Late last century, GM decided to fight the rising tide of uninteresting front wheel-drive cars Japanese cars by building their own uninteresting front wheel-drive cars. Three decades of trying to out-Japan the Japanese yielded the pinnacle of American wrong-wheel technology: The Monte Carlo SS. Now that GM’s hulking trucks have had their day, the automaker is busy hawking its lackluster though miserly Cobavion. This despite the fact that one of the best small cars GM has ever produced sits unloved in Pontiac lots across America. Go figure.
I know: the Pontiac Vibe debuted around the same time Shrek started having issues with Lord Farquaad. But you wouldn’t know it to look at it. The Pontiac Vibe isn’t just better looking than GM’s current
rental fodder small car selection; it’s better looking than its twin-under-the-skin, the Toyota Matrix.
She may not be giving me excitations, but the Vibe’s simple, clean lines are an ode to balanced proportionality. In the battle for small car sales, unobjectionality is a major plus; this wee beastie sports one of the least revolting designs of our time. If only the Pontiac Grand Prix had shown similar restraint…
A smidgen of Grand Prix-style kit on the Vibe’s bumpers and doors add a welcome touch of drama. The plastic and metal wheel arches are also kinda wikkid, giving the vehicle that not-too-rough-and-ready look. Its sloped, be-winged front end slots the Vibe's vibe smack dab in hot-hatch territory. Overall, it’s a sublime departure from the otherwise chaotic sheetmetal Pontiac provided during the Vibe's original era (just check your Aztek calendar).
Inside, the Vibe’s designers decided that you just can’t have enough recessed gauges– even if you don’t have enough gauges to recess. They then challenged anyone who happened to agree with them by limning the “the E in the fuel gauge is a subset of what other group?” shapes with ersatz chrome. At least the final price point kept the surrounding dash relatively uncluttered.
As you might expect, the plastics are fashioned from recycled DVD cases. Although the radio looks fairly horrific, its boombastic enough for government work, and the single function buttons seem perfectly designed for winter gloves, the blind and the partially sighted (the extra large print “MP3” painted on its surface clued us in).
The Vibe is also a perfectly practical people mover. The roomy wagon seats five post Nutri-system adults in reasonable non-discomfort, with enough space for their week’s (weak?) meals. Should these passengers exchange one addiction for another, the rear chairs fold flat enough to accommodate the purchases of two compulsive Ikeaholics.
Dynamically speaking, the Vibe doesn't offer anything resembling performance. A hum-drum 126hp mill mated to an over-taxed four-speed auto give the car all the immediacy of a growing tree. It’s tolerable in stop-and-go situations, but downright irritating on the Interstates, where you’ll find yourself repeatedly faced with the choice of remaining behind that Winnebago or enduring the wheezing complaints of a listless engine at 4,500rpm, for a good minute or three.
The Vibe’s handling is great-– if you’re just out of driving school. With loads of secure understeer and steering that sits in the sweet spot between an F1 car and a Buick LeSabre, it’s not going to surprise you with its reflexes. Ever. If you’re thinking that it handles like a Corolla, well, that’s because it is a Corolla. Underneath the “I mean business” Detroit trench coat lie the matching bra and panties of the Toyota Corolla/Prizm global platform.
All of which brings me to my main beef. To me, a Corolla has all the effervescence of a cup of four day old soda, while managing to look like a constipated earthworm in the process. At the same time, I can’t discount the fact that it’s a great “go-to” car for someone whose idea of regular maintenance is filling up the gas tank.
The Vibe goes one better, offering that same bulletproof platform and powertrain with styling that harkens back to the days when American cars had a little something called dignity. The Vibe’s the guilt-free and bullshit-free way to buy American. And yet the humble Vibe has completely escaped the attention of GM’s beancounters and marketeers.
GM’s joint venture with Toyota did exactly what it was supposed to do: create a viable transplant-a-like. So why did the Vibe escape GM’s propensity to re-badge everything four times? Equally important, why didn’t The General keep improving this model, whose basics are even more appropriate now than they were back in ’01? Is it a case of corporate ADD, a Mercedes-like disdain for sharing the goods (with Toyota no less) or just plain stupidity?
Anyway, the Pontiac Vibe is a practical, frugal, reliable and dull-driving machine that deserves a place on any economy car buyer’s short list.