- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Long on interior room, drivability and character, the Pontiac Vibe provides the arrowhead division of General Motors with a viable entry in the small crossover arena. Sharing most of its core components with Toyota’s Matrix, Vibe is really less of a crossover than it is a sporty-looking hatchback with young driver written all over it. It looks like it would be fun to drive and it is. It’s even more fun with the GT version’s more powerful engine, but more about that later. Bottom line: The Vibe is economical, stylish and functional — all sought-after attributes in the compact segment.

If there is one thing that jumps to mind after a week with the Vibe, it is its practicality. Sure it’s fairly compact on the outside, but its rather boxy shape translates into usable passenger and cargo space on the inside. The front passenger seat back folds down to create a flat surface that serves as a table or desk for the driver. The 60/40 split back seat folds flat creating more than 53 cubic feet of cargo space and there are adjustable tie-downs in the cargo area for securing stuff. It has more headroom than the Ford Taurus or Honda Accord, and more rear legroom than the Volkswagen Passat or the Infiniti G35 sedan.

The driver’s seat is positioned higher than normal for outstanding visibility, yet its step-in is comparable to its competitors. It has a two-pronged AC outlet for powering electronics and a cell phone holder in the center console. Add to that all the little storage areas scattered about and you’ve got a real utility vehicle.

Available in three editions, the Vibe can fulfill a number of needs. In its base version — provided for this review — Vibe is equipped with a 130-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission or with the optional four-speed automatic found in our test car funneling output to the front wheels. Opting for the all-wheel-drive model robs the engine of a few horsepower and makes the automatic transmission standard. Move up to the top-of-the-line GT and it comes with 60 additional horsepower and a standard six-speed manual transmission.

Outfitted as a base model with manual transmission, the Vibe is spunky if not dynamic. It punches off the line with acceptable verve. Keeping the revs up helps wring every ounce of fun available out of this powertrain package. It is probably obvious that things become decidedly more exciting with the upgraded engine and transmission in the GT. Sixty additional horsepower in the welterweight division in which the Vibe competes is significant. Fuel economy in the base model is solid with an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 29 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on the open highway. The GT gives up 4 mpg in both categories.

Beyond the dual front air bags, the bulk of safety features on the base version adds bucks to the sticker total. The side-impact and side-curtain air bag option tacks $745 to the total. Add the four-wheel antilock brake system with tire pressure monitor to the equipment list and you’ll inflate the bottom line by another $525. The stability control system costs another $495. On the other hand, Vibe did extremely well in both frontal and side-impact crash tests and that structural integrity is built right into the base price.

Ride and handling are both quite decent. The Vibe doesn’t exactly shine in either area, but it corners without drama and only a modicum of pavement imperfections are transmitted to the seats. Sixteen-inch wheels and tires are standard. Adding the 17-inch alloy wheel and tire package is $825.

Once behind the wheel, the driver is treated to a sporty cockpit. The three-spoke tilt steering wheel juts out in front of a pod with four round, chrome-ringed gauges. At night they glow an eerie red. Placed high up on the center stack, the audio controls are simple to use and easy to reach. This year XM radio is offered as a $325 option. There is a small monthly subscription fee that must also be paid, but the first three months are included. Three large round knobs below the audio controls dial in the heating and cooling functions. The seats are comfortable and the doors open wide for unobstructed entry.

Base price with delivery charge of the entry-level Vibe with the five-speed manual is $17,475. A bit on the skimpy side, the standard features list does include air conditioning and a CD player. The car Pontiac sent for this evaluation also had a $2,325 option package with automatic transmission, programmable power door locks, power windows, cruise control and remote keyless entry.

All in all the fun-to-drive Vibe has a lot going for it. Although a tad pricey, it provides good fuel economy and remarkable utility — not a bad combination.

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