Good morning! Today we’re in the Chicago suburbs, looking at two cars you could actually, you know, drive. Like, all the time. Crazy, huh? I have a feeling I know which car won yesterday’s battle of the weirdos, but let’s confirm it:
Mon dieu; that poor Vauxhall never stood a chance. But that little black Renault is hard to resist. I do hope the Victor finds a forever home, though; it would be a shame if it just kept rotting away.
Now then: I know I subject you all to a lot of really strange and crappy piles of junk. The cries of “ugh, neither” and “what did we do to deserve this?” don’t go completely unheeded. The fact is, there are actually some decent cars available for the sort of money we usually deal with, and I feel it’s only fair to occasionally feature a couple of them. They’re not the most exciting things on four wheels, but they’re both known to be reliable and durable, both have plenty of space for people and stuff, and both are all-wheel-drive, which is a benefit during a winter like the one we just had. In other words, they’re both just plain decent cars. On Shitbox Showdown. I know; I’m as surprised as you are. Let’s take a look at them.
2002 Toyota Highlander – $2,900
Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter dual overhead cam V6, four-speed automatic, AWD
Location: Elmwood Park, IL
Odometer reading: 167,000 miles
Toyota has this knack for building exactly the sort of cars that people need, even if they’re not something us enthusiasts would consider desirable. They have their moments of fun, of course, but most of the time they stay pretty well grounded to, well, the ground. Twenty-some years ago, the Japanese giant introduced this car, the Highlander, a car-based crossover SUV that won’t raise any pulses, but it just plain works.
It’s big enough to be roomy, but not so big that it’s cumbersome. It’s comfortable, reasonably efficient, and like most Toyotas, well built and stone-reliable. Yeah, it’s the Motel 6 of cars, but if you just need a place to sleep, Motel 6 will do the trick. And if you just need something to drive that will get you there and back without incident, or in fact any excitement whatsoever, here it is.
This Highlander appears to have been well cared for. It only has 167,000 miles on it, pretty low for a twenty year old grocery-getter. It is originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so we can assume it has seen some winters, which means it’s worth a look underneath to check for rust. But the paint looks shiny, the interior is clean, and the seller says its 3.0 liter V6 runs well. As the old ads say, who could ask for anything more?
All right, I suppose you could ask for some actual styling and a driving experience that doesn’t so closely resemble a Kenny G record, but if that’s what you’re after, look elsewhere. This thing is all about comfort, practicality, and usefulness.
2005 Pontiac Vibe – $2,995
Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, AWD
Location: Glenview, IL
Odometer reading: 203,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sure does
Pontiac, on the other hand, was all about excitement. Its ad campaigns told us so. But this Pontiac has a dirty little secret: it’s actually a Toyota. Built by New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc, late of Fremont, California (now a Tesla plant, as I understand it), the Vibe was more or less a Toyota Matrix in a different outfit.
As such, it’s powered by Toyota’s 1ZZ-FE twin-cam four, in this case powering all four wheels through a four-speed automatic. You could get a Vibe with a stick, as well as a more powerful engine, both of which make it live up to that excitement promise a bit more. But for a practical runabout, this engine makes plenty of power, and at least Toyota automatics hold up well.
It’s in good condition, especially for being north of 200,000 miles. But no matter how well you care for it, this car will never see 300,000 – the odometer simply won’t go that high; it stops at 299,999. But the fact that that’s a well-known problem speaks highly of the car’s engineering and build quality. I mean, no one has any idea whether a Maserati’s odometer stops before 300,000 miles.
It looks good, and it’s a great shade of blue, even better than that Scion earlier this week. We don’t get a lot to go on regarding its mechanical condition, but a quick inspection by someone who knows what they’re looking for should tell you what you need to know.
Yeah, they’re boring four-door automatics. But the great part about cars like this is that they take the pressure off; if you have something like this in the driveway to get around reliably, you can have whatever fun-but-sketchy thing you want tucked away in the garage for fun on the weekends. And I think I picked two cars distinctive enough that there actually is a choice to be made. So which one will it be?
(Image credits: Craigsliest sellers)
Pontiac has already mostly gone to that stage of brand awareness where the people who know what a Pontiac is probably also could tell you that they used to be called Oaklands.
In light of that, just think of how much fun it would be to stick BMW badges on the Vibe and see who is fooled.
That Vibe is 18 years old? That interior looks amazing.
Either one would be a great winter beater, but I already have a small hatchback and would like something spacious to go with it, so… Highlander it is.
Wagon always wins
If the Highlander reliable like a Motel 6, does that mean it reliably has drugs and a prostitute inside?
(not sure about other regions but Motel 6’s don’t have a super reputation around here)
I’ve stayed at my share of Motel 6s and never noticed drugs or prostitutes. Then again I wasn’t actively looking for them.
This may be a localized issue more than anything.
You have to pay a bit more, like the for the keys to unlock the TV they used rent.
> If the Highlander reliable like a Motel 6, does that mean it reliably has drugs and a prostitute inside?
Only when you’re visiting.
