Review: 2009 Pontiac Vibe

2009 Pontiac Vibe – Click above for high-res image gallery

When the original Pontiac Vibe hit dealer showrooms for the 2003 model year, it was a different kind of General Motors vehicle in just about every way. Sure, it wore a Pontiac badge and had that horrible plastic cladding hanging off its sides, but the vehicle's basic shape was unlike anything else in the General's lineup. There was a very good reason for this, as the Vibe is produced by GM's joint venture with Toyota called NUMMI, or the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. This JV currently produces the Vibe, Corolla and Tacoma pickup for both automakers, and the new Vibe is basically the same vehicle as the 2009 Toyota Matrix with a different skin and interior.

For 2009, the Vibe loses all that plastic armor but keeps its Toyota ties, receiving the recently updated Corolla underpinnings and powertrains. Will the Vibe's many changes make the little Pontiac good enough for prospective buyers to consider again? We took a brand new 2009 Vibe GT for a week-long spin to find out.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.

Our Red Hot Metallic Vibe GT came in at a total MSRP of $20,595 with standard features like five-spoke 18-inch wheels, a 158-hp 2.4L engine, leather-trimmed sport bucket seats, and 320-watt Monsoon sound system. The only option of note was a $700 power sunroof that we could've gone without.

The basic shape of the outgoing Vibe was kept, but overall the appearance is more aggressive than the previous model. The hatchback shape is now comprised of smooth sheetmetal that contrasts with hard creases, which gives the updated five-door a more dynamic look than its predecessor. Our GT tester's set of striking 18-inch rims also made the little Vibe look sportier than it does in base form, even if both models share the same anemic four-cylinder. We liked the looks of the Vibe GT quite a bit, and more so than the direction Toyota chose to go with the Matrix and its new styling.

The new Vibe is within an inch of the old model in almost every dimension, yet the new GT weighs almost 300 lbs. more than the outgoing sport model. While additional safety equipment and larger wheels account for some of the heft, the tall wagon's new 2.4L engine also adds to the tonnage. The larger engine is much smoother and more refined than the smaller 1.8L offered in lower trim levels, but the extra weight and torque is felt at the pump where fuel economy is 21 mpg around the city and 29 highway. The available 1.8L four-cylinder in the base Vibe gets 26 mpg city/32 highway for those interested in pinching a few pennies at the pump, but both engines feature Toyota's VVT-i technology to make the most of their meager displacements.

On the inside, the basic look of the old model carries over though dash materials have been upgraded with a more tactile feel. The center stack looks much the same as the outgoing model, and while the cartoonish bulging plastic knobs look very '90s, everything is at least easy to use. Console-mounted shifters like the one in the Vibe are usually a pet-peeve of this blogger, and though it still looks goofy, the upright ergonomics in the Vibe make it a necessity.

The leather, sport-bolstered seats in the GT are the big bright-spot of the Vibe interior, with plenty of support for when you're diving nose-first into the twisties. They were also comfortable on long commutes, which is a big deal on my daily 35-mile trek to the office. The Vibe is a tall hatch that also rewards you with plenty of space on the inside. With the rear seats folded down and their flat plastic backs facing the ceiling, you can fit some big things in this little car. We would have liked a deep well carved out behind the second row of seats when they're not folded, but aside from that found the Vibe to be an immensely practical package.

On the road, the car's Corolla-based chassis handles bumps and pot-holes adequately and is a bit stiffer than the 2008 model, but this GT is no sports car. While it looks the part of a sporty hatch, neither the engine nor chassis allows the Vibe GT to act the part. Hitting corners at moderate speeds results in significant body roll, and while we appreciate the silky nature of Toyota's 2.4L engine, we would have preferred a bit more power than what it had to offer.

More attractive styling and an improved interior makes the 2009 Pontiac Vibe a better car than the outgoing model, for sure. Both GM and Toyota did a nice job modernizing the Vibe/Matrix and the update couldn't have come at a better time. Gas prices are at historic all-time highs and smaller, more utilitarian vehicles are becoming more popular. That description fits the Vibe to a tee, and we wouldn't be at all surprised if sales increased as a result. If you don't mind spending $20,000 on a sporty-looking vehicle that delivers in the practical department but not on performance, then the Vibe GT is for you. If you want the power and athleticism of a true hot hatch, however, look elsewhere.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.

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