2003 Pontiac Vibe

Expert reviews

These reviews are written by independent automotive journalists providing an objective and reliable assessment to help you make a smart buying decision. 2003 Pontiac Vibe.

Reviewed By: Larry Edsall
© 2003 NewCarTestDrive.com

When Pontiac first revealed the Vibe, it did it with slam poets describing the vehicle's appeal. If you don't know what a slam poet is, you're probably not in the target market for the Vibe GT, although you still may be a customer for the entry-level model.

Innovative and interesting, the Vibe was built in response to research into what the youth market wants in a vehicle in the early years of the 21st Century. So this five-door hatchback has a roomy interior, a creative cargo-carrying system and even a standard 110-watt electrical outlet so occupants can plug in a laptop computer or video game unit. Speaking of those laptops, GM used the Internet to let potential customers name the Vibe's colors, which include Lava, Satellite and Envy.

For those who want a sport compact but don't want to do all the work themselves, Pontiac offers a Vibe GT model. There's also an all-wheel-drive version.

But regardless of the buyer's age or model chosen, the Vibe may offer the best of at least two automotive worlds: it was conceived by General Motors but is built with Toyota components and assembly standards. (Toyota did its own exterior styling for the Matrix, its version of the car for the North American market. However, for the Japanese market, Toyota simply sells right-hand-drive versions of the Pontiac-styled Vibe as the Toyota Voltz. See separate review of the Toyota Matrix at nctd.com.)

Model Lineup

Vibe ($16,340); Vibe GT ($19,900); Vibe AWD ($20,100)

Walk Around

If only the Aztec had looked this good.

Unlike its larger, minivan-based cousin, the Vibe was designed by John Mack, whose previous work includes the exciting Piranha concept car (after finishing the Vibe, Mack moved from the Pontiac styling studio to design the next Impala and Monte Carlo for Chevrolet).

Pontiac already has the youngest buyers of all General Motors brands, but to appeal to an even younger audience, Pontiac opted for a two-box architecture for the Vibe. To make sure this hatchback wasn't too boxy, Mack kept overhangs short (that also pushes the wheels out to the corners - Wide Track, remember -- for a better stance and handling) and he put more (almost a fastback) slope into to the rear section of the roof (notice how the encapsulated C-pillars almost look like inverted hockey sticks).

Mack says he tried to design a lot of what he calls gesture into the Vibe's body contours to help fulfill Pontiac's desire for a muscular, athletic look. He succeeded.

Note: Pontiac is having trouble breaking its habit of surrounding its vehicles with lower-body cladding. But at least the Vibe's is relatively plain, and is available in either charcoal or body color (although the body color is a $500 option). We think the charcoal looks best on the all-wheel-drive version, giving it some visual elevation and an off-roady, 4x4 (dare we say Outback) look.


Pontiac Vibe provides seating for five, and those seats are elevated for a good view of the road. The person at the wheel can enhance that vantage by taking advantage of the manual height-adjustment controls the driver's seat.

The driver operates in a cockpit style environment, and should appreciate some of the nice touches that went into making that environment a pleasant place for driving or even for working.

For example, the front passenger's seatback folds flat forward, so its back can serve as a table for the driver to rest a laptop computer or video game system plugged into the 110-volt outlet. Making this process easier are release levers on both sides of that passenger seatback, so the driver can do this operation one-handed; someone standing outside the car on the passenger's side can easily reach in and do the same thing.

The rear seat has a 60/40 split (and room for at least two full-size adults) and either or both seatbacks can be folded down, providing a Utah-shaped flat floor all the way from the rear hatch to the right half of the dashboard. The Vibe can carry more than 57 cubic feet of cargo, which can be secured by using various tie-downs, including those that lock into position in a clever pair of tracks in the rear cargo floor. Those tracks also are built into the rear seatbacks, so they extend the full length of the rear cargo floor. Pontiac also offers a net system for the cargo area and various bicycle or ski racks for the roof. The rear window on the Vibe's hatchback opens so you can reach your stuff without having to open the entire hatch.

In addition to the storage available on the cargo floor and roof rack, the Vibe provides 11 interior storage containers, and nine of them provide concealed storage, including a compartment behind the base of the back seat, where an umbrella or fishing rods can be stored in a covered pocket. The Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix share the versatility of designer John Mack's interior layout.

