2003 Pontiac Vibe GT
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by Greg Wilson

West Hollywood, California — GM brought a few auto scribes to the sun-streaked haze of southern California to test-drive the all-new Pontiac Vibe — a crossover hatchback that Pontiac hopes will attract younger, more affluent buyers (18-35) to Pontiac showrooms.

As reported previously in Autos, the Vibe is similar to the Toyota Matrix (See Vibe vs Matrix: Is there a difference?). Both are based on a modified 2003 Toyota Corolla platform and share similar mechanical components and interior designs. The main difference is in their exterior designs and where they’re built: the Vibe is built at a joint GM/Toyota plant in Fremont, California while the Matrix is built at Toyota’s plant in Cambridge, Ontario.

The Vibe is called a ‘crossover’ vehicle because it combines some characteristics of a station wagon, sport sedan and SUV. For example, it has the cargo area of a small station wagon, the nimble handling and performance of a sport sedan, and the high ground clearance of an off-road vehicle — it’s also available with all-wheel-drive.

Greg Wilson
Editor Greg Wilson behind the wheel of the Vibe
Photo: Laurance Yap

The concept for a crossover wagon was Pontiac’s, explained Bob Rueter, Vibe program development manager: “We went to Toyota with a concept – we said, let’s combine the most positive aspects of a truck and a car into a tall sedan type of vehicle.” ..”We wanted a vehicle with the attributes of an SUV like command view of the road, a lot of utility for the storage of goods, and the off-road capability of all-wheel-drive, and combine that with the things that are positive in the traditional passenger car which would be smooth ride and crisp handling.”

Rueter’s team began with the new 2003 Corolla platform, stretched the wheelbase 137 mm (5.4 in.) shortened the front and rear overhangs, and raised the height of the roof by about 76 mm (3.0 in.). The roomy cabin design provides five passenger capability plus 868 litres (24.6 cu. ft.) of storage space behind the rear seats — or up to 1621 litres (57.2 cu. ft.) of space with the rear seats folded down.

In Canada, Vibes will be available in three trim levels. The base front-wheel-drive model has the Corolla’s 130 horsepower 1.8 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with variable valve timing and is available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

The Vibe AWD (all-wheel-drive) model offers the same 1.8 litre engine but with seven less horsepower because of different exhaust pipe routing around its different independent rear suspension layout. In addition, the AWD model comes only with an automatic transmission. Its all-wheel-drive system is permanently engaged — it operates in front-wheel-drive until it detects loss of traction, and then transfers up to 50% of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels via a viscous coupling. Pontiac estimates that this type of AWD system incurs only a one mpg penalty in fuel consumption over front-wheel-drive models.

The high-performance Vibe GT has a different 1.8 litre engine, currently used in the Toyota Celica GT-S. This Yamaha-modified 1.8 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder powerplant with a more sophisticated variable valve timing system and a 11.5:1 compression ratio develops 180 horsepower at 7600 rpm. The Vibe GT is offered only with a six speed manual transmission.

Driving impressions

2003 Pontiac Vibe GT
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I drove all three variations of the Vibe: a base model with a 5 speed manual transmission, the AWD model with a 4 speed automatic transmission, and the GT with a 6 speed manual tranny. All the models I drove were pre-production models, so some things weren’t quite up to production quality.

Performance in the base model is not particularly exciting, however the engine has a nice, even torque curve and provides comparable performance with other sporty hatchbacks such as the Protegé5 and Focus ZX5. The 130 horsepower engine is quite responsive off-the-line and proved to be a capable performer in stop-and-go traffic. It’s also quiet and comfortable cruising down the freeway – doing about 2500 rpm at 100 km/h and 2800 rpm at 120 km/h.

I wasn’t able to do any proper 0 to 100 km/h acceleration tests, but Pontiac provided some of their own figures. In the base model with a manual transmission, 0 to 60 mph takes approximately 9.5 seconds and about 10.5 seconds with the automatic transmission — those times are almost exactly the same as the Protegé5 and Focus ZX5. The all-wheel-drive model which is slightly heavier and has a standard automatic transmission goes from 0 to 60 mph in 11.5 seconds.

2003 Pontiac Vibe GT
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The 5 speed manual transmission in the base model has short easy throws but mine made some clunking sounds when the lever was moved (perhaps because it was a pre-production model). The 6 speed manual transmission in the Vibe GT seemed more refined than the 5-speed, and had close, quick shifts. The four speed automatic transmission proved to be quiet and smooth, but could be made to lurch under hard acceleration. To improve performance around town, I recommend turning off the overdrive button on the shift lever — under 50 km/h in third gear, the engine is more responsive.

With seven less horsepower than the base front-wheel-drive model, the Vibe AWD did feel slightly slower when accelerating, but not significantly. Its all-wheel-drive system is transparent to the driver and passengers — there’s no additional noise and it engages automatically when the front wheels start to slip.

The Vibe GT’s higher revving engine, which revs as high as 8200 rpm, provides much better performance when accelerating onto the freeway, passing, merging, and driving on twisty roads. There is a noticeable surge in acceleration at about 6300 rpm, when a secondary higher lift cam lobe is activated automatically.

