Spring begins precisely at 1:48 a.m. Thursday.
We've shuddered at the lion's roar announcing March's arrival, and now we can almost taste the minted rack of lamb served up upon its departure. Out of all the months of the year, March leaves the worst first impression. But if you give it a few weeks -- and try the green suds halfway through -- things will be looking up before you know it.
The 2009 Pontiac Vibe is the March of new cars. (Without the hangover on the 18th.)
My first impression of the overhauled Vibe was, "OK, another front-wheel compact wagon with a beltline higher than a gaggle of retired men in chest high Sansabelt slacks."
The windows look too small and there's the a useless porthole overlooking the storage area.
The Vibe's 16-inch tires are gobbled up by giant Pac Man-mouthed wheel wells -- swallowing three-quarters of each tire. Big slabs of metal give the car a chunky, oversized appearance. The exterior panels are stamped in "husky" size. And "husky" is rarely complimentary.
The Vibe is too big for a hatchback but too small for a wagon. So, what is it?
A pretty good car. The Vibe may feel a little blustery at the beginning, kind of like March, but after a few days, you start to like it. By the end of the week in my test vehicle, I was chirping approval like a returning Kirtland's warbler. The Vibe is comfortable, quick and provides plenty of utility with some special storage features and a roomy interior.
Redesign gives Vibe straight, clean lines During the redesign of this five-door hatchback, designers took a rolling pin to those silly ribbed bumpers originally added to enhance your driving pleasure. The raised edge stripped across the doors was also removed and the front was given a meaner face. The headlamps have straight, clean edges instead of the sharper curves, and the windshield is steeper, making it look faster than the previous model.
During a local road trip, I took the Vibe through western Wayne and eastern Washtenaw counties. It was my first Sumpter Road tour -- a straight-line jaunt past eclectic houses, abandoned store fronts and dozens of multi-purpose party stores with signs that read: "Liquor-Lottery-Jerky-Deli-Milk."
I drove the sporty GT model with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. My nicely loaded GT included standard features such as 18-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, seven-speaker 320-watt Monsoon stereo, chrome tipped exhaust and a $700 optional sunroof. Its total MSRP was a very respectable $20,595. A base model starts under $16,000.
The Vibe handled itself very well on the road. The 2.4-liter engine produces 158 horsepower and 162-pound-feet of torque. It takes 6,000 rpm to hit the max horsepower, but the full torque kicks in at 4,000 rpm, giving the Vibe some guts during acceleration. More importantly, the ride was quiet, with only minor road noise, and smooth. The electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering lets you cut through corners with well-weighted precision.
But this car isn't a racer, even if you are.
While the 2.4-liter engine (standard on the GT and AWD models) works well, the smaller 1.8-liter engine will probably serve most people. Typically, car guys always want bigger, but in this instance, save the money for a long weekend in Traverse City after the spring thaw. The 1.8-liter engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission provides the best gas mileage out of the three trim levels available. Its horsepower drops to 132, but that's plenty.
Additionally, it will leave you with fewer stops at the gas station. The base model with a four-speed automatic gets 31 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the EPA. The five-speed manual will hit 32 mpg. My GT averaged 27 mpg combined in a 50/50 mix of city and highway driving, slightly better than the EPA average.
Pleasant interior surprises Inside, Pontiac has redesigned nearly everything. The instrument panel takes on a fresh look with the tachometer and speedometer each encased separately in deep cylinders. (This conveniently hides the readout from nosey passengers craning their necks to check your speed.) The dash feels a little overwhelming when you first sit down. It's big and wide, and on the passenger's side two round vents give it a strange curvy look.
The Vibe, which seats five, has a comfortable second row that easily fits two adults. A third adult would be cramped, but that passenger will still have a three-point seat belt.
The gear shifter on the automatic and manual comes out of the dash instead of jutting up from the floor between the driver and passenger. It feels a little awkward when you first sit down, but becomes natural once you adjust to it. Mounting the gear shifter on the dash creates a more open feel in the front of the Vibe. There's lots of space between the driver and passenger and the center console is pushed slightly back to open up the space even more.
A few other features include a 115-volt outlet that allowed me to plug in my computer and play music on it when my iPod ran out of juice. Regular 115-volt outlets should be standard on all cars, especially for anyone who cannot find a car charger for his or her phone, who needs a fully charged laptop because the boss wants autos blogs posted at every Starbucks or wants to read "Duma Key" by the light of a favorite lamp.
The six-way adjustable front seats are leather in the GT model but come as cloth in the other two trim levels. Each is comfortable and holds you snugly in place.
More importantly, I had expected my lines of sight to be limited because of the car's high beltline. Whenever I saw the first generation Vibe pass by me, I always wondered if the driver could see me. Small windows should mean drivers have less to see.
But road vision was good in the Vibe. In fact, once you get the seat properly placed, adjust the telescopic and raking steering wheel, you can see everything around you. The steepness of the windshield and the forward sloping hood also add to your visibility. When driving, you don't see the hood at all; it's like the simulated driving on a video game.
And you could fit a pretty big television in the back. Interior space is what makes the Vibe stand out in the compact segment. The 60/40-split rear seats fold flat and provide 50 cubic feet of space behind the front seats. The back of the second row is hard plastic but rubber strips prevent big items from sliding around. Additionally, Pontiac provides a rear cargo organizer that folds out of the floor in the back section.
It feels a little flimsy when you're opening it up and locking the side panels into place. However, once it's up, I loved it. It reminded me of my childhood GI Joe Headquarters Command Center, which also felt a little flimsy, but came with everything. The storage organizers include three-sections, hooks, cargo nets and a hole in one section to stop bags from sliding around.
Those are some the little surprises that make the Vibe fresh and invigorating.
Spring comes tomorrow, marked by exactly 12 hours of daylight. The Vibe is on sale now.
Both deserve a warm welcome.
2009 Pontiac Vibe
Type: Front-wheel drive compact wagon. All-wheel drive is available.
Trim levels: base, AWD and GT
Engines: 1.8-liter or 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine
1.8-liter: 132 horsepower, 128-pound-feet torque 2.4-liter: 158-horsepower, 162-pound-feet torque
1.8-liter : 26 mpg city / 32 mpg highway (manual); 25/31 (auto) 2.4-liter: FWD: 21/28 (manual); 21/29 (auto); AWD: 20 / 26 (auto)
Exterior: Fair. Chunky slab sides give the Vibe a big look. Meaner face makes it look sportier.
Interior: Good. Its layout and versatility make this a multipurpose vehicle.
Performance: Good. Nice acceleration, steering and handling. Fun to drive.
Safety: Excellent. Stability control, six airbags, and three-point safety belts for all passengers.
Pros: Well-priced compact wagon with good fuel economy and lots of versatility.
Cons: Exterior appeal limited and, while quieter, still noisy on the road.
Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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