by Greg Wilson
Last week, I drove a 2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD from Calgary to Vancouver as part of a General Motors cross-country media promotion. The new Vibe, as you may be aware, is Pontiac’s version of the Toyota Matrix – both cars are based on the new 2003 Toyota Corolla platform and are available with front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.
The DriveTheVibe event, which started in Halifax, Nova Scotia, involved about 60 journalists who drove three Vibes in relay fashion. To add a little competition to the event, journalists were required to earn points along the way for their team (Lava, Abyss, and Satellite) with a grand prize of a Kodak 9300 digital camera awarded to each of the winning team members (Team Lava won).
The unique thing about this event was that GM of Canada and its sponsors supplied each car with a digital camera, laptop computer, cell phone, Blackberry, and satellite phone so that journalists could post logs and photos of the journey to the DriveTheVibe.com website along the way. Points were awarded for text logs and photos of particular objects along the route. Assuming we were in range of a cell tower, my driving partner, Tim Dimopoulos and I, were able to post text and images to the website as we drove. (See Team Abyss at www.drivethevibe.com)
Technology and shameless product publicity aside, I was glad to get some valuable seat time in the all-wheel-drive Vibe in spectacularly bad winter driving conditions over varying terrain – it was a true test of the Vibe AWD’s winter driving capabilities.
First off, let me say that the three Vibes had no serious mechanical problems over the 9000 km cross-country journey, despite being driven hard by a bunch of excitable journalists.
Our three-day leg (actually one full day and two half days) began in Calgary where we headed out along the #1 Highway to Banff where we stopped to take some photos of wildlife for team points – but couldn’t find any. We went on to Lake Louise and then up Highway 93 (Icefields Parkway) for an overnight stay at the rustic Num Ti Jah Lodge (highly recommended). The second day we travelled back down the Icefields Parkway to the #1 Highway, and then West through Golden, across Rogers Pass, through Revelstoke and then south to Vernon and Kelowna on Okanagan Lake. Our final day saw us travelling over the ‘Kelowna Connector’ to Merritt and then south over the infamous ‘Coquihalla Highway’ to the Fraser Valley and west to Vancouver.
Now, I’ve been test-driving cars for the past 15 years, and I have never before experienced such varying weather and road conditions in such a short journey. In Calgary it was minus 6 and dry (the Vibe has an outside temperature gauge in the instrument cluster) – by the time we reached Num Ti Jah Lodge, only two hours away, it was minus 15 and a blizzard with ten feet of snow. Through Rogers Pass we had slushy roads covered with road sand – or should I say, sand and rocks. Our car was peppered with dime-size pebbles thrown up by passing cars and trucks, creating at least a half dozen stone chips in the windshield and possibly a small crack in the windshield. If you love your car, I would advise you not to drive through the Rockies in the wintertime – there’s just no way to avoid this ‘meteorite field’.
When we came down the other side of the Rogers Pass and into the Okanagan Valley, the temperature went up to plus 8 degrees, the sun came out, and we were in a different world. The trees changed from big firs to smaller pines, and the landscape was dry and desert-like. This oasis was a short-lived experience though, as the next day we headed across the Kelowna connector to a height of 1728 metres where the road was snow-packed and the temperature was minus eight. Things warmed up in Meritt, a small ranch town situated in one of the prettiest valleys in B.C., before we headed up the Coquihalla Highway where after paying a $10.00 toll fee we were greeted by 15 foot snowbanks, blinding snow and treacherous road conditions as we ascended and then descended an 8% grade down into the Fraser Valley.
After stopping at Bridal Veil Falls near Hope, we motored down the flat, boring #1 freeway past Chilliwack and Abbotsford into Vancouver where the weather warmed up and, luckily for Vancouver, the sun came out.
I have to say that I was impressed with the Vibe’s overall performance. Its all-wheel-drive system is particularly sure-footed at high-speed on snow-packed roads where it significantly enhances stability. I was travelling at speeds of up to 120 km/h in the snow, and felt quite confident. At slower speeds in deeper snow, the all-wheel-drive and the Vibe’s 8.1 inch ground clearance provide great traction in conditions where front-drivers and rear-drivers would fear to tread.
I give top marks to the Vibe’s windshield washer system – three jets on each side spray the windshield for effective coverage. The washers are activated by pulling gently back on the right stalk behind the steering wheel, and the driver can reach the stalk without taking a hand off the steering wheel. The rear wiper/washer was almost as important because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to see out the back window. It’s activated by turning the tip of the right stalk, and includes an intermittent wipe setting.
Though not particularly powerful, the Vibe AWD’s 123 horsepower 1.8 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with variable valve timing and standard 4 speed automatic transmission proved capable even while ascending very step grades at high altitudes where every 1000 feet drains the engine of one per cent of its horsepower. It’s a high-revving engine, commonly maintaining 4000 to 5000 rpm while ascending a hill in second or third gear. I found that it was best to use the on/off overdrive button on the floor shifter to shift down into third before approaching a hill, and then shifting into second with the floor shifter if necessary. My co-driver commented that I must really be aching for a manual shifter – yes, and it’s too bad the AWD Vibe doesn’t come with one. But I wasn’t disappointed with the automatic, and for general commuting use, the four-speed automatic is the better choice.
I found the Vibe’s handling and ride surprisingly good for a car with a higher-than-average ground clearance, confirming my original driving impressions earlier this year. The Vibe’s ride is comfortable on the highway, while perhaps a bit firm over rough roads. Its fully independent suspension, fairly wide track, and firm shock settings, provide both lateral and longitudinal stability under the severest braking and handling situations. Vibe AWD models have front disc/rear drum brakes with standard anti-lock brakes.
The Vibe’s seating position is high – different to a typical passenger car. While this improved outward visibility, I thought it would be uncomfortable after a couple of hours – but I got out of the car without any sore spots or an aching back.
In a way, the Vibe AWD is the ideal Canadian car because it’s a kind of all-in-one vehicle. It’s sporty, economical, seats five, has a roomy cargo area, is easy to drive in the city and is good in the snow, comes with a five year powertrain warranty, and is not too expensive. Vibe prices range from $19,150 for the base front-wheel-drive Vibe, to $26,150 for the Vibe AWD, to $26,550 for the 180 horsepower front-wheel-drive GT model.