The GT we drove was equipped with the optional DVD-based navigation system, which has a split-screen feature so you can see both the detail of the immediate area as well as your location in relation to a larger, metropolitan area. The system worked well, but for that same $1,600 you can equip a base Vibe with anti-lock brakes, side airbags and an automatic transmission.

Driving Impressions

The basic Vibe is no pocket rocket, but it is built on the new Toyota Corolla chassis and should provide a good platform for those who want to give their hatchbacks the fast and furious aftermarket treatment.

The base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine has Toyota's variable valve timing technology and produces 130 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at 4200 rpm. By comparison, the Ford Focus five-door wagon has a 121-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder and the Mazda Protege5 a 130-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder.

The Vibe's five-speed manual lets the driver extract the full measure of its power. Making the task of manipulating the manual gearbox easier is the way the shifter is mounted in an extension of the dashboard instead of in a center console. Your right hand falls easily from the steering wheel directly onto the shift lever.

In addition to the base Vibe with a five-speed, we tried a Vibe AWD with an automatic transmission. Even though the engine produces slightly less horsepower (because of changes in exhaust routing around the AWD's independent rear suspension setup), the gearbox responded nicely when we needed it to kick down in passing situations or for pulling onto freeways. (The AWD with the automatic gets a smaller fuel tank, poorer fuel economy, and isn't as quick as the five-speed two-wheel drive.)

The Vibe's engine was a little noisy under acceleration, but the drivetrain quieted nicely at cruising speeds. With a solid chassis, engineers are able to do a good job at sound insulation and ride control. Engineers say one of their targets was to build a small car in which people could ride comfortably for several hours. We spent a full day in the Vibe and were always comfortable.

Enhancing the experience are easy to reach and use controls, with the audio system controls at the top of the center stack and with three big dials to control the heat-a/c-ventilation system.

The all-wheel-drive system uses lightweight, aluminum components and has a viscous coupling. It usually sends its torque to the front wheels, but can split it 50/50 front/rear when it detects wheel slippage. Pontiac expects 10 percent of Vibe buyers to opt for this model.

It also expects 13 percent of buyers to opt for the Vibe GT, a car that does qualify for pocket rocket status. Pontiac says the Vibe GT will rocket from a standing stop to 60 mph in less than 8.5 seconds (compared to around 9 or 10 seconds for the base car and 11.5 for the Vibe AWD).

The Vibe GT's engine also displaces 1.8 liters, but has been massaged by Yamaha, which shortened the stroke but bored out its cylinders and increased the compression ratio to 11.5:1 (compared to 10.0:1 for the version in the Vibe and Vibe AWD). The Vibe GT engine needs 92-octane fuel, but the payback is 180 horsepower at 7600 rpm. (Ford's much-heralded SVT Focus has only 170 horsepower.)

Coupled to the GT's engine is a six-speed manual gearbox. Although the Vibe GT rides on the same front MacPherson strut/rear twist-beam suspension as the base Vibe, the GT gets four-wheel disc brakes, standard ABS and has its 205/55 aspect tires mounted on 16-inch cast aluminum wheels.

Rev the Vibe GT's engine to 6000 rpm and a higher-lift, longer-duration cam lobe kicks in and it feels as if a turbocharger has activated, like afterburners have been ignited. We drove the car hard and fast on canyon roads west of Los Angeles and it was quick and stable and predictable, and the GT engine emits a nice exhaust note.

This 1.8-liter is the same engine that powers Toyota's Celica GTS, but in the Vibe GT the engine is in a package that has room for people and their stuff.

The Pontiac Vibe competes with the Ford Focus, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volkswagen Golf, Mazda Protege5 and, of course, the Toyota Matrix, which doesn't offer as much standard equipment as Pontiac does.

The Vibe's strengths are its extensive list of standard equipment in all three of its versions, its innovative cargo system, its equally innovative standard electrical outlet and its Toyota build quality.

The Vibe AWD may have appeal in the snow belt. The Vibe GT deserves consideration as a pocket rocket for those who don't have deep pockets, but who want a rocket with big pockets for their friends and cargo.

3 Pontiac Vibe vehicles in stock at carmax.com

3 Pontiac Vibe vehicles in stock