Many months ago, I met a Jalopnik reader whose love for the Pontiac Vibe has no bounds. He was part of an owner’s group, his Facebook profile was filled with pictures of his Vibe, and he just kept talking about how great the little hatchback was. At first, I thought this was a bit odd, but now I’ve realized that he has a point. The Vibe is good.
This thought came to my mind after my coworker Jason wrote a story yesterday about how even the most random car (like a Chevrolet Captiva) has at least one “rabid fan.” As I read that, I thought to myself: Man, I remember meeting someone who was obsessed with the Pontiac Vibe, of all cars! But now I’m trying to see if I can understand why.
Back in the 1980s, Roger Smith’s General Motors invested lots of money into fancy assembly robots, and yet the company continued getting its ass kicked by Japanese automakers, with its U.S. market share plummeting from 46 percent in 1980 to around 35 percent in 1989, according to The Economist’s contemporary article on GM’s struggles during that decade.
The result was a, “If we can’t beat them, join them,” decision to create an assembly plant with Toyota called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. Known by the acronym NUMMI, this Fremont, California-based plant (part of which is now owned by Tesla) was a way for General Motors to gain insights into Toyota’s “lean manufacturing” methods that promised higher vehicle output and better quality.
The way this relates to the Pontiac Vibe is that this little hatchback was built at NUMMI between 2002 and 2009, and shared not just the same basic Corolla-based platform as the Toyota Matrix, but also the powertrains and the interior. In other words, the Vibe was a Toyota with some Pontiac sheetmetal, offering the same fuel efficiency and reliability as a Toyota, but—and this is just my opinion—in a more aggressive, stylish package.
Under the hood were two engine options, a 130 horsepower 1.8-liter engine or a 180 horsepower 1.8-liter, both of which belonged to Toyota’s “ZZ” line of inline-fours. The former could be had in front or all-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive losing a few ponies and requiring a four-speed auto, while front-drivers got the full 130 HP and offered a five-speed manual. The Yamaha-tuned 180 horsepower engine came in front-drive with a six-speed manual.
It’s not fast, and with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam rear-suspension on base models (double wishbone with all-wheel drive), it’s not particularly advanced, either. But reviews that came out shortly after the Vibe’s launch were positive, with Automobile writing in 2002:
The Pontiac Vibe—a tall sedan/truncated wagon/ mini-SUV—is far and away the best small car from General Motors.
I reached out to Jalopnik-reader, Nick, to learn a bit more about the Vibe, since he’s the guy who amazed me with his passion for this seemingly-random car. He’s an admin for the Facebook Vibe owner’s club called “GenVibe,” which currently has nearly 1,400 members—you can see some of them in the photo above, including Nick on the left, who drove from Southeast Michigan all the way to Louisville for the gathering.
Nick tells me how much he enjoys being part of this awesome community, saying that the owners are not delusional when it comes to their Vibe, even if it might seem odd to the rest of us for so many people to be that “into” this particular car. “We all know exactly what it is that we have,” he told me over Facebook messenger, “so there’s no delusions of grandeur. We know we drive a kind of slow hatchback. And that just is what it is.”
Nick’s love for the Vibe stems from the fact that it was his first car, and that it’s just been rock-solid for years. “The bullet points for the car are: Great styling (which I believe could hold its own even two decades later),” Nick told me, going on to say “big space in a small footprint, the amount of stuff you can fit into the back when need be... and it’s rather fuel efficient.”
Nick continues, telling me about the car’s serviceability and road manners. “Going further, it’s simple to work on, kind of fun (not Miata-levels of course), and fast ENOUGH.”
Also, the Vibe just doesn’t die. “They’re hugely reliable. We have members consistently asking about the odometers stopping counting at 299,999 (even though they’re digital). And even though I’ve put the TRD Supercharger kit on mine and more aggressive suspension, nothing has put me on the side of the road, or made me late for school,” he said.
Nick has owned his vibe for over six years and 122,000 miles, and tells me the car is a “secret” in that most people don’t realize just how versatile it is. “And it’s this little secret of a car that seems to do 90% of what anyone needs to do, so I’m always ready for anything,” he says.
“It’s relatively unknown for how good it is, and how happy the owners are. Especially the GT model, being 2ZZ and 6-speed manual only,” the Vibe enthusiast explained.
And looking online, he appears to be absolutely right. No matter where I look, I continue to find positive owner reviews for the Vibe. I see 4.6 stars for the 2006 model on Edmunds. I see 4.5 stars on Cars.com. On Kelly Blue Book, I see 9.1 out of 10.
Furthermore, JD power’s predicted reliability rating for the 2009 second-gen Vibe—which sits on the same platform as the first, but receives new powertrains and sheetmetal—is five out of five stars, and USNEWS’ reliability for first-gen 2007 models (a rating based on JD Power numbers) is four-stars.
So in my attempt to understand how someone can be in love with such a seemingly-uninteresting car, I have been awakened. Here’s a dead-reliable car that looks good, gets 33 MPG highway with the base engine and five-speed manual, offers tons of space, and—this part is crucial—is dirt cheap. Like, Two Thousand Bucks For A Decent One-cheap.
So to you, redditor, who started the thread “Is Something Wrong With The Pontiac Vibe?” and to you who asked “Why Shouldn’t I Buy A Pontiac Vibe,” there’s no need to underestimate this automobile. The Vibe is good.