- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

You don’t necessarily need a sport utility vehicle to get SUV-like cargo space.

Pontiac’s Vibe, one of the new breed of hatchbacks/wagons, offers a maximum 54.1 cubic feet of cargo volume.

This is 85 percent of the maximum cargo room found in a Saturn Vue SUV and 82 percent of the cargo space in a Ford Escape SUV.

Yet the five-passenger, 2005 Vibe is a nimble, affordable car with better fuel economy than most SUVs and a surprisingly roomy interior for a compact.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $17,560 for a base, front-wheel-drive Vibe with manual transmission.

The Vibe is perhaps the most unusual of Pontiacs.

It’s built at a California factory that’s a joint venture between Toyota and Pontiac’s parent company, General Motors Corp. The Vibe rides on a Toyota Corolla-based platform and was designed in conjunction with Toyota’s Matrix.

Both of the Vibe’s four-cylinder engines also come from Toyota, and the two cars share virtually the same interior, which includes a wall-type power outlet that looks like the ones in your home.

The Vibe and Matrix differ mainly in their outer styling, which for 2005 Pontiac has refined with a new grille and fascia on the Vibe.

Other updates include leather seats and stability control offered for the first time, standard tire pressure monitors on GT and all-wheel-drive models and new seat fabrics.

There are three Vibe models — a base car with 130 horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder, an all-wheel-drive version with 123 horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder, and a GT version with 170 horsepower, 1.8-liter four with variable valve timing and lift control.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the Vibe GT test car had real spunk. It was sporty in a sporty-car way, not sport-utility fashion.

The 170-horsepower engine, mated to a six-speed manual transmission, powered this 2,800-pound, front-wheel-drive vehicle well. Torque is a maximum 127 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm.

It doesn’t sound like much, but the Vibe GT launched itself respectably from a standstill and eagerly rushed forward, if I stayed in lower gears, on hilly roads.

I did need to work the gears, though, even on city streets, to find a comfortable spot in the gears to keep power at the ready.

There was some buzziness from the four cylinders and some wind noise on the highways.

But the real disappointment was the manual gearshifter, which didn’t feel as sporty as I had hoped. Shift throws aren’t as close as they could be, and going from gear to gear, there was a notchiness in the shifter.

Engines and transmissions are the same in the Matrix.

Premium fuel is recommended for the Vibe GT engine, while regular unleaded is OK for the base engine.

The base Vibe with the lower-power engine, manual transmission and two-wheel drive is rated at 29 miles a gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway for an average of 32.5 mpg.

But even the all-wheel-drive Vibe and GT rate higher in fuel economy — a combined 28.5 miles per gallon — than any gasoline-only SUV.

You don’t get the SUV styling or the SUV ride height in the Vibe. I couldn’t look over or beyond trucks and SUVs on the road in front of me.

But the Vibe does provide a higher seating position than a car does. This makes it convenient to get in and out of the front and back seats.

The Vibe’s taller roofline — it’s 62.2 inches tall — gives the interior an airy feel and provides an impressive 40.6 inches of headroom in the front seats and 39.8 inches in back.

I could put the Vibe driver seat up quite high and see easily over the car’s cowl.

I also had a decent view out, seeing through and around other cars.

With MacPherson struts at the front and torsion beam with trailing link rear suspension, the Vibe provides a compliant ride. It’s not harsh or cheap-feeling and seems to feel better the more weight is in the car. The 2005 Vibe rides on standard 16-inch tires.

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