Pontiac Vibe Review

Samir Syed
by Samir Syed

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.

Samir Syed
Samir Syed

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  • Justs Justs on Dec 11, 2008

    I have waited for the used prices for these cheap cars to come down to realistic level,I wanted a corolla wagon, so the Twins were the logical answer.I found several vibes in my area for a grand less than matrix, under $11.000, finally buying one for $9500.00,(06) with auto and a few extras.3 years old, huge initial depreciation. but as a mechanic, the 1.8 toyota is, in my opinion ,a problem free and easy to repair drivetrain.In the longrun ,this car should outlast the mazda,time will tell.

  • Reparent Reparent on Nov 04, 2012

    Read some of the reviews here thought I'd give some feedback myself. I own a 2006 Manual Pontiac Vibe, bought it over 2 years ago it had 170K and now I have almost 300 000 km on it. So far I haven't had to do ANY repairs on it, I just put oil and gas thats it! When I bought the car my priorities were "cheap on gas with good reliability" (I do around 50 000 km a year)and more room then a 4 door sedan civic with hatchback as a preference and didn't want to pay too much money. I did a lot of research and the Pontiac Vibe was by far the best fit. I get 32-36 US MPG with it (mostly highway at sea level). I don't have a heavy foot and it does make a difference. My best MPG to date was last week (Oct 28th 2012) in which case I did 36.5 US MPG. I consider myself a good driver and having a manual does help a lot in achieving maximum MPG. Getting this good of MPG requires me to drive 100 km/h on highway. I've rented a Mazda 3 once and yes I did like it but I drive my car to get from point A to point B and I'm not racing or taking turns as fast as it needs to. The Vibe is a perfect choice for me and my family of 3 (soon 4).

  • Stephen My "mid-level" limited edition Tonino Lambo Ferraccio Junior watch has performed flawlessly with attractive understated style for nearly 20 years. Their cars are not so much to my taste-- my Acura NSX is just fine. Not sure why you have such condescension towards these excellent timepieces. They are attractive without unnecessary flamboyance, keep perfect time and are extremely reliable. They are also very reasonably priced.
  • Dana You don’t need park, you set auto hold (button on the console). Every BMW answers to ‘Hey, BMW’, but you can set your own personal wake word in iDrive. It takes less than 5 minutes to figure that that out, btw. The audio stays on which is handy for Teams meetings. Once your phone is out of range, the audio is stopped on the car. You can always press down on the audio volume wheel which will mute it, if it bothers you. I found all the controls very intuitive.
  • ToolGuy Not sure if I've ever said this, or if you were listening:• Learn to drive, people.Also, learn which vehicles to take home with you and which ones to walk away from. You are an adult now, think for yourself. (Those ads are lying to you. Your friendly neighborhood automotive dealer, also lying to you. Politicians? Lying to you. Oh yeah, learn how to vote lol.)Addendum for the weak-minded who think I am advocating some 'driver training' program: Learning is not something you do in school once for all time. Learning how to drive is not something that someone does for you. It is a continuous process driven by YOU. Learn how to learn how to drive, and learn to drive. Keep on learning how to drive. (You -- over there -- especially you, you kind of suck at driving. LOL.)Example: Do you know where your tires are? When you are 4 hours into a 6 hour interstate journey and change lanes, do you run over the raised center line retroreflective bumpers, or do you steer between them?
  • Mike Bradley Advertising, movies and TV, manufacturing, and car culture have all made speeding and crashing the ultimate tests of manhood. Throw in the political craziness and you've got a perfect soup of destruction and costs.
  • Lou_BC Jay Leno had said that EV's would be good since they could allow the continued existence of ICE cars for enthusiasts. That sentiment makes sense. Many buyers see vehicles as a necessary appliance.