Review: 2003 Pontiac Vibe


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SEE ALSO: Pontiac Buyer's Guide

by ED MARTIN

GENERAL The all-new 2003 Pontiac Vibe is a successful representation of global cooperation between the two largest car companies in the world, General Motors and Toyota. The Vibe is essentially a platform twin shared with the Toyota Matrix, also all-new for 2003. Both the Vibe and the Matrix are vehicle programs derived from the all-new 2003 Toyota Corolla platform.

The Pontiac Vibe is assembled in Fremont, California, by New United Manufacturing Motors, Inc. (NUMMI), which is a joint venture between GM and Toyota. NUMMI also builds the Toyota Corolla and Toyota Tacoma. The Vibe is the second product sharing initiative between the two companies based on their previous Chevrolet Prizm/Toyota Corolla project.

The Vibe is GM's first product entry into the new segment of vehicles referred to as crossover utility vehicles (CUV) or sport utility wagons (SUW). Essentially, the Vibe 5-door wagon body structure offers a slightly higher floor height and roof structure, which yields a higher seating position providing an SUV feeling.

The Vibe combines an efficient 123 HP 1.8 16-valve 4-cylinder Toyota engine with automatic all-wheel drive. Pontiac, like Toyota, does offer a 180 HP version of this engine but not in combination with the all-wheel drive system. The Vibe offers attractive sport styling with efficient interior packaging resulting from the high roof wagon body. Introduced in Q1 2002, Pontiac sold approximately 16,000 Vibes through July 2002.

EXTERIOR

Pontiac has given the Vibe distinctive styling features. The most notable feature of the aggressive look is the greenhouse area that slowly drops down towards the rear tailgate. This gives the Vibe an arched roofline. The look is accentuated by the trapezoid shaped window after the c-pillar. The contrasting grey plastic lower body molding makes the Vibe appear longer. The sturdy adjustable roof rack raises the appearance of the roof line, while also offering additional cargo capabilities. The Vibe is equipped with easy-to-grab, side-hinged door handles. Assembly and paint quality are high, with minimal orange peel effect. The rear tailgate was easy to open and close, and it includes a convenient top-hinged glass window. The attractive alloy wheels are equipped with 205/55 series all- season Continental tires.

POWERTRAIN

The Vibe powertrain is Toyota engineered and produced.

The 1.8L DOHC 16-valve I4 engine produces a modest 123 HP. This engine uses variable valve timing for increased efficiency and power delivery. Unfortunately, Pontiac offers the 180HP version of this engine in the Vibe GT, but it is not offered with the AWD model. The Vibe AWD is also only available with a smooth shifting 4-speed automatic transaxle. This model could benefit from the additional horsepower, or at the very least, Pontiac should offer the manual transmission with the AWD. The tall final drive ratio (4.16) does a good job of extracting the most from this engine. The acceleration is acceptable, with moderate noise levels. The Vibe AWD utilizes a transverse front wheel drive arrangement that uses a viscous coupling to automatically transfer power to the rear wheels when necessary. This entire process occurs without any driver interaction.

CHASSIS

Pontiac has done a nice job in developing and tuning a four-wheel independent chassis with double wishbones. This provides a comfortable, stable ride, with enough handling capability to enable a fun-to-drive experience. The Vibe does exhibit moderate body lean in turning maneuvers, like many of its tall body counterparts. The Continental tires provide decent grip even in wet road conditions. The Vibe body structure is solid and feels good from driver and passenger perspectives. The car gives the driver a feeling of roominess. This feeling is helped in no small part by the unibody construction, which does a commendable job in reducing NVH. Even at highway speed with tall gearing, the Vibe NVH characteristics are never annoying. The light effort, power assisted rack and pinion steering system provides moderate feedback from the road. The steering does require small steering inputs to track straight.

BRAKING The Pontiac Vibe is equipped with front disc and rear drum brakes with ABS. Braking performance is good, with good brake pedal feedback and moderate stopping distances. Fade was not an issue.

INTERIOR Pontiac played a major role in the development of the Vibe and Matrix interior, particularly the instrument panel (IP). In fact, Toyota liked the design so much that the Matrix is equipped with the same IP, with the exception of the logo in the center of the steering wheel.

The interior is assembled with durable materials. However, the majority of the trim and IP utilize hard plastics with attractive textures and matte finishes. The interior assembly quality is high, with no rattles or squeaks.

The instrument cluster bezels have a high gloss chrome finish that produces bright distracting reflections from sunlight. Pontiac could easily fix this with a brushed chrome finish.

Mounted high in the center stack is the optional navigation system (US$1,600). The navigation system was sometimes confusing to operate since the radio/CD controls utilize the same screen and numerous, small, similarly shaped buttons. The manually operated HVAC system uses rotary dials and was effective in cooling the cabin even with several days of 90+ degrees.

Another unique IP feature is the 120V power outlet, which can be used for low current appliances. The outlet will not accept a hair dryer, but will power a laptop, for example.

The ergonomics of the rest of the interior and controls was good, with one exception. When the transmission gear selector is in park it limits access to the fan speed control dial.

The seats are covered in durable fabric with manual height adjustment only for the driver. The seat cushions are soft, and could use some additional lateral support for spirited driving. The front passenger seat back can fold flat to accommodate long items. The rear seat cushions give passengers a high seating position. The 60/40 split rear seats fold flat, and like the rear cargo floor area, the back of the seats are covered in hard plastic with track-mounted adjustable cargo tie down hooks. Overall, the interior is relatively quiet and comfortable.

COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION The Vibe's DVD navigation system is integrated with the AM/FM/CD stereo head unit, which can be confusing to operate. The controls for the system utilize small, same-shaped buttons, which contribute to the confusion. However, the more time and experience with the system, the easier it is to use. The audio sound quality was good. The Vibe does not offer redundant steering wheel-mounted audio controls.

ELECTRICAL AND ELECTRONICS The Vibe is equipped with power window regulator switches. The system could be enhanced with one-touch up and down regulators on both driver and front passenger windows. The IP-mounted 120V household power outlet is a unique feature that could be very useful for charging digital cameras, using a laptop computer, etc.

HVAC The 2003 Vibe is equipped with an easy-to-use manual HVAC system. The system's compressor operates without contributing to NVH. Unfortunately, the transmission gear selector can partially block access to the fan speed control dial.

SAFETY The Pontiac Vibe is moderately equipped with safety features. Standard passive safety systems include dual front airbags (seat-mounted side airbags are available). All seating positions have 3-point seatbelts. Rear seating positions are equipped for the lower anchors and tethers for children (LATCH) seat system for child car seats.

SUMMARY

The 2003 Pontiac Vibe offers a uniquely-styled combination of sport and utility in a small station wagon body. The added security of the all-wheel drive can be had for just over US$20,000 if you forego the navigation system. This car delivers good value and efficiency without breaking the bank. Now, if only Pontiac would offer the AWD with a bit more power.

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