Pros: Fuel Economy, Reliability, Cargo Capacity, Fraction of the price of a Toyota Matrix
Cons: Interior Quality, Styling, Road Noise, driving position.
Ahh, the Pontiac Vibe. One of the hidden gems in GM's line up which is in-fact a rebadged Toyota Matrix with different styling & a built-in roof rack. The only major differences between the 03-08 Pontiac Vibe & Toyota Matrix is styling. The Vibe weighs slightly more due to the roof rack and stuck-on body cladding. The Pontiac Vibe / Toyota Matrix twins are basically 5-door wagon versions of the 03-08 Corolla. The same suspension, brakes, engines and transmission is included with the cars, but the Vibe/Matrix has a sportier looking interior and different exterior styling. The Vibe/Matrix also offers the 2ZZ 170hp engine in the Vibe GT and Matrix XRS, and both models also offer an AWD variant with the 1ZZ 130hp engine. Most you will find the base model with the 1ZZ engine on the used car markets as most were sold this way.
I purchased my 06' Vibe for $2500 with 182k miles. It now has 195k and shows no signs of dieing on me anytime soon. The car was well-maintained by the previous owner & doesn't burn any oil. My trip back from PA (where i purchased the car) returned 38.4 MPG's with the 4-speed automatic transmission. I was astounded by this engines frugality. When commuting to & from DC every day I average 32mpg in mixed driving. I've yet to get under 30 with this car, and I drive agressively to say the least.
Make no mistake, the base version of these cars is not a pocket rocket. The 1ZZ engine is "adequate" at best. But for daily commuting & grocery getting you won't have a problem keeping up in traffic with the 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. The AWD version will be slower due to powertrain loss and some may complain it is too underpowered, but at the cost of fuel savings I'll take a slower car over a fast one as long as it can merge into traffic & keep speed I'm happy. The auto trans tends to upshift early as it is geared for frugality over performance. You can turn off overdrive and shift the car manually if you want, but don't expect instant upshifts/downshifts.
The Vibe rides well on bumpy roads, not too firm or soft. Very well controlled in the corners and feels a bit sporty when you push it in the corners. On the highway the ride is well controlled & not overly busy but some would say its too firm and can be unsettling. The brakes do their job well enough. They are front disc rear drum on the base models. Road noise is typical of a small car, quite noisy. Don't expect a quiet cabin with these cars. Add to it the cheap plastic interior panels tend to rattle in the back.
Inside, the car is what you'd expect for a small car. The door panels are hard plastic with fabric inserts up front & no inserts in rear which makes it feel cheap. The dashboard is soft-touch at least and the chrome gauge rings & aluminum trim add to a slightly sporty interior. The seats are mounted for a high seating position. Lower back support is decent, but thigh support is non-existent if you are over 6' tall. Lateral support is also poor, these seats are meant for the typical "oversized" american. There is a tilt adjustment on the seat that allows a little bit of height adjustment. The steering wheel also tilts but doens't telescope which I found to be a major problem since I am 6'2" tall and after adjusting the seat I found the steering wheel too far away from my position so I have to scoot the seat way up forward.
The factory stereo is adequate. 4 speakers unless you get the "moon and tunes" package which includes a sunroof and upgraded speaker option which adds tweeters to the A-pillar and subwoofer in the trunk area. Only thing worth noting is the factory CD player in the Vibe is notorious for its red illumination failing. There is a way to open it and replace the bulbs inside but it require soldering. I had to replace 2 of the 3 inside bulbs on my radio when I bought the car and chances are the used one you find will have one bulb out at least.
Storage inside is abundant. map pockets on the front doors, a flip-out cubby on the left drivers-dashboard and under the shifter as well as a large center console bin. The glovebox is also a decent size. The main selling point of these cars is the cargo room. With the rear seats up there is still 21 cu ft of cargo room in the back. Whats awesome is you can fold the rear seats down individually (60/40) without any prior preparation. They fold completely flat & flush with the rear cargo area and have rails installed on them for tie-down hooks. The rear seatbacks as well as the rear cargo area have a rigid hard-plastic surface and metal rails installed. My car came with a brand-new pack of 8 rail hooks that you can tie bungee cords to, but these might be missing from the used car you look at. I believe you can purchase the pack from the dealer for about $30 new. There are also metal hooks on the side panels below the windows that you can hook bungees to for large cargo to keep it from moving around.
