The 2009 Pontiac Vibe is a new, second-generation design that shares most of its mechanical parts with the Toyota Matrix. The Vibe is more refined, visually cleaner and appears to have more equipment for the money than its predecessor. The lineup features an array of models with a choice of engines and all-wheel drive making the Vibe attractive to a variety of drivers. It's a logical, flexible compact that should appeal to everyone from high-schoolers to empty nesters.
Virtually every component on the 2009 Vibe is new or heavily revised. The standard 1.8-liter engine is more powerful and efficient than its predecessor, and a larger 2.4-liter is available. An all-wheel-drive version is available and, like the engines, this particular system has been proven in hundreds of thousands of vehicles. Given Toyota's engineering history these cars should prove reliable and cost-effective.
The new 2009 Vibe is larger than last year's model, though at 172 inches it is still a reasonable size and makes good use of the real estate occupied. It will carry four people, five if some are kids. It can carry pets, the occasional wakeboard or even a mountain bike with the front wheel off.
All Vibes use regular unleaded fuel and rate at least 20 mpg in the city. The 2.4-liter AWD and the GT push 30 mpg on the highway, while the 1.8-liter engine and five-speed manual gets an EPA-rated 26/32 mpg City/Highway. We preferred the five-speed manual with the 1.8-liter, which made it fun to drive and responsive, but we preferred the 2.4-liter with the five-speed automatic.
One could argue the Vibe is an alternative to compact hatchbacks (Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, VW Rabbit), the short van/big hatchbacks (Mazda5, Kia Rondo), small crossovers (Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage/Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Rogue), and all the other little runabouts less easy to categorize (Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chevy HHR, Dodge Caliber, Scion xD, Suzuki SX4). Some of those may be faster, bigger, or less expensive than the Vibe, but the Vibe represents a good balance of all and will fill many needs without many expenditures.
The 2009 Vibe employs Pontiac's twin-trapezoid grille split by the vertical arrowhead emblem, with dual-light elements in singular clear housings; the honeycomb mesh of the grilles is mirrored inside the headlight housings and some upholstery.
Below the bumper-cover is a secondary wide grille with fog lights outboard; GT models have a deeper, more aggressive front end. While it's still quite restrained and free of cladding relative to past Pontiacs, small affectations in the form of black plastic, non-functional vents are adjacent the fog lights and ahead of the rear wheel; the latter will be a nuisance to keep clean.
From the side, the Vibe looks like the bows that might go with the arrowhead logo; a long, nearly straight windshield line arches over above the front window and stays straight as it carries all the way to the rear pillar. The Vibe follows current trends in the smaller window area to visually eliminate some of its height.
The dipped front window line gives a good view forward and of the mirror but despite the small, triangular rear quarter-window the rear corners could still obscure your view for backing into tight spaces.
All the lines flow nicely, the front lights tapering into the fender, and the fender into the windshield pillar at top and the rocker panel below the doors. A mild scallop in the lower doors and subtly flared wheel openings add dimension without adding unnecessary creases and sharp edges. Larger wheels make it look better, especially in lighter colors that emphasize the fender openings.
The rear aspect of the Vibe is perhaps the plainest, the flat rear window line not flowing like the curves elsewhere. A lower bumper styled to resemble a racecar diffuser helps, and the rear spoiler on GTs will mitigate rear passenger neck sunburn, but the tail doesn't quite have the excitement Pontiac is fond of. On our GT, the radio antenna mast on the centerline ahead of the spoiler was complemented by a smaller satellite antenna set off to the side in a rear corner, a location far less than complimentary in terms of appearance.
Three overlapping nacelles, one of them oval, provide the instrument panel focal point both literally and figuratively. The lighted gauges display road speed in the center, engine speed to the left, and temperature/fuel/mileage data in a tube-shaped opening at lower right.
This central pod is surrounded by brighter-finish trim and a pair of protruding vents that line the top of the dash like a frog's eyes. The audio system sits top center, with basic three-ring ventilation controls below it and at the bottom the panel just rearward and houses the shifter like an old Alfa Romeo; the handbrake is in a more traditional location on the driver's side of the center console.
With prices starting just over $15,000 you won't find a leather-lined cabin and lots of soft-touch surfaces, yet the door panels and center armrest are comfortably shaped and there are no rough edges on the plastic trim. The bright trim of the dash is repeated on the front doors and inside handles, the headliner is light gray to improve spaciousness, and the upholstery is dark gray.
