- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

There are several ways to think about the 2003 Pontiac Vibe. First, it's in the vanguard of a whole new class of crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, which used to be called hatchbacks.

Hatchbacks, especially of the four-door variety, are popular in Europe but have never found much favor with American buyers, who always have preferred so-called notchback sedans with traditional trunks. But because of the seemingly insatiable appetite for sport utility vehicles and manufacturers' understandable desires to appeal to younger buyers many of whom don't have the wherewithal for SUVs in the $30,000 range the hatchback is back.

The idea is to take a basic sedan platform and endow it with a jacked-up body and, in some cases, all-wheel drive to emulate a real SUV but at a lower price. Thus we have such creatures as the Suzuki Aerio, the Mazda Protege5, the Ford Focus ZX5, the Toyota Matrix, Subaru Outback Sport and the Pontiac Vibe.

In truth, these vehicles are eminently practical, which probably is the reason they were never too popular. The best of them work almost as well as small station wagons. They typically have as much cargo space as a large sedan, with the option of flopping the rear seat to swallow even more stuff.

To make them cool, or "tight" as the kids say, the designers give them sporty styling and such touches as the Vibe's built-in inverter, which converts the car's electrical power into standard household current.

There's a plug in the dash so you can run a small television set or an amplifier for your Gibson Les Paul guitar. Another way to target young folks is to ladle on a dollop of performance. The standard Vibe gets a 1.8-liter, 130-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with either a four-speed automatic transmission or a five-speed manual gearbox with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

The Vibe GT, on the other hand, has 180 horsepower with a six-speed manual transmission. It only comes with front drive. No doubt the assumption is that the all-wheel-drive customers have a more plodding attitude.

Though the basic Vibe is no slouch it can accelerate to 60 mph in under nine seconds, the GT provides more rapid transit with a zero-to-60 time of under eight seconds.

As might be expected, the GT's extra verve costs extra money. A base Vibe has a suggested retail price of $16,900, including the destination charge. The GT starts at $19,900 and, with options that included a power sunroof, remote locking, cruise control, power windows, an upgraded sound system and a six-disc in-dash CD changer, the test car topped out at $21,300.

The Vibe GT has some of the feel of a sporty car, an impression enhanced by the six-speed manual gearbox and a growling engine with power that comes on in a rush when the revs build to the 4000 to 5000 range. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that you're in a small van. The shifter is a tad clunky, though it's positive and easy to use even for a tyro.

Handling and ride are better than what you'd find in the average compact car and better than in most SUVs, especially those that are truck-based. But the Vibe doesn't have the moves of a sports car, nor even those of a sports sedan. Up front, the seats are comfortable and supportive, though a tad on the squishy side. The upholstery is a sturdy cloth that is comfortable in all climates. Out back, the rear seatbacks and the cargo floor are done up in hard plastic, which is sturdy enough for hauling heavy stuff such as musical instruments, speakers and amplifiers. But without a load, the unyielding surfaces amplify noises and anything lying loose slides and rattles around. Most folks likely will want to lay a piece of carpet back there.

Another annoyance is a silly beeping noise that grates on the nerves every time you shift into reverse. It's likely there to warn some dummy who shifts into reverse instead of first gear, but it's unnecessary and should be terminated with extreme prejudice at the earliest opportunity.

Most of us know when we're in reverse. We don't need to be nagged.

The second way to think about the Vibe is that it's the newest version of the Chevrolet Nova, the Geo Prizm and the Chevrolet Prizm. Those were all cars that were really Corollas, built in a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors.

The Vibe's engine, drive train and other essentials evolved from the new Toyota Corolla, and the Vibe is virtually identical, except for styling, to the 2003 Toyota Matrix. With both GM and Toyota at the top of the quality charts these days, that's a comfort.

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