EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 2003 Pontiac Vibe

Some surprises are worth the wait.

A few months back, when the Toyota Matrix rolled into our driveway, we loved its looks and loathed its lack of spunk. It was cutting-edge design wrapped around a bit too much chug under the hood. We wished for a little more. We finally got it.

It might have a different badge. It certainly has a different look. But the biggest difference between the Pontiac Vibe, the GT version, and the Matrix, its Japanese cousin, is in the little things that only driving and admiring one will deliver.

Sure, the Matrix and Vibe are both based on the Corolla platform, and both use the same 1.8-liter, double-overhead-cam, in-line four cylinder. The Pontiac also has an identical model lineup – two front-wheel-drive models (130-horsepower base and 180 in the GT) and an all-wheel-drive version.

But the Vibe stands alone. From its radical styling – something that looks cut from a Marvel Comics story – to its sharp handling, the Vibe offers domestic buyers something few other domestics can claim: a dare to be different. As an all-new sport wagon, it blends the handling of a small sedan with the practicality of a five-door hatchback.

It’s obvious where Pontiac is slinging its arrow here. In the Vibe, GM is taking that bold step where few automakers have thought to go. It’s a whole new class of vehicle, a combination hatchback and crossover that tries to combine those strange partners – utility and style. For Pontiac, it’s a continuation of what the automaker seems to be doing well.

Geared toward young buyers who want a stylish, practical vehicle but don’t need or want a gas-guzzling SUV, the Vibe was a jointly developed vehicle that shares most major components with its Japanese cousin, the Matrix. At just 171 inches long, the Vibe is slightly shorter than a Honda Civic sedan, but the body is taller and wider.

Add it all up and Pontiac just continues to shuffle its deck of diversity.

Not sure what you are looking for? Check out the dealer with a little of everything: sedans, coupes, a minivan and now this.

Pontiac wants to be young, it wants to be hip and, in the Vibe, it’s willing to separate itself a little from the Matrix. Even the marketing departments are different. Toyota calls the Matrix a “carlike utility vehicle.” Pontiac says the Vibe is in a “segment all its own.”

What kind of segment? The kind that appeals to all those twentysomethings . The kind that rolls in with cool colors – Abyss, Envy, Frosty, Lava, Neptune and Salsa. That means an even more interesting concept: half-station wagon, half-sedan, half-sport utility. It works. And in the Vibe GT model, it really works.

We tested the base Matrix when it was first unveiled, and we found it rather underwhelming. Now we’re here to say the GT blows it away. The Vibe GT, with those 180 ponies, comes direct from the Celica. It takes corners with authority and moves through the expressways with more confidence than the base model engine. No chugs. No worries.

Another plus: You won’t miss the Vibe at the streetlight. If you thought the Matrix had a unique appearance, you haven’t seen anything yet. The Vibe is a sculpted, edgy ride with a distinctive styling touch that is more aggressive than the Matrix. That means tapered rooflines, a stronger grille and even a roof rack.

Inside, things stay the same as the Matrix. The interior setup is one of the best in this class – a PT Cruiser-esque setup with deep wells that hold a red-glow on the driver instrumentation. Inside, the front bucket seats are supportive, and room in the rear is adequate for two adults, tight for three.

The Pontiac model really holds its own on performance. Where the base Matrix lacked a little oomph in the corners, the Vibe in the GT version seemed like it wanted to perform.

But all is not perfect.

Both Pontiac and Toyota still offer the GT in only the front-wheel- drive model; all-wheel-drive versions get the smaller engine. Cargo room is limited unless the rear seats are folded flat, making the Vibe a bit of a deceiving hauler. Also the engine loves to rev, but it has to, given the fact the Vibe doesn’t come with a lot of towing capability. And you can’t get the racy engine in an automatic or anti-lock brakes in the base.

At a base price of $16,900, the Vibe is a reasonable drive that comes loaded with options – air-conditioning, tilt steering, AM/FM/CD stereo and alloy wheels that have a nice touch.

All Vibes come with dual-stage front air bags for the driver and front passenger, with seat-mounted side air bags an available option. Anti-lock brakes are standard on all-wheel drive and GT models and optional on the base model.

Also, the Vibe earned a perfect five stars in the NHTSA’s frontal impact testing, five stars for side impacts involving front occupants and four stars for side impacts involving rear occupants.

On the whole, the Vibe succeeds because it has the SUV traits without the SUV drawbacks. That means a higher-than-a-car stance and the option of all-wheel drive.

Cool. Daring. Nearly like a Matrix.

But really its own ride.

2003 PONTIAC VIBE SPECS

High gear: The option of all-wheel drive with sharp styling, solid handling and road feel, the Vibe comes with a peppy engine (in GT versions) and enough accents to turn heads inside and out to make it a whole new crossover winner.

Low gear: The lack of an automatic transmission or all-wheel-drive option in the GT is regrettable, as is the lack of ABS in base models. Rear-seat room is a little tight with three adults, and cargo room is less than the competition.

Rating: 2.5

Vehicle type: Front- or-all-wheel-drive, front-engine, five-door, five-passenger wagon.

Key standard equipment (GT): Six-speed manual transmission; air conditioning; four-speaker stereo with CD; split rear bench seatback; tilt steering; fog lamps; household-style AC outlet; rear anchors; four-wheel disc brakes with ABS; 17-inch wheels; power mirrors and doors; dual front air bags; daytime running lamps.

Competition: Chrysler PT Cruiser, Subaru Forester, Toyota Matrix

Engine (GT): 180 horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder

Torque: 130 foot-lbs. @ 6,800 rpm

Wheelbase: 102.4 inches

Length: 171.9 inches

MPG rating (GT): 25 mpg city/30 mpg highway

Manufactured: Fremont, Calif.

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is three years/36,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is six years/100,000 miles.

Base price: $16,900

Price as tested (GT model, includes options, destination and delivery charges): $21,300

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