Seat-adjustment is manual and includes cushion height; add in a tilt wheel that also telescopes a bit and most drivers will fit. The GT's bolstered seats provide some lateral retention, though they were a bit lacking in lumbar and mid-back support, so you'll want to stretch at fuel stops. The dash-mounted shifter is more convenient than it may sound. The clutch pedal rests higher than the other pedals, keeping your left leg bent more than the right.
Outward visibility is fairly good forward. The A-pillars are small enough to see around without craning and the sloping hood gives a good close-in view of everything but the car itself. The view straight back isn't bad, either; there is no center headrest blocking the view and the rear wiper sweeps a good area, but those rear pillars are big.
Regardless of what detailed specifications suggest, the 2009 Vibe is roomier than before inside, with space for four six-footers to ride simultaneously without knees or heads stuck against the car. Although the rear floor is essentially flat you won't put three back there unless waists are 28 inches or less, and if two backseat passengers complain they can always walk.
Despite the loss of a half-inch in rated headroom and four inches in hip room because of measurement standards, the rear seat is generally bigger than before. We put a pair of 6-foot, 3-inch riders back there who reported satisfactory head clearance. There are three belts, though all three can be used simultaneously only by kids and waif-like models. The rear-seat floor is almost flat with only a slight rise up to the console.
Cargo space is a usable 20 cubic feet. Additional space is provided by compartments below the floor. Folding the rear seatbacks more than doubles the space. Both the seatbacks and floor have skid-resistant plastic runners so the tie-down points don't do all the work in cargo retention. The right front seatback folds flat, providing space for long, slender objects. Trunk area covers are optional, and a wise investment to conceal valuables.
The Pontiac Vibe comes standard with a 132-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder, which offers the advantages of cost, fuel economy and character over the 2.4-liter engine. With just 128 lb-ft of torque on tap, the 1.8-liter needs to rev a bit to get the 3000-pound Vibe moving, but it never complains, gets overly raucous, or raises water temperature when you lean on it hard and often. More important, the 1.8-liter rates a significant 4-5 mpg better in fuel economy relative to the 2.4-liter. The 1.8-liter has a far more entertaining character as well; the 1.8 encourages you to wind it up and it seems to offer crisper throttle response.
Crisper throttle response does not equal more power, however. The 2.4-liter has an advantage of 26 horses and more notably 34 pound-feet of torque over the 1.8. As a result, the 2.4 is more relaxed and has more midrange power for grades and accelerating from a standstill, requiring effort from the driver.
The 1.8-liter works best with the five-speed manual (EPA 26/32 mpg). The 2.4-liter is almost better with the five-speed automatic (EPA 21/29 mpg), especially if you're in traffic a lot; in multiple samples we found the 2.4/5-speed manual combo hasn't a very precise shifter and needed more revs than we'd expect to avoid stalling at takeoff, and we never had that issue in the 1.8/5-speed.
The AWD model comes with a fully automatic all-wheel-drive system that will transfer up to 45 percent of available power to the rear wheels when conditions warrant. In good conditions, the system is virtually transparent to the driver. Any different feel you notice on a test drive not done in a blizzard is apt to be caused by the extra weight and not the AWD system. At close to 3300 pounds the AWD Vibe is the heaviest in the lineup and comes with a four-speed automatic, which add up to the lowest EPA rating of 20/26 mpg.
The AWD and GT models feature a more sophisticated rear suspension than the standard Vibes. This can be noticed in better bump absorption and in handling nuances when driven at the limit on a racing circuit. The average driver will derive much more from the GT's wider, stickier tires than from the rear suspension, and those tires will generate a bit more road noise and sharper impacts on everything from lane divider dots to potholes.
Antilock disc brakes are used at each corner on every Vibe and include electronic aids to make the best of them in emergency situations. Brake size increases by model but all are up to the task.
To aid in saving fuel the Vibe uses electric power steering. It's not our favorite feature because it lacks in feel how hard the front tires are working and it doesn't come back to center very well. If you're used to making sharp turns around a tight parking lot or garage and having the wheel return to straight ahead as you release it, you may find you have to help it back on the Vibe. It goes where you point it and doesn't require any effort, but it feels a bit dull and rubbery and doesn't turn as tight as other small cars.
The all-new 2009 Pontiac Vibe allows you flexibility in loading, signature Pontiac style that won't be old next year, and economy that applies to more than just purchase price or fuel mileage. The AWD model offers winter weather capability. The Vibe has all the attributes to be a good choice, a choice that looks better every day the price of gas goes up.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after driving the different Vibe models around Los Angeles.