Home » Day Of The Dead Brands: 2001 Saab 9-5 vs 2003 Pontiac Vibe

Day Of The Dead Brands: 2001 Saab 9-5 vs 2003 Pontiac Vibe

Sbsd 11 2 2023
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Good morning! Today is November 2nd, el Día de los Muertos in Mexico and elsewhere, a day when families pay their respects to departed loved ones and celebrate their lives. I thought it fitting, therefore, that we pay our respects to two gone-but-not-forgotten automotive brands. (It is also All Souls Day, but I really didn’t feel like talking about Korean subcompacts.) Continuing with our Interstate theme for the week, today’s choices are both within shouting distance of the ends of Interstate 80.

But before we pay a visit to the dearly departed, let’s finish up with yesterday’s V8s. I had a feeling this one might be close, and I was right.

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Just ten votes separating them as of this writing. I’m on Team Mustang, for what it’s worth. A BMW sedan would have to be a good ten or fifteen years older than that before I’d touch it.

Now then: GM’s money troubles, bankruptcy, and subsequent restructuring in the 2000s left a trail of dead nameplates. Oldsmobile went first, then Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn, and Saab all got the axe, though Saab was sold off to Spyker and died a slow death. Opel and Vauxhall were later sold off to PSA (now Stellantis). And poor Holden staggered along, mortally wounded, for another decade, giving GM’s American customers some of its coolest cars in a long time before calling it quits.

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Between these marques, there were some great cars, far more interesting than whatever Chevy or Buick crossover dreck GM is churning out now, and nearly all of them better looking than those appalling current-generation full-size pickups. Today, we’re going to take a look at two of them, a Saab and a Pontiac.

2001 Saab 9-5 Aero – $3,750

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 2.3 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Fairfield, CA

Odometer reading: 140,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep!

Let’s just finally admit it: GM had no business owning Saab. The Swedish automaker not only marched to its own drummer; it invented its own percussion instruments, and sometimes even made up its own time signatures. GM had its wild moments – the Corvair and the Toronado come to mind – but most of the time it put out a steady back-beat you could dance to. To further torture the metaphor: If GM was Phil Collins, Saab was some mutant offspring of Gene Krupa and Neil Peart, on some serious mind-altering substances. GM was out of its depth. A rebadged Subaru and a Chevy SUV with its ignition switch in a weird spot were just no substitute for the twisted genius of the 99 Turbo and the Sonett.

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The 9-5 is about halfway along Saab’s transition from “roadgoing jet” to “weird Chevy.”

[Ed note: Oops, Mark got the Saab 9-3 and the Saab 9-5 confused, partially because the seller of the car also seems confused about what this is. It does indeed have the 2.3-turbo engine which, in this form, probably has the 227 horsepower version of the B235R engine. The platform is shared with Saab 9-3 and Saab 900 Next Gen. We regret the error. – MH]

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Saab interiors were always a nice place to be, and this one looks like no exception. It’s driver-focused, and distraction-free, especially when you switch the instrument panel to “Night” mode, an idea that should have caught on. The leather is in decent condition, and the weird fragile cupholder that folds out from the dash appears to be intact. It’s a sign that someone was careful with this car.

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Outside, it’s pretty clean, except for a decent dent in the right rear door. Ordinarily, I might bemoan the choice of silver when actual colors were available, but Saabs look good in silver. And I love the many varieties of three-spoke wheels Saabs wore over the years, and these are especially cool.

2003 Pontiac Vibe – $3,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Totowa, NJ

Odometer reading: 93,000 miles

Runs/drives? I assume so, but the ad is a little terse

The Pontiac Vibe traces its roots back to the early 1980s, when GM and Toyota joined forces to form New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. This joint venture built Toyota Corolla-based vehicles in GM’s Fremont, California factory, which were sold as Chevy Novas and later Geo Prizms. After 2002, when the Prizm was discontinued, the NUMMI factory switched to Toyota’s new Matrix wagon, GM switched their version from Chevy to Pontiac, and the Vibe was born.

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This base-model Vibe is powered by Toyota’s 1.8 liter 1ZZ-FE engine, coupled to a four-speed automatic. It’s a sturdy enough drivetrain, if not the most inspiring. A higher-horsepower engine, five- and six-speed manuals, and all wheel drive were all options the original buyer of this car didn’t spring for. This is another one of those very terse ads, and we get virtually no information about the car, but I assume that if they mention that it has been equipped with remote start, it must run and drive. Besides, at only 93,000 miles, it should barely be broken in.

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The low mileage explains the car’s condition inside and out. It looks practically new. I really wish we had some more information about its history and condition. Too many sellers forget that Craigslist doesn’t charge by the word like the printed classifieds did – you can be as verbose as you like. Give us something to work with!

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I really like the Vibe, and I came close to buying a Matrix once. It’s a good size, with lots of room inside and tidy proportions outside. And like the Chevy Nova and Geo Prizm before it, the Vibe flies a bit under the radar in the used car market, and largely avoids the dreaded “Toyota tax.” A Matrix with this few miles, in this condition, would probably cost a grand or two more.

Thousands of car companies have come and gone, of course, and not a few of them were bought, and later axed, by General Motors. Pontiac and Saab are just two of the more recent ones. Neither of these are brilliant cars, but they both have their place in the history books, and either of them would make a better-than-average cheap used car, I think. Which one is for you?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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SirRaoulDuke
SirRaoulDuke
7 months ago

The Vibe is an incredibly good car. It almost seems a steal at this price.

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
7 months ago

Heart says Saab, head says Vibe, just for maintenance costs alone.

