by Greg Wilson
Occasionally, two automobile manufacturers team up to design and produce a new vehicle which is then marketed as two different vehicles with slightly different styling and features. Past examples include the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager, the Ford Probe and Mazda MX-6, Pontiac Firefly and Suzuki Swift, Chevrolet Tracker and Suzuki Vitara, Isuzu Impulse and Asuna Sunfire (extra points if you remember that last one), and the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Prism.
You may not have heard of the Chevrolet Prism because it was sold only in the United States. That vehicle is being replaced by the Pontiac Vibe (which will be sold in Canada) and will be built in the same GM/Toyota-owned New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) assembly plant in Fremont, California. The Toyota Matrix will be built in Toyota’s own plant in Cambridge, Ontario. These two plants, by the way, are consistently rated tops in quality by J.D. Power and Associates. Both the Vibe and Matrix are based on the all-new Toyota Corolla platform and share the same Toyota engines, transmissions, suspensions, brakes, and GM-designed/Toyota-supplied interior features. Even the warranties are comparable: GM will offer a 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty on the Vibe in Canada to match Toyota’s powertrain warranty. Only the cars’ exterior styling, option packages, and name badges are different.
The idea for a tall, sporty hatchback with SUV styling cues originated with General Motors which was looking for a way to attract new, younger buyers to Pontiac. GM worked closely with Toyota’s design and engineering staff during the 25 months from late 1999 to early 2002 that it took to develop the Vibe. Toyota, who was also interested in attracting younger buyers, wanted their own version of the Vibe, but due to limited production capacity at NUMMI decided to build their own version in Cambridge, where the Toyota Corolla is already being built.
Both the Vibe and Matrix will be offered in three versions: a front-wheel-drive model with a 130 horsepower 1.8 litre four cylinder engine with variable valve timing (borrowed from the Corolla and Celica GT) and a choice of a five-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission; an all-wheel-drive model with the same engine with 123 horsepower mated to a standard 4-speed automatic transmission; and a front-wheel-drive model with a different, higher-revving 1.8 litre 180 horsepower four cylinder engine (borrowed from the Celica GT-S) and a standard six-speed manual transmission.
The three Pontiac Vibe models are called base, AWD and GT. In Toyota’s case, they’re the base, 4WD, and XRS models. Same features, different names.
All three versions of both Vibe and Matrix have an independent MacPherson strut suspension in front, while front-wheel-drive models have a semi-independent twist bear rear axle and AWD/4WD models have an independent double wishbone suspension. The base and AWD/4WD models have front disc/rear drum brakes while GT/XRS models have standard four wheel disc brakes. ABS is standard on AWD/4WD and GT/XRS and optional on base models. Base and AWD/4WD models come with standard 16 inch tires and optional 17 inch tires. Ground clearance is a relatively high 8.1 inches.
Both cars have the same interiors, designed by GM designer, John Mack. Standout interior features include extensive use of a metallic-like finish on the dash and doors; a raised shift lever that extends from the lower part of the centre console; a 115 volt plug in the dash with a standard household plug; and four overlapping chrome-rimmed round gauges behind the thick-rimmed steering wheel.
To appeal to young, active buyers, utility was given a high priority. Both cars have split rear seatbacks with hard backs that fold flat to create a level load floor – total cargo volume is 57.2 cubic feet. In addition, the front passenger seat folds flat to serve as a worktable or to increase cargo length: an eight foot ladder will fit on one side. The rear floor has two parallel tracks running the length of the rear compartment with eight adjustable sliding anchors to help secure cargo like snowboards and there are chrome tie-down hooks. The rear hatch door is lightweight, and a separate rear liftglass/liftgate with remote opening makes the trunk easily accessible.
Other interior features include a DVD-based navigation system, a six-disc in-dash CD changer and 200-watt premium audio system, and plenty of functional storage areas.
Despite their similar proportions and dimensions, the Vibe and Matrix look remarkably different. The Vibe’s twin V-shaped grilles immediately identifies it as a Pontiac while the Matrix’s protruding lower front spoiler, gaping air intake, and prominent Toyota badge quickly identify it as a Toyota.
For the consumer trying to decide which one to buy, the decision would boil down to one of styling preference, brand preference, or price considerations — everything else about the two cars is the same. Prices haven’t been announced yet, and probably won’t be until close to the introduction time (I wouldn’t want to be the first one to announce pricing..) I suspect Pontiac will offer a lower base price, but with all options accounted for, my guess is that the two cars will be comparable in price. Both cars promise to be fun-to-drive, practical, economical and reliable, the latter based on Toyota’s previous reputation with the Corolla and Prism.
Pontiac plans to introduce the Vibe in January while Toyota will have the Matrix in dealers by early February. Stay tuned for Autos’s driving impressions of the Vibe and Matrix early in January, 2002.