General Motors emerged from the influential series of winter auto shows with a can't-miss hit -- a youth-oriented, all-wheel-drive-available sports wagon called the Pontiac Vibe.

It could be next year's PT Cruiser, according to industry analysts and auto writers.

``Most significant vehicle'' at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, raved AutoWeek magazine. Snazzy, said Ward's Auto World, with a hot engine/transmission package of the sort that the ``PT should've been designed to offer.''

And AMI Auto World Weekly put the Vibe on its cover, saying, in headlines, ``It's quick and has Toyota quality!'' and ``Pontiac's new crossover could be a major hit.''

Jim Hall, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates in Detroit, said, ``Unless they price it wrong, meaning way too expensive, it's the closest thing to a home run that General Motors, that Pontiac will have this year.''

The Vibe, to be built at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, goes on sale in the first quarter of 2002 as a 2003 model. Expect prices in the $17,000 to $23,000 range.

(A very similar Toyota version, the Matrix, will be built in Canada. As to speculation that GM will produce a Chevrolet version of the Vibe, Hall said capacity constraints at NUMMI, which also builds the Toyota Corolla sedan and Toyota Tacoma pickup, make that a slim possibility.)

The Vibe, along with the forthcoming Saturn VUE sport-utility, are GM's first steps toward re-establishing a presence with young buyers of small, sporty cars, said Craig Bierley, the Vibe brand manager.

Its exterior is athletic and modern, and avoids Pontiac's past reliance on body-side moldings to connote sportiness. On the inside, the five-door hatchback is very flexible. Second-row seats fold flat to make for a level cargo area. Even the front passenger seat folds flat, creating 57.2 cubic inches of cargo space. And the back has tie-down hooks to secure bikes and sports equipment.

Fog lamps and a CD player are standard equipment. A navigation system and 200-watt stereo with a six-disc CD player are options.

The Vibe will come three ways: a base, front-wheel-drive version will carry a 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine; a mid-level all-wheel-drive version will have the same four-banger motor; and a speedy GT model will have all-wheel-drive, a six-speed manual transmission and a 180-horsepower, variable-valve-timing version of the 1.8-liter four.

``It's a high runner,'' said Chris Winn, a GM total vehicle integration engineer who worked on the Vibe. He reported a 8,200 RPM redline and a zero to 60 mph of 8.2 seconds in preliminary testing. That compares to 8.6 seconds for a PT Cruiser, and is about as fast as a Dodge Neon ES.

GM and Toyota have shared cars before, but what emerged for GM -- first the Geo, then the Chevy Prizm -- was a perfectly acceptable, perfectly boring sedan. This time around, a ccording to Winn, ``We got exactly what we wanted. We drove the packaging. We designed the interior.''

The Vibe interior, which combines Pontiac cues like orange-red gauges with new touches like classy chrome trim, is very appealing.

The next few months will be busy ones for the Vibe team -- both those involved in the manufacturing and those doing the marketing.

Following the concept cars that were shown at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows in January were the first prototypes built in Japan in May. This month, the first pilot car will be assembled at NUMMI. The second-generation pilot comes in October or November, followed by the start of production in January 2002.

The car goes on sale in February or March. Bierley said Pontiac dealers should sell about 60,000 Vibes a year.

The pre-sale hype of Vibe is in full swing, as the car is on display at all 48 stops of this summer's Van's Warped Tour, including visits to San Francisco and the ke Tahoe area last weekend.

That event, which combines performances by bands like Blink 182 and Less Than Jake with demonstrations by skateboarders and other extreme athletes, is a good match for those who might buy the Vibe.

At the shows, people can participate in a Color My Vibe contest where they can nominate names for the various shades of red, green, blue and others that'll coat the Vibe. (For the record, the two show cars were painted Blue Ice Metallic, a sort of silver shade, and Agile Yellow, which looked very orange.)

The contest also takes place on the
vibe Web site, said Kelly Wysocki, a Pontiac spokeswoman. Pontiac will donate a dollar to charity for each entry.

And, at each stop of the Warped Tour, Pontiac has a graffiti artist doing a mural that captures the concerns and interests of youth in that area, she said.

When the Vibe arrives early next year, it'll be interesting to see whether dealers add additional mark-ups to what's expected to be a very popular vehicle, analyst Hall said. That's what many Chrysler dealers did with the PT Cruiser, he said, which meant a vehicle with a $16,000 base price was selling for about $20,000, a high-enough price hike to turn the typical buyer from young to middle-aged.

``That's not what Pontiac needs with this vehicle,'' he said.