Pontiac Vibe AWD
Click image to enlarge

By Haney Louka
Photos by Laurance Yap

It’s been just over a year since Pontiac’s Vibe and its mechanical twin, the Toyota Matrix, were unleashed on the North American public. Demand for these models is still strong, though, and dealers at both camps are having trouble keeping them on their lots.

The Pontiac Vibe beat out other multi-purpose vehicles such as the Subaru Baja, Audi A4 Avant, and VW Jetta Wagon to take top honours for best in its class for 2003, a title bestowed on it by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. The kicker? With a price tag just over $20,000, the Vibe in the competition was the cheapest of the group by far, and excelled in subjective ratings with its slick-shifting five-speed, nimble handling, and practicality.

Had the unit available for testing been an all wheel drive model, the results might have been different: at a $6,000 premium over the base Vibe, it’s heavier, less powerful, and not available with a stick.

And while the AWD system in this particular execution makes a great traction aid, overall control of the car in slick conditions does not improve at all compared to its front wheel drive counterpart.

Pontiac Vibe AWD
Click image to enlarge

The Lineup

The Vibe is assembled at the GM/Toyota joint venture NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.) facility in Fremont, California.

Vibe pricing starts at $20,220 for the base front-wheel-drive version. Standard equipment includes a roof rack, fog lights, rear cargo cover, A/C, CD player, 16-inch wheels, and a nifty 115-volt AC two-prong power outlet in the dash.

All wheel drive Vibes start at $26,625, and in addition to sending power through all four wheels when required, these models include cruise control, power windows, anti-lock brakes, independent rear suspension, premium sound system, and a four-speed automatic transmission.

For performance fiends, a front wheel drive GT model is available ($26,765) that includes a high-revving 180-hp engine and a six-speed manual gearbox.

My test vehicle was a silver AWD Vibe equipped with alloy wheels, in-dash CD changer, power sunroof, and security system for an as-tested price just south of $30,000.

2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD
Click image to enlarge

Inside and Out

I have been a fan of the Vibe’s styling since the show car toured the auto show circuit in 2001. Its compact dimensions, practical shape, and smart styling cues make for a unique vehicle that still looks fresh over a year after its market introduction. Pontiac does a good job of differentiating the Vibe from the more conservative Matrix by utilizing their signature twin-nostril grille and unique rear pillar and taillight treatment. It’s also a refreshing departure from the typical plastic appliqué that’s seen on many Pontiacs these days – evidence that GM’s performance division is starting to tone down the gimmicky boy-racer cues and concentrate more on producing and marketing real driver’s cars.

Although many refer to the Vibe as Aztek-like in its styling, I think Pontiac got it right with the Vibe. Proportionally, it’s a much more successful execution than the under-tired, top heavy Aztek that finds its roots in GM’s minivan platform.

The view from inside is characterized by a tall, chair-like driving position, with a seat height that slots in somewhere between a car and a minivan. Seat fabric is attractive and covers generously cushioned and comfortable seats. I’d take that over low-rent leather (at this price, is there any other kind?) in a heartbeat.

Once I was seated with the pedals a comfortable distance away, I found the steering wheel (adjustable for height but not reach) to be too far away for my liking. I prefer a comfortable bend in the elbow when my hand’s at the top of the wheel.

2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD Brembo brakes
Click image to enlarge

The instrument panel distinguishes the Vibe from the rest of the pack with a set of deep-set gauges with red markings on a black background. Because they are located deep in the dash, they are always backlit. Chrome rings that overlap slightly protrude forward from the gauges to make them seem even further away.

As is expected in this class, there’s plenty of silver-coloured plastic applied to the driver’s side of the dashboard. The combination of silver, chrome, and red certainly make the cockpit an interesting place to spend time. The Vibe is more than just a mechanical twin to Toyota’s Matrix: it also shares the same interior treatment and exhibits more Japanese design elements than American. To me, that’s a good thing, particularly in the area of ergonomics, or the way the controls are laid out with respect to the driver.