I drive an 07 Highlander that is pretty similar to this one. My Highlander is definitely an appliance, but that doesn’t preclude fun. The Highlander is more a facilitator of fun than the fun itself. It has enough space to make gear centric hobbies uncomplicated to do–camping, biking, cross country skiing, gardening, dogs, etc. I did these things with smaller cars too–Honda Fit, Prius, Corolla, Gen 2 Integra (owned in the bit of time after they were nice and new and before they were cool again).
But I went Vibe just to switch it up. Grass is always greener on the other side I guess, and I do love hatchbacks.
Twenty years of Michigan/Illinois winters? No, no, no.
the 3.0 Toyota has an untoyota like reputation for overheating in this gen of Highlander and Tacoma. I have to say the unit pictured does not appear to be as well maintained as the more forgiving Toyontiac Vibetrix motor. I will take the Vibe……after checking the rear drive unit and undercarriage of course. Chitown winters are pretty harsh on cars.
I always thought the Vibe was much sharper looking than its Toyota sibling, which was shocking coming so soon off of Pontiac’s cladding obsession era.
Plus, I’d be worried about the safety aspects of the Highlander—cars that make you fall asleep at the wheel are a real menace.
Highlander all day. The awd transmissions on the vibe are a known failure point. They are not nearly as reliable as the 2wd version.
Because of Torch and Tracy, and their musings on the old site, I own two vibes and am always looking for a third! Love them so much, extremely practical, great for dogs, and reliable AF.
Give me the Vibe/Matrix. The AWD/Auto combo was the slowest of the bunch but I still think they look cool, and it’s a real color. Friend has a red Vibe GT of this vintage that has seen some things, and no longer has a rear bumper cover, but it keep trucking along with no complaints.
These are both pretty good vehicles. I went with the Vibe, even with the higher mileage, because it’s in good shape and I’d actually drive it. If I needed the space of a Highlander, it’d be all right; I do prefer the utility of the older model versus the flashier new ones. Not every SUV needs 3 row seating.
I chose the Vibe because I like smaller cars, but now that I think about it again, my wife could use the Highlander for her business and we live down the street from Elmwood Park…
Both a good choices. I went with the Highlander based on room alone.
I wonder if David gets the reference in the poll. 🙂
I’m picking up good Vibe-rations …
I’ll take the better resale value of the Toyota Badge and CUV body-style with 70K fewer miles.
Hell, Mercedes and Sheryl should buy this, clean it up like only Sheryl can do, and flip it for $1K-2K profit.
I want to like the vibe. We had an 05 in that color, fwd with a stick. Fun, slow, great mpg. Good power is an overstatement, to be honest. Thing would need 3rd gear WOT in some of the upstate NY hills.
But AWD and auto would be a bit lethargic. But that’s not the issue. It’s the rear independent suspension. The fwd models were fine. The awd, which used the same suffrage as the celica GTS, had a massive corrosion issue. They would be rotten at half the miles that has. I would take it in a second over the highlander if it wasn’t an all wheel model, but now? I would need a good hard look.
As these are both in IL I would have to see the frame situation first since both, no matter how nice looking could very easily be swiss cheese underneath
the condition of the wheel finish makes me think the Highlander saw a lot more salt than the vibe. but you never can tell from photos. And that Matrix has plenty of plastic cladding hiding lower portion of the metal surfaces, but I am not seeing any indications from the better photos of the vibe.
Cars > SUVs
are you saying the raised roof wagon, awd vibe is not an SUV? Or at least a CUV?
I don’t think you could go wrong with either. I chose the Highlander because it would better fit my beater needs, but whichever is cool.
My stepsister had the same Vibe and it served her well for over a decade and multiple cross country moves. Her ex managed to crash it twice including one front end hit hard enough that it somehow tweaked the rear differential that wasn’t noticed on the initial repair. It took a long while going through insurance on that one but it got covered due to her saving all the receipts from maintenance over the years. Probably should have been written off after that one but it kept trucking for a few more years without issue.
I don’t care about the AWD, but that Vibe looks to be in great condition. The Highlander, don’t know when that timing belt was done or due. I like the original Highlander in a simple, boxy, boring sort of way. But something about the cloth seats seemed to get awfully dingy in any one I’ve ever seen, moreso than other Toyota cloth of the era, and I get that vibe – er, feeling – here.
Bonus that the Vibe appears to have side & curtain airbags per the tag on the upper sides of the front seats, which seemed to be tough to find for the era. The Highlander doesn’t look to have the side airbags, which would have been a sticker on the top of the seat bottom side plastic by the recliner/power seat controls.
So close to the cars I bought for my kids to take to college, but both examples I got are a few years newer (07 Highlander, 09 Matrix). The Matrix I got is the 2.4, which already had the ring issue fixed.
They are both really good cars. Having driven both quite a bit, I chose the Highlander today. They have both been generally reliable, but have each needed a few things, as older higher mile cars do.
The Matrix has a brilliantly designed interior. It’s very well planned out and super versatile. The Highlander interior is pretty much standard stuff. I found the driving position on the Highlander to be better.
Having done some work on both, I find the Highlander to be a better built, or at least a heavier built vehicle. Suspension and drivetrain components are heavier and larger, for example. My daughter loves her Highlander, and indicated she wouldn’t give it up for a newer lower mile vehicle.