Realistically however, this kind of performance is not useful in everyday driving. I was pleased to find that this engine has decent low-end torque too. Surprisingly, it’s more responsive than the base engine around town and doesn’t need constant gear changing to keep the power up.

2003 Pontiac Vibe GT
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The GT is also a pleasant highway cruiser. At highway speeds, the GT engine does 2800 rpm at 100 km/h and 3400 at 120 km/h — that’s less than half its redline.

For a car with a high 205 mm (8.1 in.) ground clearance, the Vibe displayed surprising stability and control when cornering quickly. The Vibe can be tossed into a corner without worrying about excessive understeer or body lean. At the same time, the ride is very comfortable, not bouncy as you might expect in a car with a higher ground clearance.

While the base Vibe and Vibe GT have a torsion beam rear suspension, the AWD model has an independent double wishbone rear suspension. As good as the torsion beam suspension is, I liked the independent suspension better — it offers higher cornering limits and better control on bumpy roads. It would be nice to see this suspension in the Vibe GT.

I found the power-assisted rack and pinion steering offered just the right compromise between effort and feel, particularly in the Vibe GT. The Vibe’s standard front disc/rear drums brakes offered reasonable, if not excellent stopping distances. With the standard 16 inch tires, Pontiac estimates braking distances from 60 mph to 0 on dry pavement to be 153 feet, and 181 feet in the wet. Vibe GT models with four wheel disc brakes and more aggressive 17 inch tires can be expected to trim those figures by at least ten feet. I noted that the GT’s brake pedal feel and responsiveness was noticeably better. Anti-lock brakes are optional on the base model and standard on the AWD and GT.

Sporty cockpit

The interior has plenty of headroom and legroom for four adults, five if you want to get cosy. The seating material is a sturdy woven cloth, and the front seats have extra side bolster support. The driver’s seat has a standard height-adjustable seat cushion, and all the seating positions are elevated providing a good view to the outside. In particular, I liked the third side window because it allowed me to shoulder-check easily, and the low rear window ledge which helped when backing up.

2003 Pontiac Vibe
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The driver faces a meaty three-spoke sporty steering wheel and attractive overlapping round gauges with chrome rings — one problem though: I found that if I positioned the tilt steering wheel where I liked it, it obscured some of the gauges. I liked the sporty-looking dash with metallic-look plastic trim.

The radio is mounted high in the centre console and below that are three large dials for the heater/air conditioner. The transmission lever juts out of the lower centre console and is mounted higher up than most gear levers, making it seem closer to the driver, although I’m not sure if it really is.

A very useful feature is a standard 115 volt AC plug into which will power laptops, stereos, or household appliances (Now you can make your toast on the way to work!) There are also two 12 volt powerpoints, one on the dash and one in the centre console storage bin.

The standard audio system is an AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers. A 200 watt six speaker sound system with a 6-disc in-dash CD changer is optional on the base model and standard on AWD and GT models.

There’s plenty of storage compartments, including a dual-level storage bin between the front seats, a covered bin under the gear lever, open storage area in the centre console, a bin and coinholder to the left of the steering wheel, and front door pockets.

For safety, the Vibe includes standard dual stage front airbags (side airbags are optional), and five three point seatbelts with front pretensioners, and four height-adjustable head restraints.

Clever cargo solutions

2003 Pontiac Vibe
2003 Pontiac Vibe
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A lot of thought went into the design of the Vibe’s cargo area. With the press of one button, either of the 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks fold down to create a flat loading floor from the rear hatch to the back of the front seats. The rear seatbacks have a hard, ribbed, waterproof surface suitable for storing outdoor gear like snowboards, skis, hockey equipment, or bikes. Two tracks in the cargo floor allow tie-down cords to be positioned appropriately to secure loose objects, and provides a platform for bike racks, pet cages, and storage dividers. As well there are eight chromed tie-down hooks.

The front passenger seatback can be folded flat as well, allowing objects up to eight feet long to be loaded in the cargo area. As well, the front passenger seatback can be used a work surface by the driver for laptops or notepads.

Underneath the rear cargo floor is a spare tire with a plastic insert that allows the wheel to be used as a storage area. Another hidden storage area is located just ahead of the spare tire.

The rear hatch lifts up easily above head level, and even base models come with a separate rear liftglass and a rear wiper as standard equipment. The rear liftglass can be opened with a button on the dash, with a remote keyfob, or by turning a key in the rear hatch.

Canadian-specific features

2003 Pontiac Vibe GT
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In Canada, Vibes will be equipped slightly differently to those in the U.S. A block heater will be standard on all models. AWD and GT models will include these standard features: Premium stereo system with six speakers, ABS, side airbags, cruise control, power door locks, power windows with driver’s express-down feature, remote keyless entry.

And all Vibes will come with a 5 year/100,00 km powertrain warranty in addition to the standard 3 year/60,000 km warranty — presumably to match the Matrix’s 5 year powertrain warranty.

Canadian pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but in the U.S., the Vibe ranges from U.S.$16,900 to U.S. $21,600. The Vibe goes on sale here in late February.

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