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CASTROL CHINTHE AWARD FOR AUTOMOTIVE WRITING

Entry Number 1: Driving the Vibe Across (some of) Canada

(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)

 

The Driver’s Seat

by Jim Kenzie

March 16, 2002

Pontiac Vibe AWD

 

CALGARY Alberta - What if your company has an idea for a cool small car, but your company’s history of making small cars, cool or otherwise, isn’t very good?

You might go to a small-car specialist and get them to do it.

That’s the Pontiac Vibe.

General Motors was already a partner with Toyota in the Fremont California assembly plant, which makes Corollas for Toyota, and Geo Prizms for GM.

So GM designed and specced out the Vibe, and farmed out the engineering to Toyota.

The car is built in Fremont.

The Japanese company did the basic engineering, using primarily the platform and running gear from Corolla and RAV4.

Toyota liked the idea so much they asked if they could do their own version. GM agreed, provided it had a different look - hence, the Toyota Matrix.

(Toyota said they couldn’t afford a different interior, so what you see from the Matrix’s Driver’s Seat won’t be much different.)  

That Vibe is a Pontiac isn’t open to much doubt. Twin-nostril grille theme, cat’s-eye headlights, lower body-side cladding - it’s all here.

It has to be said - from certain angles, it looks like an Aztek. The cladding doesn’t help.

At least Vibe gets 16-inch wheels, which gives it a decent stance.

Vibe also looks a bit like Audi’s clever Europe-only A2 teeny-weeny; great minds...

I think it looks pretty good. Some of the younger journalists who partook in a three-team, coast-to-coast, cross-Canada “drive-the-Vibe’‘ rally, my leg of which (Regina to Calgary) I have just completed, didn’t agree.

Pontiac dealers we visited, however, were thrilled with the car - we’ll see how the paying customer reacts.

“Hatchback’‘ is still a naughty word amongst North American car marketing executives, so Pontiac goes to extreme lengths to call Vibe anything but.

Cross-over. Hybrid. Melange of SUV, sports car and sport wagon.

Forget it. It’s a hatchback. End of discussion.

A TALL hatchback, maybe. But if it looks like a hatchback, walks like a hatchback, quacks like a hatchback...

Vibe also borrows clever ideas from GM’s European partner, Opel, whose Zafira minivan sets the gold standard for flexible interiors.

Vibe’s split rear seat can be folded flat, virtually disappearing into the floor.

The right front seat back can be folded forward too, creating an eight-foot load platform, or a work table for the driver - hopefully NOT when she’s driving.

Even with all seats up, Vibe offers nearly 20 cubic feet of cargo room, more than some full-size cars.

The interior also reflects Pontiac tradition. OK, the tradition of red instrument lighting was lifted from BMW; it’s still not very effective. In the daylight, the dim digital odometer is virtually invisible. The round dials are deeply recessed, their nacelles trimmed in bright distracting chrome. Looks cool; not so functional.

There are storage spaces all over the place. You’ll probably own one of these for a couple of years before you find them all.

The seats are covered in durable-looking fabric, and are comfortable even on a long haul.

The neatest item on the dash is a Vibe-exclusive 115-volt power outlet - just plug your laptop or other electronic device right in there. The bottom-hinged plug cover does, however, prevent any adapter except a straight plug from fitting. A small extension cord may prove useful - we had one on our drive from Regina to Calgary. At one point, we had a digital camera, a laptop and a cell phone all re-charging simultaneously.

Vibe is aimed at younger buyers, who typically like high-end sound systems. You can get a 200 watt system with six-CD changer, and even a DVD-based sat-nav system - very rare at this price level.

The problem with having Toyota do your engineering is that you end up with Toyota engines. They may last forever, but for whatever reasons, Toyota is still stuck in the quart-from-a-pint-pot philosophy of engine design.

Three versions of the Corolla/RAV4 motor are offered, all 1.8 litre twin-cam fours displacing 1.8 litres, and featuring Toyota’s “VVT-i’‘ - Variable Valve Timing with intelligence.

It’s not all that smart...

The base front-wheel drive Vibe gets 130 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and 125 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,200 r.p.m. A five-speed manual is your only transmission choice.

The sort-of All-Wheel Drive model like we drove is strangulated, I’m guessing due to packaging constraints on the exhaust system, to 123 horses and a meagre 118 lb.-ft. of torque. It comes only with a four-speed automatic, stirred by a handy dash-mounted shifter.

The GT version (front-drive only, manual or automatic) offers 180 horsepower, thanks to minor internal mods, but mostly because the engine management computer lets it rev to 7,600 r.p.m. Torque is a puny 130 lb.-ft., at a screaming 6,800 r.p.m.

Torque, or lack thereof, is Vibe’s Achilles' heel. Especially the AWD car; it is heavier, has only an auto-box, and yet has the least amount of grunt.

They’ve rigged the transmission to provide a sprightly off-the-line feel, but once in motion, you’re in for a long and noisy wait to your cruising speed. You may need to resort to Canada Post to warn on-coming motorists of impending two-lane passing manoeuvres.

And because you spend most of your time with the loud pedal buried firmly in the carpet, fuel economy goes straight out the tailpipe - our team on the rally was getting numbers in the 13 litres per 100 km range in real-world (albeit stressful) driving.

That’s almost pick-up truck territory.

I can only imagine how much better Vibe would be with, say, GM’s own 2.2 litre four cylinder, as used in various Saturns and the Cavalier/Sunfire duo.

The independent suspension does a good job; ride quality is fine. The steering is light, positive, and direct, and handling secure yet entertaining.

My efforts to get car companies to call hearts hearts when it comes to four-wheel drive systems have to date come to naught; Vibe’s sort-of All-Wheel Drive is in fact front-wheel drive with part-time four-wheel drive. When front wheelspin is detected, a centre coupling in the drive shaft directs torque to the rear wheels.

This happens pretty quickly, but on snowy roads, you will understeer until the cows come home - and if you’re not careful, you’ll run into one.

Real four-wheel drive - all four wheels with traction, all the time - would be better.

The three cars that have been driving across Canada for the past three weeks were pretty hard done by; ours had a badly-fitting right front door (then again, it had a ding in it too - maybe it got whacked), and one of our teammates drove it through a puddle, which caused the starter to freeze up on cold Saskatchewan nights.

But overall, they held up pretty well. The trim materials, while not quite to VW’s standards, are better than you’d find in other GM small cars. The body felt tight and rigid even over some pretty rough roads.

Vibes are entering dealerships as we speak, dribbling first into big metropolitan stores.

The base car starts at $19,150. Air-con, power mirrors, tilt steering and an AM-FM-single-CD sound system are included, but you have to go to the options list to get ABS brakes, power locks and windows.

The All Wheel Drive model gets all that and more, for $26,150.

The GT adds alloy wheels and some other trinkets, and lists for $26,550.

Don’t worry if you aren’t young, hip, or technologically savvy. Pontiac will still take your money. As GM’s president in the 1920s, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., said, “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man.’‘

With its combination of “eyeball’‘ (as car sales types call head-swivelling styling), outstanding versatility and decent value, I think buyers of all ages will step up to the Vibe.

Even if it is a hatchback.

 

Highs:

 

1. Roomy, versatile interior, for people and stuff.

2. No worries about blandness here.

3. Better-than-expected dynamics.

 

Lows:

1. Lack of torque (actually, this could be all three of my “lows...’‘).

2. Illegible instrumentation.

3. I wish they’d own up and call it a hatchback.

 

- 30 -

 

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