustment of the driver's seat. The driver operates in a cockpit-style environment. We found the handbrake lever awkward, but perhaps ours simply needed an adjustment.
Nice touches went into making the Vibe a pleasant place for driving or even for working: The front passenger's seatback folds flat, so its back can serve as a table for a laptop computer or even a video game system plugged into the 115-volt outlet. Making this setup more convenient are release levers on both sides of the passenger seatback, so the driver can fold it one-handed, while someone standing outside the car on the passenger's side can easily reach in and do the same thing.
The rear seat has room for at least two full-size adults, and is split 60/40. With both rear seatbacks and the front passenger seat folded down, Vibe provides a perfectly flat cargo area shaped like Utah and almost as large: 8 feet from the rear hatch to the right half of the dashboard. With all seats folded, the Vibe can carry 54 cubic feet of cargo, which can be secured by using the numerous tie-downs, including those that lock into position in a clever pair of tracks in the rear cargo floor. Those tracks are also built into the rear seatbacks, so when the seats are folded down they extend the full length of the rear cargo floor. The hard finish used in the cargo area makes for easy cleanup, great for dealing with muddy equipment or wet dogs. However, this same hard finish means cargo that isn't secured tends to slide around; we recommend getting a rubber mat or purchasing some of Pontiac's accessories to handle this situation: Pontiac offers a cargo net system ($35), cargo box ($95), and heavy-duty cargo mat ($50) for the luggage bay. An optional seatback pack ($80) attaches to the front seatback and includes a first-aid kit.
All told, the Vibe provides nearly a dozen interior storage containers, nine of which keep contents out of view. There's even a compartment behind the base of the back seat, where an umbrella or fishing rods can be kept in a covered pocket. The rear window on the Vibe's hatchback opens independently, so you can reach your stuff without having to open the entire hatch.
XM Satellite Radio ($325) is a great option for long-distance traveling because the stations don't change as you drive across the country. XM Satellite Radio is nice to have around town for listening to the 24-hour news and sports broadcasts, or for staying tuned into your favorite types of music (classical, jazz, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s).
The optional DVD-based navigation system works well and has a split-screen feature so you can see both the detail of your immediate locale as well as your location in relation to a larger, metropolitan area. However, it isn't cheap ($1,650).
OnStar works as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the button and a human operator responds, to provide directions and other assistance. OnStar always knows the location of your vehicle. The staff will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls. Or you can press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. They can unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside. They can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover.
The standard Pontiac Vibe is no pocket rocket, but comports itself well. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine features Toyota's variable valve timing (VVT-i) technology and produces 130 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 125 pounds-feet of torque at 4200 rpm. The Vibe's engine was a little noisy under acceleration, but the drivetrain quieted nicely at cruising speeds.
The five-speed manual transmission lets the driver extract the full measure of the engine's power. Making shifting easier is the way the shifter is mounted in an extension of the dashboard, instead of in a center console. Your right hand falls easily from the steering wheel directly onto the shift lever.
The Pontiac Vibe is built on the new Toyota Corolla platform. With this solid chassis, engineers were able to do a good job of sound insulation and ride control. Pontiac said one engineering target for the Vibe was to build a small car in which people could ride comfortably for several hours. We were comfortable after spending a full day in the Vibe.
Enhancing the experience are controls that are easy to reach and use. Audio controls are located at the top of the center stack. Three big dials are used to control the heating/air-conditioning system.
The Vibe AWD model with the automatic isn't as quick as the front-drive model with the manual gearbox, but it responded nicely when we needed it to kick down for passing or for pulling onto freeways. On the downside, the AWD model gets slightly lower fuel economy and has a smaller fuel tank than the five-speed base model. The all-wheel-drive system is made up of lightweight aluminum components, so a Vibe AWD weighs just 198 pounds more than a base model with automatic transmission. Under normal conditions the system drives the front wheels only, but a viscous coupling can send up to 50 percent of the driving torque rearward if the front wheels start slipping. Pontiac expects 10 percent of Vibe buyers to opt for this model.
The Vibe GT qualifies for pocket-rocket status. Pontiac says the Vibe GT will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in less than 8.5 seconds, compared to 9 or 10 seconds for the base car and 11.5 for the AWD. The division expects 13 percent to choose the GT.
The GT's engine also displaces 1.8 liters, but they are arranged a different way. A massage by the performance mavens at Yamaha shortened the stroke while increasing the bore. Compression is boosted from 10.0 to 11.5:1 (requiring premium fuel), and the engine computer regulates valve lift as well as timing, a setup called VVTL-i. The payback is 180 horsepower at 7600 rpm and 130 pounds-feet of torque at 6800. (By comparison, Ford's much-acclaimed Focus SVT produces 170 horsepower and 145 pounds-feet.) The Vibe GT engine is the same unit that powers Toyota's Celica GTS, but in the Pontiac it comes with room for four people and their stuff.
Rev the Vibe GT to 6000 rpm, and the VVTL-i system kicks in a higher-lift, longer-duration cam lobe. It feels like a turbocharger that's spooling up and pumping air, or like lighting the afterburners. We drove the car hard and fast on canyon roads west of Los Angeles, where we found it quick, stable and predictable. We also liked the exhaust note. The engine seems an odd match for this wagon, though. It seems like it would be better in a sporty compact. At times, we wondered what this little wagon was trying to be. The suspension felt too firm and bouncy for hauling fragile items or pets.
Coupled to the Vibe GT's engine is a six-speed manual gearbox. The GT rides on the same twist-beam rear axle as the base model, but gets four-wheel disc brakes and ABS.
The Pontiac Vibe features an innovative cargo system and boasts household current to run laptops and other appliances. Vibe also boasts Toyota build quality. Vibe offers an extensive list of standard equipment in all three models, though power windows and door locks are extra-cost options.
The standard model seems the smartest buy. The Vibe AWD is a sporty hatchback for the Snow Belt; its price is considerably higher, but includes all-wheel drive, an automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes. We found the Vibe GT less compelling. It's nearly $3,000 more than the base model and the engine and suspension tuning are not conducive to pleasant motoring around town, lacking the drivability of high-performance models from Subaru.