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Pontiac Vibe: GM's good vibes!
by Rod Cleaver
March 10, 2003

Over the years General Motors has had mixed success with their automotive collaborations with other manufacturers. During the mid-1980’s, GM teamed up with Toyota to produce a North American built variation of the Corolla, which was called the Chevrolet Nova in Canada, and the Prizm in the US. The Nova was only produced for a couple years in the mid 1980s, while production of the Prizm was discontinued last year.

Although introduced in 2002, the Pontiac Vibe debuted as a 2003 model with much promise. The vehicle shared its mechanicals, and even some of its interior with the Toyota Matrix. These cars are assembled in Fremont, California.

The Vibe is based on the Toyota Corolla platform and shares the Corolla power plant. The base model front wheel drive model features a 1.8 litre 4 cylinder DOHC that is rated at 130 horsepower, and it is coupled to a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission. The up market GT model offers driving enthusiasts a 180 horsepower engine, with only a 6-speed manual box. With the base engine, Vibe’s performance is somewhat lethargic, especially with the automatic transmission. The all-wheel-drive model is only available with an automatic transmission, and gets a slightly less powerful engine, that is good for 123 horsepower engine.

The difference between the engines is the amount of technology stuffed beneath the valve cover. In the base engine, it adopts variable valve timing to spread the power out over a broader range while cutting emissions, and is, quite frankly, good enough to satisfy most buyers. The up-level motor adds variable valve lift to the variable timing. At low speeds the intake valves follow a cam profile designed to maximize low-end pull. Above 6,000 rpm, the engine switches to a more aggressive profile, which allows more air and fuel into the cylinder. It’s that simple, and it is thoroughly a blast to drive with the throttle mashed down to the floor.

The interior of the Vibe is unlike most other GM vehicles, but is still quite appealing. The layout is very functional and allowing for maximum versatility. Front passenger and rear seats fold flat for plenty of cargo space and storage room for items up to 8 ft long. A rear cargo track system has both adjustable and fixed tie-down anchors: There are a total of nine storage compartments throughout the vehicle. The long and the short of it is that with the seats up you’ve got 617 litres of cargo space at your disposal. Dropping the seats flat bumps that number to a wagon-like 1,506 litres.

Depending upon the model, the suspension differs. The front-wheel drive models use MacPherson struts up front, and a beam axle in back, while the 4-wheel drive model adopts a better double wishbone design. Regardless of the type, the spring and damping characteristics are comfortably compliant while keeping the amount of body roll and under steer to a minimum. Both models also benefit from a toe-control function that limits the tendency for the rear-end to steer the car during hard transitions or when braking.

Stopping power comes from a decent set of discs and rear drums on the front-wheel drive models. The sporty GT model ups the stopping power by adding rear discs and electronic brake force distribution. This limits the pressure set to the rear brakes, which in turn adjusts the rate at which the anti-lock system triggers. It can also split the braking force left to right in a corner.

The Vibe was designed to be a crossover vehicle, from the sense of category classification. It is part wagon, car, and SUV. The vehicle sits higher on the road than your typical passenger car, allowing for a very SUV like view down the road. Overall, it has put a fresh slant on this stylish wagon category. In real world driving, the 2003 Vibe was fun to drive, economical, and relatively spacious, given the compact urban friendly exterior dimensions. If you thought that you needed an SUV for the safety of All Wheel Drive, or for the versatility of transporting items around, the Vibe should be worth a look before you tie yourself down to the additional car payments and a hefty lump of that nasty gas-guzzler tax.

The front-wheel drive base model starts at $19,150. Our moderately equipped model included such optional features as power windows, door locks, cruise control, keyless entry, anti-lock brakes, passenger and driver side airbags, and an exterior visual package, for a listed total of $23,740. Not bad at all for such a stylish and fun package.

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