Any Toyota driver would instantly feel at home with the Vibe’s controls: the wipers, headlights, cruise, and ventilation switches and dials all fall easily to hand.

In back, room (particularly headroom) is generous for two, but three would be a squeeze given the Vibe’s relatively narrow dimensions. The view from back there is not the best, though, because the rear bench seems lower than the front seats.

The generous cargo area is lined in hard plastic, including the back of the rear seats and front passenger seat. It’s a great surface material for wear and stain resistance, but items will slide around quite easily as a result. To address this, Vibe’s designers incorporated two longitudinal tracks in the cargo floor with easily-adjusted tie-downs so your stuff stays put.

Pontiac Vibe AWD

Pontiac Vibe AWD

2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD
Click image to enlarge

The Driving Experience

Powered by a 123 horsepower version of the 1.8-litre four banger found in the Toyota Corolla, the AWD Vibes make do with seven fewer horses than front-wheel drive versions. In addition, the less powerful engine has to pull around an extra 200 pounds and can only be mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.

In other words, the Vibe is a bit of a slouch in the acceleration department. But the transmission makes the most of what it has, providing smooth upshifts and timely, eager downshifts. There’s just not much thrust resulting from those downshifts.

The all wheel drive system necessitates the presence of a rear double-wishbone independent suspension, while front-drivers get a torsion beam back there.

The term all wheel drive is used to describe a whole spectrum of systems that somehow deliver power to all four wheels of a vehicle at some point in time. It can be a bit of a misnomer, however, if the expectation is that they send power to all four wheels all the time, as in Subaru and Audi vehicles, to name just a couple.

In the case of the Vibe (as in many other “crossover’ vehicles and small sport-utilities), it is primarily front wheel drive. Once the system detects slip at the front wheels, it sends the power rearward to assist traction. It works really well – but purely as a straight-line traction aid. But in terms of overall handling, these front-cum-all wheel drive systems can really mess things up at the limits. For example, suppose you’re rounding a curve and accelerating at the same time. With front wheel drive, the vehicle will eventually understeer if pushed after the front wheels have lost traction. To cure this, you would lift off the gas and the vehicle would fall into line. With this AWD system, once the fronts lose traction, power is (rather suddenly) transferred rearward, causing oversteer behaviour more expected of a rear wheel drive vehicle. The resulting unpredictability makes for less-than-comfortable handling at the limits.

If I were in the market for a Vibe, I would skip the all wheel drive system and opt for the better fuel mileage and performance of the five-speed front-driver.

To Sum It Up

The Vibe is a practical, stylish wagon with a reasonable price if the options list is left alone for the most part. Optioned up, however, the Vibe’s price creeps into the low $30s, reducing the otherwise excellent value that this model represents.

Shopping Around

The Vibe is one of the most stylish in the price competitive “crossover’ or tall wagon market segment. Prices shown for comparison below are base prices, including all wheel drive if available. Here’s a look at the Vibe’s primary competition:

  • Chrysler PT Cruiser ($22,500)
  • Ford Focus ZX5 ($21,260)
  • Hyundai Elantra GT ($18,495)
  • Kia Rio RX-V ($15,750)
  • Mazda Protege5 ($20,185)
  • Subaru Impreza TS AWD ($22,995)
  • Suzuki Aerio AWD ($20,195)
  • Toyota Matrix AWD ($20,315)

Technical Data:

2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD
Base price $26,625
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/part-time all-wheel-drive
Engine 1.8 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 123 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 118 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Tires 245/35 ZR 18 front; 295/30 ZR 18 rear
Curb weight 1,350 kg (2,976 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,600 mm (102.4 in.)
Length 4,365 mm (171.9 in.)
Width 1,775 mm (69.9 in.)
Height 1,580 mm (62.2 in.)
Cargo Capacity 547 litres (19.3 cu. ft.) seats up; 1531 litres (54.1 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 9.1 L/100 km (31 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.9 L/100 km (41 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km; Powertrain 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca