Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
In the past, it's been easy to overlook the Pontiac Vibe. The wagon has always been a superb all-rounder, but it's suffered from a star-power deficit; the previous-generation Vibe lacked the visual appeal of some rivals and the thrill-ride performance capability of others. Not helping matters is the fact that the wagon's corporate twin, the Toyota Matrix, enjoys an advantage when it comes to perceived reliability, thanks to Toyota's sterling reputation in this area. (Never mind that the Matrix and the Vibe are mechanically identical.) With the wagon's 2009 makeover, Pontiac aims to make the Vibe less chorus line and more leading man by endowing it with style and performance upgrades.
The GT model, which had been M.I.A. since 2007, makes a welcome return. This is good news for drivers hungering for a sportier alternative to the only other offering in the Vibe lineup — the base model. We celebrated the GT's comeback by putting it through the paces in a road test.
With the GT comes a new 2.4-liter engine that's good for 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque; it's the well-loved Toyota engine that's also found in models like the Camry and the Scion xB. This engine offers slightly less horsepower than the high-revving 1.8-liter four seen in the previous GT, but its wide torque band makes that power fully usable and within reach. The 2.4-liter engine is standard on the GT, and on base models equipped with all-wheel drive; it's optional on front-wheel-drive base models. Other changes seen in the revised Vibe include sportier sheet metal, improved interior design, and upgraded fit and finish.
The 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT doesn't win the statuette for enthusiasts' favorite in its category. That honor still belongs to the Mazda Mazda3, which has long delivered world-class driving dynamics that are unmatched in this price segment. Still, the Vibe GT's performance is incredibly engaging relative to most others in its class, and it trumps the 3 when it comes to cargo room and passenger space. The hardworking Pontiac Vibe GT deserves a starring role, but whether it's an ideal pick for you will depend on which attributes you value most in a wagon.
Paired with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, our Vibe GT test car's 2.4-liter engine powers the wagon from zero to 60 mph in an invigorating 8.9 seconds — a fairly impressive showing for its class. Around town, this willing engine makes the GT zippy and acquiescent, allowing it to easily finesse city and freeway traffic like a surfer on the crest of a righteous wave. The Vibe's transmission proves a capable match for this torquey inline-4, though it falls short of the seamlessness achieved by the Mazda3's setup.
At a combined 19.3 mpg, reported fuel economy is unimpressive, and dips below EPA estimates. Those estimates peg the 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT at 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. These numbers trail those achieved by competitors like the Mazda3 and Honda Fit, and mark the GT as somewhat of a laggard in this category.
Braking performance is average. At the track, the wagon ground to a halt from 60 mph in 127 feet. The best performers in this class get the job done in about 120 feet. When experienced in real-world driving, pedal feel is pleasantly firm. Brake pedals also exhibits consistent firmness when pushed at the track.
The artificially low limits of its non-defeat stability control system serve to hamper the Vibe GT's performance in skid pad and slalom testing. On the skid pad, the wagon managed an unspectacular 0.75 g, with abundant body roll. On the slalom, its average speed was a lackluster 59.1 mph. However, our test-driver did note that while the Vibe feels tall through transitions, it never feels dangerous, as its limits are kept in check. When driven less aggressively around town, the GT's steering is reasonably responsive, and the wagon tackles corners with poise.
Pontiac's wagon offers ride quality that manages to be most things for most people. It's taut enough to satisfy those seeking some connection with the tarmac, but not so stiff as to put off those whose mandate is comfort.
If you can't find an ideal driving position in the Vibe, it won't be for a lack of comfort features. The wagon offers a height-adjustable driver seat, as well as a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Those amenities helped us to engineer consistently comfortable seating positions on long commutes. Leg- and headroom in the second row is adequate, even for editors who are more than 6 feet tall.
We think quite highly of the feel of the wagon's seats. Nicely bolstered, they're as plush and supportive as an overstuffed couch. When it comes to cabin noise, the Vibe performs pretty well for its segment, managing to keep both the howl of the wind and the rumble of the road at arm's length.
Everything from the Vibe's stereo to its HVAC system features controls that are within reach and obviously placed. Chances are, most won't need to crack the owner's manual to get things up and running.
We also appreciate the Vibe's spaciousness. The wagon shines when it comes to cabin room. Headroom, especially, is plentiful relative to others in its class, and rear legroom is adequate; these two factors make the Vibe an adequate choice for those faced with the challenge of child safety seat installation. With 20.1 cubic feet of luggage capacity on tap, the Vibe is near the top of its class when it comes to cargo room, easily accommodating a standard-size suitcase. The wagon's 60/40 fold-flat rear seats are a cinch to deploy, should you need more room for storing longer cargo.
Speaking of cargo space, flip the hatch and you'll find that the 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT offers a handy solution for those seeking to lug home grocery bags without having them roam unfettered in the cargo area. The wagon features a rear cargo storage system that does an excellent job of anchoring grocery bags. In keeping with the straightforward spirit of the Vibe, this feature is also perfectly intuitive and easy to use. We're able to implement it in seconds without the need for written guidance.
The car's high beltline brings compromises when it comes to visibility. A significant blind spot means that neck-craning is an absolute must when orchestrating a lane change. Another more minor shortcoming concerns the wagon's adjustable cupholders, which are flimsy and difficult to maneuver.
Design/Fit and Finish
With the 2009 Vibe GT, Pontiac's designers deserve credit for having brought a splash of youthful excitement to this typically beige segment. Boasting a chic high-water beltline and a menacing Darth Vader scowl, the Vibe sets out to be the looker of the economy-wagon set, and most would likely agree that it succeeds on this front. Fit and finish is exceptional, serving to impart an air of quality.
But we all know that a pretty exterior doesn't guarantee similar levels of pulchritude on the inside, and the Vibe is proof of this maxim. The car's cabin suffers from a bad case of generic-itis. With controls straight out of corporate sponsor Toyota's parts bin, material quality and design are about as lively as an afternoon nap.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT is a solid choice for those who want a capable economy wagon that's a shade more exciting than the norm. Look to the Vibe if you're seeking a vehicle whose genetic gifts include exterior attractiveness, versatility and a fun-to-drive nature.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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