With all this talk of financial bailouts for Detroit, those car companies have been the subject of a great deal of criticism. Some has been fair, some hasn't.
High on the list of unfair: Critics who insist that companies such as General Motors simply don't build any sensible, dependable, thrifty-minded cars like the Japanese manufacturers do.
That's wrong. Exhibit A is the 2009 Pontiac Vibe, a vehicle on par with anything Honda, Nissan and Toyota sell.
There is, however, a little asterisk we must place next to that statement, because the Vibe is pretty much a Toyota. In 1984, GM and Toyota began building vehicles in a joint-venture plant in Fremont, Calif., called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.
That first year, NUMMI built the Chevrolet Nova, based on the Toyota Corolla platform. Next year, the plant celebrates its 25th anniversary, cranking out Toyota Tacoma pickups, Corollas and Pontiac Vibes.
NUMMI has been building the Vibe since January 2002, giving Pontiac dealers a product that appeals to import buyers because, after all, it sort of is: The 2.4-liter, 158-horsepower four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission in the test car were built by Toyota in Japan.
The Vibe is closely related to the Toyota Matrix -- which, incidentally, is made in Canada -- and they share a lot of components. While the Matrix outsells the Vibe by a modest margin, the Vibe remains the second best-selling Pontiac, behind the G6.
While the Toyota Matrix is essentially a hatchback version of the Toyota Corolla sedan, the Vibe has no such Pontiac counterpart. It does, however, give the company an inexpensive entry-level car that appeals to young families or customers who want to buy American but still want the sort of dependability the Japanese have become known for providing.
The Vibe starts at a downright cheap $15,710, but that doesn't include air conditioning, a $950 option. It also doesn't include the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine found in our test car -- that engine is also standard in the Toyota Camry -- but a 1.8-liter, 132-horsepower four-cylinder that is entirely adequate on its own. Other options on the test car, including a pricey $1,050 five-speed automatic transmission, raised that cheap base price to just more than $21,000.
Those options included 17-inch tires and wheels, cruise control, keyless entry, power windows and locks and a $1,285 "Sun and Sound package" that added a sunroof and a seven-speaker Monsoon stereo.
Fortunately, you don't have to pay extra for the safety equipment, which includes stability control, antilock disc brakes, side and side-curtain airbags, and OnStar -- pretty much everything you'd want. All this makes the Vibe an above-average choice as a first car for a teenager.
There's even a 115-volt, three-prong electrical outlet on the instrument panel.
On the road, the Vibe offers a good ride on all but really rough pavement, and there's a fair amount of road noise. Handling is good, but not Honda-level good. All-wheel-drive is an option, which would be nice to have in any climate, but especially welcome in the snow belt.
Inside, Pontiac designers have made the Vibe look quite a bit different from the Matrix, and I'd suggest that's an improvement. Instruments and controls are well-placed and easy to use. Front seats are comfortable, and the rear seat can handle two adults easily, three if you don't mind tight quarters.
Even with the rear seat in place, there's a generous 20.1 cubic feet of cargo space. Fold the seat down, and you get nearly 50 square feet.
The Vibe is, and always has been, a solid, sensible car, and with the 2009 redesign, it's better than ever. GM, with help from Toyota, got this one right.
Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5699.
2009 Pontiac Vibe
Base price: $15,710
Price as tested: $21,145
EPA rating: 21 miles per gallon city driving, 29 mpg highway
Details: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive with a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine
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