The newest automotive trend is the crossover vehicle. Crossovers attempt to combine elements of several different vehicle types to produce a hybrid aimed at consumers with active and varied lifestyles. The latest crossover vehicle to hit the market is the compact Pontiac Vibe. It’s part SUV, part sport sedan, with a little minivan thrown in for good measure. It’s definitely crossing over, but to where?

Well, if you believe all the hype attached to this new automotive marketing buzzword, crossover vehicles like the 2003 Pontiac Vibe should take you straight to automotive paradise. But we’re sure the level-headed folks at Pontiac will be more than satisfied if the new Vibe just “crosses over” from the dealer’s lot to your driveway. Where it takes you from there is up to you. And with versatility a high selling point of the Vibe, as well as its close cousin the Toyota Matrix, possibilities are wide open. For instance, the Vibe is available with three engines and four drive train combinations.

Base front-drive models produce 130 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. It’s delivered by a Toyota 1.8 liter DOHC, 16-valve in-line 4 with Variable Valve timing with intelligence, that feeds either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission. Opt for an all-wheel drive Vibe and you’ll get the same 1.8 liter engine that’s been slightly de-tuned to 123 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque.

Like most small all-wheel drive models, the Vibe primarily powers only the front wheels until slippage is detected and a viscous coupling is engaged to send torque to the rear wheels. The system is capable enough to handle most urban and many rural applications. It is, however, only available with the 4-speed automatic.

For those seeking to embrace a speedier Vibe, the Vibe GT offers a Yamaha tuned version of the 1.8 liter 4-banger that kicks out 180 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque. It serves a close-ratio 6-speed manual tranny, one of the few in this segment. It was this set up that we took to the track, where we recorded runs to 60 in 8 seconds flat and a quarter mile in 16.4 seconds at 90 MPH. Like the Toyota Matrix XRS we tested earlier, we found the Vibe GT’s performance somewhat disappointing.

Off the line, the GT is soft, making for a rather sluggish launch. The gentle sloping torque curve seems to stretch on forever, before hitting its peak at 6000 rpm, where it gathers itself for a final kick, like a marathon runner with the finish line in sight. If you keep your foot in it, it’s OK. But some of our staff preferred the less potent, but more flexible, standard engine.

Built in California at the New United Motor Manufacturing plant Toyota owns with GM, the Vibe is a mechanical twin to the Matrix. Wheelbase is 102.4 inches, with 16 inch wheels standard, and 17 inch optional wheels and rubber. Styling is the most differential aspect of the two. The Vibe has all the standard Pontiac cues, but designers showed an admirable restraint in the body cladding department. Even with a standard roof rack, the profile is very slick for a 5-door, proving a handsomely aggressive- looking car doesn’t have to be over the top. The Vibe’s suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts, coil springs and stabilizer bar up front, and a torsion beam, coil springs with stabilizer bar configuration under the rear. AWD models get an independent double wishbone suspension in the back.

Our GT track tester moved smoothly through the low speed slalom. There is a touch of under steer on turn in but the well balanced chassis keeps it from becoming overbearing. There’s also plenty of grip, and should you push the Vibe hard enough you can induce a pleasant four- wheel drift. The steering also keeps you feeling connected with its responsiveness and excellent feedback, and body roll is moderate.

Responsive and connected describe the Vibe’s braking experience, too. Our GT’s 4-wheel disc ABS brakes brought us down from 60 in an average 135 feet. Comments included, “tracks perfect” and “very stable, but stops a little longish”. Standard and AWD Vibes get discs and drums with available ABS.

Another virtue of the versatile Vibe is its compliant highway ride. Think sport tourer. Tight enough to be sporting, soft enough to be a comfortable long distance cruiser.

The Vibe’s ride is supported further by a roomy, well-equipped and very flexible interior. Supportive buckets with manual height adjustment give you a fairly high and SUV-style commanding view of the road. A tilt wheel is standard. Red lit gauges hide deep inside chrome trimmed pods and are easily read at a glance, while operation of the audio and climate controls are logical. The bright trimmed center stack is topped with a standard CD player, or an optional 200 watt premium audio system with a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, or an available DVD-based navigation system. At the bottom is a cool 115 volt outlet for powering your daily low wattage appliances like cell phones.

Tall seating provides good leg room throughout the Vibe. Indeed there is a decent amount of space in the rear seats for three children or two adults. The room gets more than decent when you fold the 60/40 split seats flat for a solid load floor with cargo tracks and adjustable tie downs. There’s a generous 57.2 cubic feet, and the front seat folds for items up to 8 feet long.

All this versatility won’t set you back a lot of long green either. The Vibe starts at just $16,900 for standard front-drivers, with AWD starting at $20,100. GT’s like our track tester start at $19,900, with our car going out the door for $21,300.

Now, we’re still not buying into all this hoopla about crossovers. After all, taken individually, a lot of Vibe’s features aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. But when they’re wrapped up together in a package like the 2003 Pontiac Vibe, we’ll admit, it’s a whole new “Vibe” in versatility.


  • Engine: 1.8 Liter 4-Cylinder
  • Horsepower: 180
  • Torque: 130 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 8 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 16.4 Seconds @ 90 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 135 Feet
  • EPA Mileage: 21 MPG City 28 MPG Highway