The floor panel in the rear also flips up to reveal more storage space, large enough for jumper cables, some tools and other smaller items. The front passenger seat also folds flat to approximately the same height as the rear seats so you can put longer items inside. Also, the rear hatch glass flips up by itself separate from the hatch so yo ucan have long items stick out the rear of the car. I was able to transport 40 16' long baseboards in my car with them sticking out about 4' out the rear glass without an issue. I have also hauled a pair of BOTH washer & dryer machines in the rear with the rear seats folded flat.
The only annoyance with the rear cargo area is stuff WILL slide around if you don't tie it down. Since the rear is rigid plastic and not cloth there is no friction to keep it from moving around in corners. I leave 8 bungee cords in the back tied to various hooks so I can secure cargo quickly every time I need.
Shopping for a Used Vibe:
These cars are very reliable and the 1ZZ engine & transmission combination has been around since the 1998 corolla redesign and are very solid overall. There are still a few things to look out for when shopping for a used Pontiac Vibe.
1: As mentioned above, the radio bulbs tend to burn out leaving behind a difficult-to-read clock readout on the radio. This can be fixed with soldering but isn't particular fun or easy
2: Look for rust inside the hatch glass if you are getting the car from northern states. Mine has a bit bubbilng up but for the price I couldn't care less. Check around the body cladding also near the rear & front wheel wells as water can get stuck in the cladding & cause rust
3: If it has a CEL it probably needs a new cat. The 1ZZ powerplant has a problem with the P04020 code "catalyst below threshold". A new oxygen sensor might fix it but most of the time the rear cat needs to be replaced which can be costly
4: A recent recall starting November 2010 Toyota & GM will be mailing owners about a recall regarding the ECU in 05-08 1ZZ powered Vibes. The solder connections in the ecu can crack causing the engine to stop running or run incorrectly. They will be replacing ECU's in all base model Vibes as a result. A slight annoyance and the one you find may not have this problem.
Also, to help you select a Vibe I will run down a generalized list of the differences & Options these cars had between models. This isn't 100% accurate as there are some differences between model years.
-1ZZ-FE 130hp engine with either 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic on Base & AWD models
-2ZZ-FE 170hp engine (requires premium) with either 6-speed manual or 4-speed automatic on GT model only.
-Front Disc Rear Drums on Base & AWD models
-Front & Rear Disc on GT models.
-16" steel wheels standard on Base & AWD, 16" alloys optional
-17" alloys standard on GT model
-"Power Package" adds power windows & keyless entry and cruise control. Most used cars have this package but some still have roll-up windows, including GT's.
-"Moon and Tunes" package adds sunroof & 7 speaker system with JBL head unit. All 4 speakers in doors are upgraded, adds 2 tweeters to the trim behind the mirrors & a 6" subwoofer in the rear passenger cargo panel. Not worth the effort to find this package as the sub is too small to hit bass notes properly. Most models do not have this package it is relatively rare
-Body Colored cladding was a dealer option that cost $500 when new. About half of the Vibes out there have unpainted cladding which some would say is ugly while half have their cladding & bumpers painted body color.
Pricing for used Vibes is significantly less than a comparable Toyota Matrix of the same model year. You can get a 03-04 for between $4000-6000 and an 05-08 for $5500-8000 with reasonable mileage & condition while comparable Matrix's will run you a grand or more higher. If you can look past the questionable styling (some like the Vibe more than Matrix, some don't) then the Vibe is a fantastic choice for a reliable people hauler that gets fantastic mileage & has tons of utility to boot! I highly recommend this car to anyone shopping for a small SUV or wagon.