Torque
Torque
7 months ago
Reply to  Wuffles Cookie

Well said I was thinking the same thing

lastwraith
lastwraith
7 months ago

I’m a simple man. I drive a Vibe and so I vote for the Vibe.
It’s almost the perfect appliance car, I have no clue why they don’t make them anymore.
It’s technically American AND foreign at once, which means you get old-American-car low insurance/purchase price but with Japanese internals (Corolla no less!) that will never die and are available everywhere because the Corolla is the cockroach of cars.
It’s pretty good on gas and small enough to slink through stopped traffic or park wherever you want.
It’s got an unkillable engine with parts everywhere (as mentioned).
Every seat (except the driver obv) folds flat, it has a hatch, and the hatch glass even pops if you want to transport things over 7ft and not leave the hatch ajar. Anything under 7 ft and thin can probably be transported without popping anything at all.
The cargo area is all plastic with anchor points so you can secure cargo and it’s easy clean for pets or whatever. Plus there’s storage UNDER the trunk area.
And if that isn’t enough, it’s got stock roof rails that you can mount a $50 Amazon roof rack onto for even more cargo carrying (or the yearly tree run).
There’s even a built in power inverter!
The Vibe is an absolute beast as a real “utility” vehicle.

The only negatives are that I find the seats uncomfortable (subjective), the vents are annoyingly shaped for phone holder attachment, viewing out of the rear window for backing up is rough because of the high body line, and traction isn’t great. I can spin the tires easily in mine without trying, so maybe opt for the AWD version if you’ve got to deal with dirt, snow, gravel, etc.
Oh also, the name “Vibe” wouldn’t be my first choice but I think the Pontiac version looks pretty sharp (esp in Red but I’m biased) so I’ll give them a pass.

Last edited 7 months ago by lastwraith
lastwraith
lastwraith
7 months ago
Reply to  lastwraith

Somebody please tell me how this is a shitbox car btw, haha. This is probably the car they should issue to every person who passes their road test and needs a commuter vehicle.
It’s unkillable, cheap to maintain, and does the vast majority of what people need a car to do.
There are plenty of shitbox cars, this isn’t it.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
7 months ago

Glanced at this article this morning before work, and as luck would have it, got behind a Vibe behind one while out for lunch. Hadn’t seen one in a long time. What jumped out at me was how small the rear windshield was. Rear visibility must be limited unless I’m missing something.

lastwraith
lastwraith
7 months ago
Reply to  Inthemikelane

Good catch. Rear visibility is not that great but it’s decent compared to more modern cars with squished windows and bigger pillars.
Backing up is tough though, because of the high body line you can’t see much of the ground through the rear window unless you’re far away from it. You basically have to gauge your parking spot from afar and then back in based on that initial look. Or just get a camera. I can reverse with the best of them, but the Vibe/Matrix doesn’t make it easy on you.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
7 months ago

The Toyota wins by default.

Here4thecars
Here4thecars
7 months ago

I wish the locations were reversed! Fairfield CA is just 45 minutes from me, and I’ve always liked the Matrix/Vibe wagons. It would certainly be worth the drive to check the Pontiac out. Sadly, NJ is just a bit too far for me. This is one of the occasions where I genuinely want to buy a car I saw on Shitbox Showdown. Thanks, Mark!

Huja Shaw
Huja Shaw
7 months ago

Nostalgic me says Saab. Pragmatic me says Vibe. If the Saab were the Combi Sportwagen, that would be the choice Alas I’ll take the Vibe over the sedan.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
7 months ago

Only a few things would get me to vote against a Saab. As it happens, a Pontiac is one of them. The Vibe wins.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
7 months ago

The Saab isn’t quite old or weird enough to be a project and the Vibe looks to be better reliable transportation so it gets the nod.

Myk El
Myk El
7 months ago

Head overrules heart and I’m picking the Vibe. Too practical, known quantity as we’ve had 3 in the family.

Jake McCann-Tiede
Jake McCann-Tiede
7 months ago

Having driven both of these models a few years back when I was hunting around for a decent used car, the Saab is a much better driver, even with the wrong transmission. I have no doubts that the Pontiac can last forever, but the Saab can last for quite some time as long as maintenance is kept up with. Besides – those seats are nearly unmatched for comfort! Saab all the way with some money set aside for the (slightly) more expensive maintenance.

lastwraith
lastwraith
7 months ago

I can’t dismiss either choice since you’re choosing between head and heart here, but I will say that there essentially ISN’T any maintenance with the Vibe. It gets oil and gas and that’s about it.
I’ve personally done front struts as well but that’s a wear item at certain mileages. As a friend of someone who owns a Saab, he’s doing way more maintenance than I am and most of it isn’t cheap! He just had to get a reprogrammed TCM. But his car is more “fun” I guess and the seats are way nicer. Can’t argue that.

Last edited 7 months ago by lastwraith
OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
7 months ago

Ugh, autotragics on both cars. Plus the Saab would be much better in longroof or convertible form.

The Vibe is basically a Toyota, so good as a cheap driver. The Saab would offer a touch of class and is a nice drive; however, maintenance will be more spendy.

I chose the Vibe on a virtual tossup. Neither excites me due to the transmission choices but neither choice is awful, either.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
7 months ago

The Saab has the wrong transmission and wrong body style.

I owned a 9-3 of that gen and the manual is much more durable than the slushbox. Plus the hatch is far more practical.

So if this was a manual 4 door hatch 9-3, it would have gotten my vote, even though the maintenance and repair costs are at least 50% higher and finding mechanics who know how to work on these is more difficult.

Thus, the Vibe gets my vote. It has the right body style and will be much more reliable/durable. And it will have a much lower TCO.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
7 months ago

I have to go with the Saab, but if a friend or friend’s kid was looking for a cheap car the Vibe is a no brainer. The SAAB would be a nicer place to spend time behind the wheel.

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