Pontiac Vibe was a crossover before crossovers were cool, setting the stage for SUV-like cars that are more economical and drive better than larger SUVs.
Along with near-twin Toyota Matrix, both derived from the thrifty Toyota Corolla, the 2009 Vibe turns 7 by getting its first makeover, including new exterior styling and the addition of a 2.4-liter engine for the sporty GT.
Vibe (and Matrix), though technically four-door hatchbacks, have the tall rooflines and high beltlines that set them apart as pint-size SUVs. They were originally marketed as hip transporters for young drivers, thus the trendy names, but their appeal has been across the board.
The new Vibe seems a little more streamlined and up-market than the original, with a steeply raked windshield and a general smoothing out of the sheet metal and trim. Gone are the rooftop luggage rack and other vestiges of SUV-ness, with a sportier body shape that includes a pert spoiler on the tailing edge of the roofline.
The versatility remains, with a roomy interior and plenty of cargo space.
It still looks like a Vibe, though more substantial, even bulbous from some angles. Somewhere along the line, the front-wheel-drive Vibe GT gained about 300 pounds over the original.
The test car was a GT, powered by the new 2.4-liter inline-4 and optional five-speed automatic, also new. This is a more mainstream setup than the old GT, which used a high-revving 1.8-liter four that peaked at 170 horsepower and came only with a six-speed manual. The latest GT comes standard with a five-speed stick shift.
It's easier to drive and much quieter, but Vibe GT has lost the edgy performance of the original. It also has lost a few miles per gallon. But for most drivers, the improved drivability will be welcomed.
Pontiac Vibe GT
Vehicle type: Five-passenger four-door hatchback, front-wheel drive.
Engine: 2.4-liter inline-4, 158 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 162 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches.
Overall length: 172.1 inches.
Curb weight: 3,160 pounds.
EPA rating: 21 city, 29 highway.
HIGHS: Versatility, bigger engine for GT, interior space.
LOWS: Road noise, sparse interior, less-edgy performance.
PERFORMANCE: With 158 horsepower, the 2.4-liter feels stronger than the old 170-horse Vibe GT engine, which had paltry low-end torque and had to be revved to the moon for performance. The new engine is a whole lot smoother and quieter, though fuel mileage drops slightly to 21 city and 29 highway.
The base engine stays the same, a less aggressive 1.8-liter four that gets 132 horsepower and about 30 miles per gallon overall. That setup would suit most drivers.
DRIVABILITY: The steering is crisp and handling is good, though Vibe's tall stance and not-too-firm suspension allow moderate body sway. It is a fun car to drive, nimble and somewhat quirky.
Vibe GT comes with stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and full air-bag crash protection.
STYLING: The original Vibe's look was polarizing, with opinions ranging from cool to dorky. The new style should be more appealing, though to my eye, it seems heavier and less distinctive.
INTERIOR: Surprisingly roomy, considering its small dimensions. The look is a revision of the original stylish interior with some changed shapes and materials, though it has an economy-car feel overall.
The cargo bed has a fold-up section for smaller items, which works really well.
BOTTOM LINE: Entering its seventh year, the 2009 Vibe costs about the same as the 2003 Vibe. The starting price for the base model is $16,000. That's a good deal for this practical and versatile little car, plus the reliability of its Toyota heritage.
Base price: $19,130.
Price as tested: $21,645.
Automatic transmission, $1,050.
Power sunroof, $700.
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