2003 Pontiac Vibe

Monte Doran
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Las Vegas - The same unconventional thinking that spawned the Pontiac Aztek has suddenly and dramatically redeemed itself. The Pontiac Vibe--a tall sedan/truncated wagon/ mini-SUV--is far and away the best small car from General Motors.

Much of the credit, however, belongs to Toyota, which engineered the Vibe alongside the Toyota Matrix, much in the same way Toyota developed the Geo/Chevrolet Prizm as a version of the Corolla. The Vibe and the Matrix both use the new Corolla's platform, the powertrains from the Toyota Celica, and the same interior. They differ only in their sheetmetal and their corporate logos.

We initially gravitated to the sporty Vibe GT, which replaces the standard 130-horsepower four with a 180-hp, Yamaha-modified engine. The GT rips from 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, the 1.8-liter shrieking with delight as the variable valve timing engages at 6000 rpm. There's a mad rush of power from there all the way to the 8400-rpm redline. The torque peak is also sky-high at 6800 rpm, so there's little action across most of the tach. Climbing a slight grade outside Las Vegas, we had to downshift to fifth in order to maintain a constant 60 mph. Seeking to pass a caravan of motorhomes, we then tried fourth--not much happening there--and finally third. Hello, power band! Goodbye, road toasters.

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Part of the Vibe's cross-segment appeal is in its available all-wheel drive, but this feature can't be had with the 180-hp engine. In fact, the Vibe AWD has even less power than the base car--a measly 123 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque. Offered only with a four-speed automatic, the Vibe AWD is a bit of a road toaster itself, trundling from 0 to 60 mph in 11.5 seconds.

In the end, the base Vibe is the most desirable model. Its 1.8-liter engine has 130 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, but it comes

with a five-speed manual, and it's 275 pounds lighter than the AWD version. As a result, it's relatively quick, managing 0 to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds. And, unlike the high-strung GT, the base Vibe's 4200-rpm torque peak is more readily accessible.

The welterweight Vibe also highlights the chassis's excellent dynamics. The steering has a quick, linear response, and the brakes inspire confidence. The suspension is composed, with minimal body roll, ample grip, and excellent impact damping. Although the Vibe looks like a mini-minivan, it feels lithe and agile. We'd say that it's more fun to drive than the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

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But the Vibe's best asset is its hard-to-categorize shape. The carlike low floor makes ingress and egress easy. The relatively high, SUV-like seating makes it comfortable once you're in there. The tall roof ensures that the cabin feels large and airy, even out back. The wagonesque cargo area expands from a useful 24.6 to 57.2 cubic feet with the rear seats down.

The interior--possibly because it is made to Toyota rather than Pontiac standards--is also beautifully crafted and peppered with clever details. The trick rear seats fold flat in one motion, while the front passenger's seat folds for carrying longer items. Adjustable tie-downs are integrated into the cargo floor. There's even a 115-volt outlet in the dash and an optional navigation system.

Despite our quibbles about its powertrains, the Vibe is a truly compelling entry into the small-car arena. It is priced from $16,900 to $20,100. Pontiac--with a lot of help from Toyota--has a great, er, segment-buster.

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